Most writers don't want to rank general managers for fear of losing them as sources. That's not a problem here, because no NFL decision makers care what I have to say in the first place. Behold: the list of the top general managers/decision makers in football, based on body of work in the big chair. That includes drafts, free agency, hirings and basically any avenue available to improve the roster and organization.
NOTE: I did not rank first-time decision makers hired since January of 2017, because they have not been on the job long enough to allow for a fair evaluation. I did, however, include those who came to the job with an established track record from previous tenures, including Dave Gettleman, John Dorsey and Marty Hurney. Before we get to them, let's dispatch with the unranked, presented in alphabetical order.
THE RELATIVE NEWBIES
» Chris Ballard, Colts
It felt like Ballard started from scratch after the Ryan Grigson era, especially on defense. After undertaking an incredible amount of personnel changes over the last 15 months and putting a new coaching staff in place this year, Ballard is still playing the long game with a number of sensible signings. Like Grigson, he'll look a lot smarter if Andrew Luck is on the field.
» Brandon Beane, Bills
Since taking over last May, Beane has systematically rid the Bills of former general manager Doug Whaley's handiwork. Working in concert with coach Sean McDermott, his former Panthers colleague, Beane traded stars like Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus. He reshaped the roster with free agents this offseason like Star Lotulelei, Vontae Davis and AJ McCarron. Beane's first draft will set up his future, with two picks in each of the first three rounds and a burning need at quarterback. Despite the Bills coming off their first playoff trip in 17 years, this is an organization early in the rebuilding process.
» Brian Gaine, Texans
It's tempting to list coach Bill O'Brien as the prime decision maker in Houston. Following former GM Rick Smith taking a leave of absence from that position in January, the Texans hired Gaine while stressing that his "aligned" relationship and "communication" with O'Brien was paramount to the hire. (Gaine worked in Houston from 2014 to 2016 previously.) This appears close to a setup like what the Chiefs undertook with Andy Reid and John Dorsey in 2013 and what the Seahawks did with Pete Carroll and John Schneider in 2010, where the head coach helped hire the general manager, rather than the other way around. Gaine and O'Brien's first offseason together produced intriguing value in the secondary, with the signings of cornerback Aaron Colvin and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
» Brian Gutekunst, Packers
Packers fans were irrationally excited about the January job change of longtime general manager Ted Thompson, despite his overall draft-day acumen and obvious influence around the NFL. Gutekunst quickly showed he'd take bigger risks in free agency, although making Jimmy Graham the NFL's highest-paid tight end might not be the type of risk worth taking.
» John Lynch, 49ers
The seed Lynch planted by calling Bill Belichick with interest in Jimmy Garoppolo last summer wound up bearing fruit when the Patriots chose to call back in October and send the QB to San Francisco. That one transaction and Lynch's excellent head coach (Kyle Shanahan) could result in stability for the 49ers deep into the 2020s. Lynch hasn't been shy about paying top-of-market deals to surprising players, and it's too early to evaluate whether his first draft will pan out, although the legal troubles of linebacker Reuben Foster (picked 31st overall in 2017) are already a huge concern.
» Brett Veach, Chiefs
Promoted last July after former Chiefs general manager John Dorsey suddenly exited, Veach has worked for Andy Reid going back to their days together in Philadelphia. While the organizational flow chart says Veach reports directly to ownership, this is clearly a partnership in which Reid holds deserved sway. The early signs for Veach are strong: He made tough decisions by releasing costly veterans like Tamba Hali and orchestrated an excellent trade haul while sending Alex Smith to Washington.
This offseason has been full of promise for Pace, but it's too early to grade the acquisitions intended to make the Matt Nagy era fly. Pace inherited a difficult situation in 2015, but there's no avoiding that his first big hire (coach John Fox, fired in January), free-agent signing ( Pernell McPhee, released in February) and draft pick ( Kevin White, who has played in five games since being picked seventh overall in 2015) are reflected in the team's 14-34 record since Pace arrived. There have been hits like free-agent signing Akiem Hicks and the team's talented, low-cost backfield, but Pace's rough 2017 free-agent crop ( Mike Glennon, Markus Wheaton, Dion Sims) included a lot of wasted money. Now that Pace has been given a rare second life, there's reason to believe he's found new purpose with Nagy, and that the widely derided trade up (from third overall to second last year) to draft QB Mitchell Trubisky can pay off.
The power structure in Washington has Allen at the top as president, with senior VP of player personnel Doug Williams and coach Jay Gruden also in the mix. The team's handling of Kirk Cousins' contract situation -- not to mention Allen's pronunciation of his quarterback's name -- raised a lot of eyebrows. Allen hired former GM Scot McCloughan in 2015, then fired him two years later on the eve of free agency. When he worked with Jon Gruden in Tampa, Allen and Gruden's enduring love of veterans kept the Bucs stuck in the NFL's middle class. That's where this Redskins roster also resides.
It's hard to shake the memories from the end of the original Hurney era in Carolina, which included some bloated contracts (hello, Jake Delhomme) and trades of future draft picks. But Hurney also had plenty of draft hits, like Luke Kuechly, and surprising extensions for Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson that wound up panning out. There's no telling how long this Hurney tenure will last, as the entire organization waits for a new owner to emerge. But his early moves, like trading Kelvin Benjamin and signing Dontari Poe, have made sense.
Three years removed from taking over as executive vice president of the Dolphins, Tannenbaum has brought some needed stability to the front office. The middle-class roster and muddled organizational identity haven't changed much, with the Ndamukong Suh era lasting a lot longer than the Julius Thomas, Lawrence Timmons, Mario Williams and Jordan Cameron errors. With a keen business sense, a love of linemen and a little more luck, Tannenbaum could still emerge as the AFC's answer to Howie Roseman. Time could be running out, however, for Tannenbaum to find his Carson Wentz.
Like a first-round quarterback drafted to the wrong organization, many first-time GMs are the victims of circumstance. Maccagnan had a lot to clean up after the Rex Ryan era, but the roster hasn't shown much progress three years later. The presumptive selection of a first-round quarterback could buy Maccagnan time and help erase the memory of reaching for Christian Hackenberg in 2016 and failing to prioritize finding a franchise quarterback. Maccagnan's drafts haven't been poor, but they need to be sensational to dig the Jets out of their hole. That's the burden many decision makers face before they have their quarterback in place.
Quinn suffers in these rankings because he hasn't had time to fulfill his vision since taking over in 2016. He's overhauled the offensive line with draft picks ( Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow) and free agents ( T.J. Lang, Ricky Wagner). Quinn hired Matt Patricia as head coach in February -- perhaps two years later than Quinn, who inherited coach Jim Caldwell when he first arrived, would have liked. The decision to retain offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and franchise player Ezekiel Ansah reflects a methodical approach from Quinn, who hasn't made change for the sake of change.
Only five players on the Bucs' roster predate Licht's arrival in 2014. This is fully his team, one that has often looked decidedly better on paper than it has on the field. Whether that's the fault of Licht or the coaches he's worked with -- Lovie Smith and Dirk Koetter -- is up for debate. This offseason's acquisitions of pass rushers Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul are prime examples of Licht's typical sound-and-fury approach to the offseason. After watching the team go 22-42 on his watch, Licht needs to translate firepower into victories, fast.
Robinson's two drafts have been stealthily excellent, like his haircut. Tackle Jack Conklin, running back Derrick Henry, safety Kevin Byard, cornerback Adoree' Jackson and wideout Corey Davis comprise a fun, young nucleus to build around. Free-agent pickups like Rishard Matthews, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler provide no-frills value. After an arranged two-year marriage with former coach Mike Mularkey, Robinson hired a coach on his wavelength (and another former Patriots alum): Mike Vrabel. A long, fruitful partnership together should emerge if Robinson continues at this pace.
The structure of the Bengals' front office has been murky ever since owner Mike Brown allowed that he'd ceded some control to coach Marvin Lewis and Tobin, the director of personnel. Since Tobin is the one who addresses the media at the NFL Scouting Combine, I'll give him credit for constructing a roster with the most home-grown snaps in football by far in 2017. That statistic is likely influenced by the Bengals' historical reluctance to spend in free agency, the equivalent of wearing ankle weights in a 40-yard dash.
Consider it a red flag that Dorsey was fired in Kansas City after the team made the playoffs three times in four seasons. The track record is impressive otherwise. While he might have fouled out with his first ever pick (tackle Eric Fisher, who was taken first overall in 2013 and later got a curious extension), it's hard to argue with the other players Dorsey drafted in Kansas City: Travis Kelce, Marcus Peters, Chris Jones and Kareem Hunt, to name a few. Dorsey struggled more with setting the budget and knowing when to let go of veterans, but that's not a huge concern for a Browns team flush with draft picks and cap space. He's already enjoying spending that bounty, seemingly paying a Browns tax on the acquisitions of Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry (as trading for veterans and, in Landry's case, compensating them well is the only way to get them in Cleveland).
The Chargers' general manager since 2013, Telesco has hit at least one personnel home run nearly every year, from draft picks Keenan Allen, Joey Bosa, Jason Verrett and Hunter Henry to free-agent pickups like Casey Hayward and Geno Smith. Having all that talent and Philip Rivers at quarterback should result in more wins, but the team's precarious status in San Diego before moving to Los Angeles and Telesco's first coaching hire (Mike McCoy, who went 27-37 with one playoff appearance in four years) have mostly limited the Chargers' ceiling to that of the perennial season-preview favorite. But with a stabilized offensive line finally in place, I'm not giving up on them yet.
McKenzie had a tough act to follow in Oakland in 2012, asked to clean up some of Al Davis' indulgences after the passing of the legendary Raiders owner. It took a few years to escape salary-cap jail before the 2014 drafting of Khalil Mack, Derek Carr and Gabe Jackson turned the franchise around. McKenzie has spent brilliantly on a stacked offensive line, but it's worth noting the Raiders' 12-win campaign in 2016 is his only winning season. His job is now to keep new coach Jon Gruden happy and thinking long-term, which will be easier said than done.
Is a five-year rebuilding plan worth it if the first four years result in 15 wins combined? The answer for Caldwell will come in the next few seasons. Can the Jaguars prove their breakout 2017 campaign (which ended in an AFC title game appearance) wasn't a fluke? Five straight seasons drafting in the top five eventually resulted in landing Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Fournette, while Caldwell used free agency brilliantly to fill out the best defense in football. Credit goes to owner Shad Khan and executive VP Tom Coughlin ( brought in last year) for not blowing up the front office. The team's undying faith in quarterback Blake Bortles, however, could still hamstring all the fine work Caldwell has done.
Gettleman joined Dorsey in the random wave of successful general managers getting fired last summer, seemingly for personality issues rather than job performance. Gettleman's "brusque management style" (as the Charlotte Observer termed it) might play better in front of a podium than in a board room, but his emphasis on line play helped routinely get the Panthers into the playoffs. While some general managers lack clear direction or conviction, Gettleman is unafraid to make unpopular moves and builds his teams around brute force -- a couple reasons to believe he might not take a quarterback No. 2 overall in this draft.
There is no front office quite like the Cowboys' front office, a family affair in which owner Jerry Jones' son, Stephen, might now have the most influence. After decades of Dallas holding on to players too long and overpaying its own stars, it's worth noting how well the 'Boys have drafted this decade, with Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott all providing incredible value. It makes me wonder if Jones' struggles with self-scouting have extended to a coaching staff that has too often underperformed.
Loomis also runs the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans, so it's likely that coach Sean Payton and assistant general manager Jeff Ireland wield plenty of personnel influence here, too. They should all be fighting for credit after landing the Saints' 2017 draft class, which could go down as one of the greatest in NFL history, having produced two superstars ( Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara), two quality starters ( Ryan Ramczyk and Marcus Williams) and two more potential starters in 2018 ( Alex Anzalone and Trey Hendrickson). Loomis has too often struggled to stock his defense, but he has a knack for finding just the right role player to complete Payton's passing attack.
The ability to reboot a roster with a new head coach separates good general managers from the greats. Keim and Bruce Arians experienced immediate success after taking over in Arizona in 2013, winning 34 games and making two playoff appearances in their first three seasons. Now that Arians is out and Steve Wilks is in, Keim gets his chance for a second act. He's authored solid drafts, big-time trades (for Carson Palmer and Chandler Jones) and made the type of effective in-season injury-replacement moves that rarely get noticed. The overall body of work (49-30-1) is impressive, but the roster is currently full of question marks. Keim has earned the benefit of the doubt that he'll see it through.
If not for Howie Roseman, Snead would have deserved the Executive of the Year award last season. While that doesn't quite erase memories of Snead's slog of a five-year run with Jeff Fisher, it puts those struggles into context. When Snead arrived in 2012, St. Louis was coming off one of the worst stretches in NFL history, and he quickly upgraded the talent base. The core of last year's playoff team was acquired during the Fisher era, and Snead helped find the right coaches to make those players shine. The aggressive trades this offseason show a general manager unafraid to buck convention, raising title hopes without sacrificing the team's long-term goals.
Spielman is a survivor. He survived a rocky ending with the Dolphins, then hung in as de facto GM in Minnesota for six years before getting the official title in 2012, with the Vikings making five playoff appearances along the way. The roster is overstuffed with home-grown talent and strategic free-agent scores like Linval Joseph and Riley Reiff. Spielman's first true coaching hire, Mike Zimmer, has provided the team with a clear direction over the past four seasons. Spielman created the salary-cap flexibility to sign Kirk Cousins after making the franchise attractive enough to lure the quarterback in. Most GMs would be waylaid after losing their franchise quarterback, but the way he responded to Teddy Bridgewater's career-altering knee injury in 2016 only highlighted Spielman's resourcefulness.
If this list had been constructed after the 2015 season, Elway would have been near the top spot. If he goes through another season with the same old problems in Denver, then he won't be in the top 10 a year from now. Elway's inability to field a competitive offensive line, find a consistent running back or plan for life after Peyton Manning has grown worrisome. His recent drafts have provided few quality starters, and Elway hasn't picked a Pro Bowler since his first draft yielded Von Miller and Julius Thomas. Nothing can erase Elway's incredible touch in free agency building a Super Bowl champion, but the signing of Case Keenum speaks to a larger existential crisis. There's a lot of hoping and not enough home-grown talent.
The rebuilding job Schneider undertook with Pete Carroll at the start of this decade should be taught to aspiring executives. The combination of outstanding drafts, value risks like the Marshawn Lynch trade with Buffalo and the early extensions to keep the Seahawks' core together led to incredible success. Now Schneider has to do it again, with virtually no difference makers from the last five draft classes and spotty big swings at players like Sheldon Richardson, Jimmy Graham and Percy Harvin. If Carroll and Schneider are truly built for a college-style shelf life, as former "Legion of Boom" standard-bearer Richard Sherman surmised, Schneider desperately needs to find his next class of quality players.
Dimitroff gets extra credit because he's made the Falcons into a consistent threat with two different coaches (Mike Smith and Dan Quinn), a rare feat. The Falcons' roster is built primarily around his draft picks, with some key veteran acquisitions, like center Alex Mack and wideout Mohamed Sanu. The Falcons stick to their core philosophies (SPEED! URGENCY! MORE SPEED!) and regularly field a roster without glaring weaknesses. Using a deep bench of experienced evaluators behind him, Dimitroff has only suffered through two losing seasons in the 10 years since he arrived, and he has the Falcons positioned to contend throughout Matt Ryan's prime. It's not Dimitroff's fault that Devonta Freeman missed that third-down block in Super Bowl LI.
General manager jobs are like late-night hosting gigs: Anyone who is still on the air should be considered a success. The Ozzie Newsome Show has been running in Baltimore since 1996, when he became a trailblazer as the first African-American general manager in league history. The 2018 draft class will be Newsome's last, and Ravens fans hope he returns to the form that made him a legend. Newsome's penchant for snapping up physical players from big-name schools who fell in the draft has produced spottier results recently, although he's maintained his eye for undervalued veterans like Eric Weddle. The Ravens have only one losing season since 2007 and four this century, spanning two head coaches. That speaks to Newsome consistently stocking the roster with quality starters, even if his blind spots -- like drafting wideouts -- never quite improved.
There is no greater testament to a general manager's skill than winning a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback. Using a blend of new-school analytics and an old-fashioned obsession with line play, Roseman transformed the Eagles roster in just two years. He helped kick-start the trade tsunami enveloping the league, a sign of a decision maker confident enough to make mistakes. The trade up to draft Carson Wentz second overall in 2016 might help define the Eagles' next decade, but Roseman's reluctance to stand pat after capturing a title bodes well for the team's ability to sustain success. He's come a long way from his Chip Kelly-enforced exile.
The Steelers' loyalty to head coaches (they've only had three since 1969) is well-documented. The team's continuity in the front office, where Colbert has run the personnel department since 2000, is even more crucial. The Steelers have had one losing season since then, and 12 seasons with double-digit wins, including two titles. Colbert puts his coaches in position to win titles, and it's up to them to do the rest. His biggest decisions -- like drafting Ben Roethlisberger 11th overall in 2004 -- have been among his best. His wide receiver picks, stretching from Plaxico Burress to Santonio Holmes to Antonio Brown to JuJu Smith-Schuster, are routinely difference makers. Colbert oversaw the transition from a dominant defense to the league's most talented offense, all while actively avoiding the spotlight. His media guide bio is barely longer than this writeup.
Nick Caserio has the title of director of player personnel, but it's been Belichick guiding the franchise on and off the field since 2000. Belichick is far from a perfect evaluator, with a so-so draft record over the last few years and some curious trades, including the deals to move backup quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. Still, Belichick is unmatched at uncovering value in surprising places. He prizes versatility, so he can transform his roster year to year and, subsequently, his game plan week to week. He sees the entire picture of his organization because he knows exactly what his coaches want and when to cut bait on a misfire. It's more popular than ever to make aggressive trades and unsentimental cuts and maintain salary-cap discipline, but Belichick has been running his team that way for nearly two decades, while the rest of the league catches up.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.