At this time of the year, I rarely go a few days without being asked about potential general manager candidates. And if you’re following me on Twitter or have heard me in any recent radio interviews, you might have caught some of the names I’ve mentioned. But because I’m constantly having conversations with NFL executives over the course of the season, that list expands or gets reduced by the information I gather by the week.
With only five weeks left in the regular season, it’s a good time to take an extended look at the best candidates for potential general manger openings, which should start to open up in early January. Heck, one already opened up last month.
In order to get an idea of who the best candidates are, I asked two current NFL general managers, one former NFL general manager, three personnel executives, and three prominent NFL player agents who they thought should be on the list. And I asked each guy to remove friendships, the best they could, and give me their list of the top-five most qualified names.
Here’s the list broken down by the ones most likely to get jobs for 2013 and executives likely to get strong consideration in the future:
Tom Gamble/San Francisco 49ers/Director of Player Personnel: In my 14 years of covering the NFL, I don’t recall getting as many strong comments about a potential GM candidate from high-ranking personnel executives and NFL player agents as I’ve received about Gamble in doing research for this piece. In fact, one NFL GM said my list should start with Gamble for the very fact that he’s about as well-rounded of a candidate as you’ll find.
And when you examine Gamble’s background, you can understand why.
He got started in the NFL at a very young age -- literally right out of college -- with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1988. His father, Harry, was the president of the team at that time. And the younger Gamble was around football growing up. His father was a long-time coach (pro and college) and then moved on to become an NFL executive late in his career.
Like his father, Tom Gamble is a rarity in NFL scouting departments these days: He not only has extensive pro and college scouting experience, he has experience with contract negations and the salary cap, and even has coaching experience (defensive assistant/quality control coach with the New York Jets for two seasons: 1995-1996) on the NFL side. While Gamble was promoted to his current role nearly two years ago, other teams have also been interested in him in recent years (St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders on more than one occasion).
Now in his 25th NFL season, Gamble has worked for five teams over that time period and has touched just about every possible aspect on the personnel side. He has helped build 10 playoff teams (four with the Eagles, five with the Indianapolis Colts, and one with the 49ers—and very likely another one this season).
Before taking a job with the 49ers back in 2005, Gamble worked for seven seasons as a college scout under former Colts GM Bill Polian, who is widely recognized as one of the best personnel evaluators in NFL history.
“He’s got a complete grounding in the game. He grew up in the game,” Polian explained to me recently about Gamble. “This is exceedingly important when you consider there are a lot of issues that you have to deal with when becoming a general manager that will come up with a team. You’re at a big disadvantage if you don’t have this experience in dealing with everything. That’s why non-football people have a harder time succeeding. Because Tom has so much experience and grew up around the game with his dad, he’s going to be more prepared than most. That’s a huge advantage.”
And it’s that extensive experience which should help Gamble land a GM job for next season.
UPDATED 12/21: Two personnel sources said that Gamble should receive attention from at least three teams for expected GM openings next month.
Eric DeCosta/Baltimore Ravens/Assistant General Manager: The veteran personnel evaluator received his latest promotion in May of this year. DeCosta turned down several interviews with other teams earlier this year because it’s a well-known fact that he’ll eventually take over the entire football operations once (GM and Executive VP) Ozzie Newsome retires. What makes DeCosta one of the strongest personnel executives is due to his extensive pro and college scouting background, which spans over 16 years. And he has worked alongside of Newsome for many seasons. It also doesn’t hurt that DeCosta has been part of one of the NFL’s most successful scouting departments in regard to the NFL Draft for many years.
Marc Ross/New York Giants/Director of College Scouting: Ross joined the Giants in his current role in 2007. He got started as a college scout back in 1997 with the Philadelphia Eagles and was promoted to team’s college scouting director in 2000, at the age of just 27. And after working as a college scout for the Buffalo Bills after leaving the Eagles, he moved up the ladder again with the Giants. As one former NFL executive who worked with him for many years told me, Ross is one of the most organized and forthright people he’s come across in his years in the league. Ross, over the past few years, has interviewed GM jobs with the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, and Seattle Seahawks. And it’s widely believed that he’ll get an interview for the vacant Carolina Panthers GM opening since former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi is advising the team in their GM search as a consultant. UPDATE 12/21: Multiple personnel executives said that Ross is Accorsi’s early choice for the job opening. However, Accorsi was still gathering information on other possible candidates for the team to interview, along with Ross, after the season concludes.
Steve Keim/Arizona Cardinals/Vice President of Player Personnel: Keim, who started with the Cardinals in 1999, was promoted to his current role earlier this year after the NFL Draft. He essentially oversees both of the pro and college scouting departments. And Keim, who mostly had scouting experience for several years on the college side, got more involved on the pro side five years ago. One high-level NFC executive with another team said that he expects Keim to get a GM job over the next few years based on his extensive experience in player evaluations. It’s worth noting that Keim interviewed for the Rams GM job earlier this year.
David Caldwell/Director of Player Personnel/Atlanta Falcons: Caldwell, who was promoted to his new role earlier this year where he will oversee the college and pro scouting departments, also interviewed for the Indianapolis Colts GM job earlier this year, which eventually went to Ryan Grigson. While most if not all of his scouting experience came from the college side prior to this season, Caldwell’s name has been brought up to me on several occasions over the past few year as one of the top GM candidates based on his outstanding eye for talent and solid organizational skills. In fact, one current NFL GM said he would put him in the top-5 of best candidates available.
John Dorsey/Director of Football Operations/Green Bay Packers: UPDATE 12/21: One personnel source suggested to me recently that there’s no question that Dorsey is one of the most highly qualified executives not to currently have the GM title attached to his name.
After doing some background checking on Dorsey, that’s pretty much an accurate statement.
The former linebacker for the Packers for six seasons, Dorsey moved to the college scouting side for seven seasons after his playing career was cut short due to injury. He then became the team’s director of college scouting for 15 seasons (left to handle player personnel for the Seattle Seahawks for two seasons, but then returned to the Packers) and was promoted to his current role earlier this season.
While Dorsey’s scouting experience mostly comes from the college side, he still has had exposure to the pro side in recent years. And he has been exposed to contract negotiations over the years, according to a source.
George Paton/Assistant General Manager/Minnesota Vikings: Paton was promoted to his current role earlier this year after receiving strong interest from the St. Louis Rams for their vacant GM job, which eventually went to Les Snead. While most of his scouting experience is from the pro side, he’ll get additional experience on the college going forward based on his new role, which firmly cements him as the No.2 man in the team’s personnel department.
Jason Licht/Arizona Cardinals/Director of Player Personnel: Licht is a rarity these days: He has extensive scouting experience on the pro and college levels from working with five teams over a 12-year period. Plus, he has coaching experience on the NFL level (1996 for the Dolphins as an offensive assistant/quality control coach) albeit brief. Licht also interviewed for the Chicago Bears GM job earlier this year, which eventually went to Phil Emery. In fact, Licht was the runner-up for the job.
Others who have been mentioned as possible GMs for future seasons
Brian Gaine/Miami Dolphins/Assistant General Manager: Gaine, now in his 15th year in the NFL and fifth with the Dolphins, was promoted to his current role with the team back in June of this year. While his scouting background mainly has come from the pro side (previously with the Jets and Cowboys), the veteran personnel evaluator ramped up his evaluations of college players in recent years based on his recent promotions. His name has come up a bit in conversations over the last few years with various NFL executives as a future GM. And he interviewed for the Rams GM job earlier this year.
Tom Telesco/Indianapolis Colts/Vice President of Football Operations: He was promoted to his current role earlier this year and has spent 14 years with the Colts, which puts him second in command in the personnel department. And Telesco has extensive pro and college scouting experience going back nearly 17 years. One personnel source who worked with him in the past said he could definitely see Telesco becoming a GM in the future based in his solid scouting and organizational skills.
Doug Whaley/Buffalo Bills/Assistant General Manager+Director of Pro Personnel: Because of his dual role he received when he joined the Bills in 2010, Whaley is basically second in command on the personnel side for the Bills. And he has plenty of experience with pro and college scouting (with the Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Seattle Seahawks), which is a major plus for any prospective general manager candidate. While it’s assumed that he’ll eventually replace GM Buddy Nix when Nix decides to retire, it still wouldn’t be surprising to see other teams show interest in Whaley going forward.
Tag Ribary/Seattle Seahawks/Director of Pro Personnel: Ribary was promoted to his current role two years after working with the Seahawks in various capacities on the pro scouting side. He also had pro scouting experience with the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers. While he doesn’t have extensive college scouting background that some other candidates have, Ribary’s long tenure spanning over two decades in the NFL makes him a well-known and qualified candidate.
Chris Ballard/Director of Pro Scouting/Chicago Bears: One other NFC team, according to a source, wanted to interview him for a personnel job earlier this year, but the Bears denied that team permission to talk to him, which shows how highly the Bears think of him. And Ballard, who had college coaching experience for many years before joining the Bears 12 years ago, got promoted to his current role back in June. Prior to his promotion, Ballard worked as a college scout, but he oversees the pro scouting side these days, so he now has exposure to all facets of NFL scouting.
Matt Russell/Denver Broncos/Director of Player Personnel: The veteran talent evaluator has 12 years of extensive scouting work with the Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, and Broncos. And Russell has widely been given credit for discovering QB Matt Cassel back during his time with the Patriots. Russell’s scouting background was on the college side prior to this season, but his latest promotion from earlier this year should help him get a stronger handle on the pro side.
Scott Cohen/Assistant General Manager/New York Jets: The veteran personnel evaluator began his 21st season in the NFL earlier this year. Cohen has extensive pro and college scouting experience over his 20+ seasons in the league with the Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Washington Redskins. His experience from scouting pro and college levels as well as being exposed to contract negotiations over the years should help him garner attention from teams looking for a general manager going forward.
Alonzo Highsmith/Senior Personnel Executive/Green Bay Packers: The former NFL running back joined the Packers as a college scout in 1999. He was targeted at least twice by other teams in recent years for upper level management jobs (non-GM role), but the Packers blocked him from interviewing, which is obviously an indication how strongly they want to keep him. And the Packers, recognizing his solid player evaluation skills, promoted him to his current role earlier this year. Highsmith, who has been largely recognized for discovering CB Tramon Williams, won a scouting award in recent years.