The dam has broken. The most analytically-minded front offices are not only winning, they are putting distance between themselves and the rest of the league. It’s how a team like the Eagles can win playoff games with a No. 2 quarterback in back-to-back years. It’s how Bill Belichick keeps hoisting Lombardis even though he’s let his left tackle walk each of the past two springs. They are adapting. The others will die if they don’t follow suit.
For the purposes of this article, I consider the “general manager” to be whomever is believed to have the biggest role in shaping the roster, irrespective of who has the official title. The criteria is the same as always. All front office activity — from players and coaches to draft picks and contracts — is taken into consideration. Past achievements are not written off, but recent history is given greater emphasis. Even in a results-based business, the process is vital. Last year’s list can be found here. 2017’s is here.
1. Bill Belichick, Patriots
How did Bill Belichick celebrate his sixth Super Bowl victory as head coach? By letting his left tackle and top pass rusher walk in free agency. Neither time nor winning have softened Belichick’s heart. He continues to do the things no other coach or general manager will do. Belichick found Trey Flowers in the fourth round, but he does not overpay for sacks. He pulled Trent Brown off the scrap heap, but he refuses to let bargains become boondoggles. He lets someone else spend the money. If it proves worth it — like Chandler Jones in Arizona — then so be it. There is always another find to be made. Whether it is the restricted free agent market or compensatory pick process, Belichick scours all available avenues for talent, playing the longest, most patient game. He is completely unbeholden to sentiment. This may not be a recommended personality trait in a normal human being, but Belichick has never pretended to be normal. The only game he plays is on the field. The rest is unrelenting logic. Perhaps that leaves you cold. It also keeps the trophy case warm.
2. Howie Roseman, Eagles
One of the league’s youngest general managers is also one of its most impressive survivors — and winners. Still only 43, Roseman was barely two years removed from outlasting Chip Kelly when he assembled the Eagles’ first championship squad. Roseman has built such a deep roster that it managed to win at least one playoff game each of the past two seasons with its backup quarterback. He has stockpiled so much talent in the trenches that elite skill players have not been necessary. 2018 was arguably as impressive as the Eagles’ Lombardi-lifting 2017 considering the team’s injury issues. A forward thinker who is both willing to trade draft picks and stockpile them via the compensatory process, Roseman has taken on a Belichick-ian air as a team builder. Market inefficiencies — expiring contracts — will be identified. Edges — like a rookie quarterback deal — will be ruthlessly exploited. No one, either as a coach or executive, is in Belichick’s tier. Roseman leads the “best of the rest.”
3. Kevin Colbert, Steelers
Kevin Colbert has been the Steelers’ general manager since 2000. His rosters have won 65.2 percent of their games, second to only Bill Belichick’s Patriots Death Star. The last time Pittsburgh finished below .500 was 2003. Impressive, unassailable. Keeping it going will require overcoming some heady issues. Head coach Mike Tomlin finally lost control of an ever-volatile locker room in 2018, with Antonio Brown going rogue after one Ben Roethlisberger slight too many. Which brings us to Big Ben. If Tomlin failed to put out the fire, it was Roethlisberger who started it. Colbert responded by extending his quarterback through 2021. Roethlisberger’s blank check complicates Colbert’s most pressing question — is Tomlin still the right man to lead this group of players? Never regarded as an in-game maestro, Tomlin is paid for what he does in the locker room. In 2018, it wasn’t enough. For his part, Colbert must do a better job on the defensive side of the ball. The team was caught flat-footed at linebacker following Ryan Shazier’s injury, while cornerback is a recurring trouble spot. Colbert showed some urgency in the draft with his uncharacteristic trade up for Devin Bush. Colbert has lasted this long by answering the big questions and getting the little details right. Both are currently threatening to derail what has been an underappreciated front office run.
4. Les Snead, Rams
Apparently a general manager takes on the character of his head coach. When Jeff Fisher running the Rams, Les Snead was busy doing things like extending Tavon Austin. On Sean McVay’s watch, it has been one excellent move after another, with an unusual focus on the non-draft avenues of team building. After signing LT Andrew Whitworth in 2017, McVay and Snead added Nickell Robey-Coleman and Ndamukong Suh in 2018. They then went on an unprecedented trading spree, acquiring each of Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. Although Suh is now gone, all six players were core members of last season’s Super Bowl squad. The M.O. remained the same this spring, with mid-season acquisition Dante Fowler being re-signed and Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews coming aboard in free agency. There is a reason teams do not usually build through the veteran market: It is expensive as sin. For now, the Rams can afford it with Jared Goff on his rookie deal. Although Goff’s extension is a looming conundrum — just how good is Goff, really? — Snead and McVay have two more years to figure it out. Despite all the moves, the Rams do not yet have a future salary cap crisis on their hands. Goff could change that, but it stands to reason Snead and McVay would then adjust their approach. Through three offseasons, it has been nearly flawless.
5. Chris Ballard, Colts
Having quickly gutted and rebuilt ex-GM Ryan Grigson’s defective roster, Chris Ballard has moved on to loading up. Although judicious in free agency, Ballard hits home runs, pulling Pierre Desir off the scrap heap and transforming Eric Ebron from a bust into a touchdown-scoring force. If you were searching for the “next Ebron” this offseason, Ballard might have found him with his well-reasoned Devin Funchess signing. Later on, Ballard waited patiently to land aging-but-still-potent pass rusher Justin Houston 11 days after the market opened. In the draft, Ballard has stockpiled and spent 21 picks over the past two years, including an absurd 2018 haul that featured first-team All-Pros with each of his first two selections. This spring, Ballard snagged a 2020 second-rounder for agreeing to move down 20 spots from No. 26 and still landed the No. 1 cornerback on his board, Rock Ya-Sin. Aside from his roster building, Ballard turned an embarrassment in Josh McDaniels’ about-face at head coach into the best hire of 2018 in Frank Reich. No hot streak lasts forever, but the right process makes the next one inevitable. Ballard’s approach has been immaculate through two-plus seasons on the job.
6. Thomas Dimitroff, Falcons
Thomas Dimitroff has had two runs of excellence in 11 years as Falcons general manager. Is the second coming to a premature end? This is still a talented roster, but it slumped to 7-9 last season following back-to-back campaigns with a playoff victory, including 2016’s Super Bowl appearance. Like all GMs, Dimitroff has been far from perfect from a personnel standpoint, but his biggest failings have come on the sideline. After finally moving on from on outdated Mike Smith, Dimitroff has saddled himself with an equally outmoded Dan Quinn. Quinn did such a poor job in 2018 that he fired all three of his coordinators. If your coach is firing each of his top lieutenants, why not just fire the coach? You can’t blame it all on Quinn, but every roster is going to have failings. Quinn does not seem equipped to coach around them. A Bill Belichick acolyte, Dimitroff understandably values stability. He would do well to heed another Belichick lesson: Move on from weak links/sunk costs, even if they are on the sideline.
7. Rick Spielman, Vikings
If you ever end up at a poker table with Rick Spielman, you won’t have to worry about him slow playing. He only makes big bets. His latest, Kirk Cousins’ fully guaranteed $84 million deal, was a pre-flop raise that turned into a check. After a hot September, Cousins was shakier the rest of the way, leading to one of Spielman’s patented valleys after a peak. The Vikings’ general manager since 2006, Spielman’s teams have made the playoffs five times. Four times, they failed to return the following season. The bigger the bet, the greater the consequences, and Spielman’s aggression has arguably made for inconsistent results. It could also simply be bad beats for a general manager who has typically drafted well and not tended to throw money away in free agency, Matt Kalil notwithstanding. Never static, perhaps Spielman should rest on his laurels a little more often. But then he wouldn’t be Rick Spielman. One of these days, an all-in Spielman is going to hit a full house on the river, and the dealer will slide a Lombardi his way.
8. Andy Reid/Brett Veach, Chiefs
Andy Reid is reaping the rewards of one of the greatest draft trade ups in recent memory, Patrick Mahomes. In true Andy Reid fashion, he is also making things unnecessarily difficult for himself and front office. Firing DC Bob Sutton should have been a straightforward transaction. He was one of the worst coordinators in the league and had to go. Reid turned the easy into a Rubik’s Cube, recycling Steve Spagnuolo, a move that necessitated a switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 defensive front, which itself required all manner of roster machinations. “Required” used loosely in this instance, as many teams now regard the 3-4/4-3 distinction as what it is: An artificially-constraining label. Reid treated the transition with its traditional pomp and circumstance, however, moving on from 3-4ers Dee Ford and Justin Houston and acquiring 4-3er Frank Clark for an almost Khalil Mack-esque draft bounty. Maybe the pieces will now fit better on Spagnuolo’s board, but why limit yourself to such a board to begin with? We will spend the offseason complaining about it, but Reid will likely end up winning all the same. In many ways, that is Reid defined. Even when he insists on tying one hand behind his back, almost no one is better at the job.
9. John Schneider, Seahawks
On the one hand, John Schneider’s rosters have made the playoffs 7-of-9 years and won at least nine games each of the past seven seasons. On the other, it has been a really long time since Schneider and coach Pete Carroll added an impact player. It would be too simple to say Schneider and Carroll are riding Russell Wilson’s coattails. Carroll is still coaching like a Hall-of-Famer. But just as some of Carroll’s success feels in spite of himself — truly, what was that offense in 2018? — the same can be said of Schneider. With Schneider, it is important to remember that Carroll wields immense power. It’s possible Schneider did not want Rashaad Penny with the No. 27 overall pick of last year’s draft. But Penny is who Schneider got, and he proceeded to operate as a change-of-pace back who touched the ball 94 times. That is not how you use the precious resource of a first-round pick in modern football, especially when you have one of the game’s most gifted passers. Despite the glaring mistakes, Schneider has some things cooking under the radar. As analytics ace Warren Sharp points out, Schneider might be adopting a new method of winning with an expensive quarterback. Schneider is cashing in his expensive veterans for draft picks to replenish the roster on the cheap. It’s smart. It also won’t be enough if Schneider and Carroll can’t shed some of their antiquated instincts.
10. Mickey Loomis, Saints
There are worse places to live than the now. That’s where Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton are firmly entrenched as the last bit of air comes through Drew Brees’ championship window. Emboldened by 2017’s return to form after three years in 7-9 Fisherville, Loomis and Payton went all in on 2018 and came within a future rule change of the Super Bowl. They are not about to stay on 16 now. With only one pick in the top 167 after last spring’s brash Marcus Davenport maneuver, the Saints were limited to the free agent and trade markets as they looked to improve their roster. They dabbled in the former and were absent from the latter. The big addition was playmaking tight end Jared Cook, something the Saints have lacked since Jimmy Graham’s trade. Elsewhere, both lines were solidified with a series of workmanlike moves. Plan A is win the Super Bowl. There is no Plan B. Even though Brees is not signed for next season, he already counts an astronomical $21.3 million against the salary cap. The high risk is evident. The high reward is within reach. Most modern general managers aim for sustainability. Loomis and Payton’s old school teaches one thing: There is no time like the present.