11. Tom Telesco, Chargers
There are two ways to look at Tom Telesco’s six years on the job. The first is that he’s had a Hall-of-Fame quarterback to build around and has only two playoff wins to show for it. The other is, he has produced four winning campaigns and now boasts one of the league’s deepest rosters. Telesco has drafted at least one Pro Bowler or All-Pro six straight seasons, including defensive linchpins Joey Bosa and Derwin James. Even first-round running back Melvin Gordon has proven worth his selection, while Day 2/3 picks Hunter Henry and Desmond King are helping to fuel the Chargers’ renaissance. Largely quiet in free agency, Telesco has focused on extending his own draft finds. He has done all this for an adrift organization that will soon be playing in its third stadium in five years. Although he is as anonymous as his franchise, Telesco’s work deserves recognition.
12. John Dorsey, Browns
We can talk all day about how Sashi Brown died for the Browns’ sins. That does not change the fact that it has been John Dorsey overseeing the resurrection. Dorsey has been a precision-guided missile as he’s completed his franchise’s transformation from laughingstock to budding colossus. After making the analytically-approved selection of Baker Mayfield at No. 1 overall, Dorsey dispatched all-time bad coach Hue Jackson in favor of complete unknown Freddie Kitchens. Whereas other “old school” general managers might have opted for a ProvenLeader™ — say, perhaps Gregg Williams, who did a commendable with the interim tag — Dorsey went with an obscure former running backs coach, one who said “you need to be able to pass the ball and stop the pass.” Dorsey has a boldness that belies his crotchety “real football” persona. Now doing things like acquiring Odell Beckham and trading up for a sliding Greedy Williams, Dorsey wants to go straight from rebuild to imperial phase, skipping the 9-7 interim. It’s the grandest of plans, something that got Dorsey into trouble in Kansas City as he ran up too much debt on the team’s salary cap credit card. It certainly looks like that could happen again in Cleveland. Dorsey hopes the difference this time is that the price tag comes attached to a Lombardi Trophy, the first in Browns history.
13. Jerry Jones/Stephen Jones, Cowboys
Has such a powerful man ever been such an easy target? Jerry Jones jokes have long written themselves. While you were laughing, you might not have noticed Jones’ teams posting a .600 winning percentage (48-32) since 2014. How did this happen? It’s a good question, especially as Jones does things like use a top-five pick on a running back and stick by a feckless Jason Garrett. Shockingly disciplined on the open market, the Cowboys’ most expensive outside free agent over the past five years was Cedric Thornton’s four-year, $17 million deal in 2016. Jones has been convinced to build from within, and he has been rewarded with his most successful five-year stretch since Jimmy Johnson was in town. Jones is still capping his ceiling by tethering himself to Garrett and his arch-conservative style. Jones has finally come around on the best team-building practices. Perhaps coach hiring is next.
14. Jon Robinson, Titans
Jon Robinson has yet to break through, but he is holding steady. The heir to a team that went 5-27 in 2014-15, Robinson quickly whipped the Titans into 9-7 respectability. That is where they have stayed, posting the same record each of the past three seasons. Robinson believes his roster is ready for more. After stockpiling draft picks his first two years on the job, Robinson has had back-to-back eventful free agencies, spending big money on both sides of the ball. His project might be further along if not for annual injury and inconsistency from Marcus Mariota. As such, Robinson has finally gotten serious about the backup quarterback spot, acquiring Ryan Tannehill. On the sideline, Robinson seems to have found the right partner in coach Mike Vrabel, who transformed the Titans’ defense from a bottom-half unit to top-five bully in 2018. Striking the right balance between aggression and pragmatism, Robinson is a general manager whose arrow is pointing upward.
15. Ryan Pace, Bears
Having only ever known last place as a general manager, Ryan Pace embarked on a survival mode 2018 offseason, hiring John Fox’s polar opposite in Matt Nagy before splurging on Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel in free agency. For the grand finale, Pace included a pair of first-round picks in a package for Oakland’s Khalil Mack. The moves had the desired effect, sending the Bears to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Nagy won Coach of the Year honors, while Mack was a DPOY contender. The good feelings came to an abrupt halt thanks to an earlier Pace mistake, his 2016 release of Robbie Gould. As Gould remained one of the league’s best kickers, Pace made Cody Parkey one of the most overpaid. In the wake of Parkey’s walkoff shank in the Wild Card Round was a reality check. Pace’s franchise player, Mitchell Trubisky, made only lurching progress as a sophomore, while not-so-secret weapon DC Vic Fangio departed to coach the Broncos. Mack’s acquisition left Pace short on both cap space and draft resources. With the limited picks he had, he made a curious third-round trade up for a running back. Pace desperately needed a big year. He got it. Whether or not it came at too great a cost will depend on Nagy’s adjustments and Trubisky’s improvement.
16. John Lynch, 49ers
Handpicked by his coach, John Lynch has gotten the broad strokes right while showing creativity with some of the finer details. The 49ers’ acquisition of Jimmy Garoppolo on the cheap has yet to pay dividends, but it remains the centerpiece of Lynch and Kyle Shanahan’s plan. As they wait for Garoppolo to get healthy and take his expected place as franchise quarterback, the 49ers have reached team-friendly agreements with players like Richard Sherman and Dee Ford. Even seeming overpays like Kwon Alexander can turn into easy team opt-outs. In the draft, the jury remains out on first-rounders Solomon Thomas and Mike McGlinchey, though George Kittle is one of the best day-three selections of recent vintage. Reuben Foster was an upside gamble whose risk caught up with his reward. Lynch and Shanahan have gotten their house in order rather quickly. Mantlepiece Garoppolo will determine whether it turns into a mansion or model home.
17. Dave Caldwell/Tom Coughlin, Jaguars
2018 was a season of humbling setbacks for a front office that saw only ascendancy in its surprise 2017 run to the AFC Championship Game. On offense, Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell doubled down on their zero-margin-for-error formula of pounding the rock and hiding Blake Bortles. Predictably, the center could not hold, as Leonard Fournette once again struggled with injury and Bortles suffered his final exposure. On defense, Coughlin’s crew believed 2017’s dominance was the new normal, passing on enhancements in free agency after years of profligate spending. With the offense in ruins, an overstressed D surrendered 48 more points than the year prior. This offseason’s solutions were not particularly encouraging. Although no longer overpaying Bortles, the Jags are now overpaying Nick Foles, a league-average player whose reputation rests on well-timed postseason heroics. Nothing has been added in the way of weapons, though the Jags have found themselves feuding with supposed focal point Fournette. There is enough defensive talent here that the modest switch from Bortles to Foles could be enough to get the Jags back on the up and up, but Foles is merely a hope, not an answered prayer.
18. Duke Tobin/Mike Brown, Bengals
The league’s most opaque front office made its biggest change in decades when it finally fired Marvin Lewis. Accustomed to January one-and-dones, owner Mike Brown and director of player personnel Duke Tobin’s roster was no longer even making the tournament, going 19-28-1 from 2016-18. As always in Cincinnati, the rebuilding plan hinges on the draft. Tobin and company have made 32 picks over the past three years, restocking a roster that has been slowly depleted by age and free agency. Of course, 2017 first-rounder John Ross is already a bust, while 2018 first-rounder Billy Price did not look far behind as a rookie. That, coupled with Andy Dalton’s slow erosion from an already-low baseline makes for a low-ceiling situation. Much is riding on new coach Zac Taylor, who had immense difficulty assembling his staff. OC Brian Callahan is an unproven product of nepotism while DC Lou Anarumo is a 52-year-old journeyman who has three months of interim coordinator experience in between 20-plus years of coaching defensive backs. With Brown sill pinching pennies like it’s the Depression, Tobin can ill afford any more misses as he tries to prevent the Bengals from slipping back into obscurity.
19. John Elway, Broncos
Peyton Manning was a long time ago. John Elway looked like a genius for as long as Manning was setting new standards under center. Since? Let’s just say Elway’s get rich quick schemes at quarterback have left him wins poor. Elway’s rosters have only 11 combined victories over the past two seasons after clearing at least 12 every year from 2012-15. It’s not just Elway missing Manning. On an unruly hot streak when he first took over the front office — Elway found gems in the draft, free agency and UDFA market — his Midas touch has disappeared. Signings have gone nowhere. First-round picks have busted. Phillip Lindsay was a sensational find after last year’s draft but hardly a suture for a roster that has continued to bleed talent. Anything that has happened once can happen twice. Elway could begin another run of excellence. It’s not terribly likely to start in a year where Joe Flacco will be the Week 1 quarterback. Elway deserves life-long credit for mastering both the playing field and front office. That doesn’t mean he gets carte blanche. Players retire and general managers get fired. Elway could soon add the latter experience to the former.
20. Brian Gutekunst, Packers
Under ex-Packers GM Ted Thompson, signing a single free agent constituted a miraculous act. Brian Gutekunst has committed well north of $200 million to them in barely 16 months on the job. That includes more than $25 million to each of OLB Preston Smith, S Adrian Amos, OLB Za'Darius Smith and OG Billy Turner this offseason. Gutekunst has taken nearly the exact opposite approach of his predecessor. “Nearly” because, active though Gutekunst is on the open market, he has still provisioned Thompson’s annual cache of draft picks, including 11 last year and 10 last month. Young, cost-controlled talent remains a priority in Green Bay, but it is no longer the only thing. It is the right approach for a traditionally-conservative organization that has not re-stocked its trophy case as much as it should have with Aaron Rodgers. If Gutekunst goes down, it will be swinging.