There are many difficult jobs in the NFL. General manager is up there near the top.
Every team’s chief personnel decision-maker goes into every year looking to improve a roster with only one goal in mind: Get his team closer to winning the Super Bowl.
That means nailing as many offseason moves as possible, from free agency through the draft. One big run of player acquisitions can make a GM look an absolute genius, while a series of questionable deals can send another GM plummeting in relation to his peers.
Evaluating all GMs comes down to the results, creating a successful blend of players who mesh with their team needs. Here’s Sporting News’ latest list, from best to worst, knowing what happened in 2020 and going into the 2021 season:
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NFL general manager rankings 2021
1. Jason Licht, Buccaneers (last year’s ranking: 16)
Licht reeled in the big fish, quarterback Tom Brady, who put the finishing touches on the slow play toward a Super Bowl. But no pun intended, the move shed light on the fact the Bucs had drafted core players well for a while (see wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and secondary) and took some nice flyers (see edge rusher) before Brady. Brady’s influence also led to a few more key pickups. (Leonard Fournette, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown). Licht followed that up with a masterful job of keeping a championship roster intact for a real shot at a repeat.
IYER: How Bucs’ Super Bowl roster around Tom Brady was built
2. Brett Veach, Chiefs (last year’s ranking: 2)
Veach and coach Andy Reid have a strong mind meld on what they want to do and excel at executing the plan. Everything trickles down from their draft steal of the NFL’s best quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Veach gets the right kind of offensive players for Reid’s superior system while also taking care of defense during a critical scheme transition. Neither is afraid to take calculated chances on players and that continues to pay off. The Chiefs have been smart at remixing their roster to keep their Super Bowl window with Mahomes open for a long time.
3. Brandon Beane, Bills (last year’s ranking: 9)
Beane is the reigning Sporting News NFL executive of the year based on peer voting, the first Bills GM to enjoy the honor since Bill Polian in 1992. Beane solved the franchise QB problem with Josh Allen and has maintained the offensive momentum with big key changes around him, highlighted by trading for go-to wide receiver Stefon Diggs. He also has worked well with personnel-savvy coach Sean McDermott to help bring up the defense to a high complementary level.
4. Eric DeCosta, Ravens (last year’s ranking: 3)
DeCosta preceded Beane as SN’s winner in big part for recognizing coach John Harbaugh could create a unique offense with dynamic Lamar Jackson at the helm. The Ravens have loaded up their line and backfield to complement Jackson’s running and have stayed dedicated to improving his receiving options. The defense has been steady despite some necessary rebuilding, too. Baltimore continues to enjoy a smooth transition from Ozzie Newsome.
5. John Lynch, 49ers (last year’s ranking: 1)
Lynch’s talented roster went through a season of major injury lumps following a fun run to the Super Bowl. He handled resetting the defensive front well with Nick Bosa and Javon Kinlaw in the draft. The move to get a still elite Trent Williams was a good start to raise the offensive upside, along with drafting Brandon Aiyuk to build on the young receiving promise with Deebo Samuel. This year, getting aggressive with a double Trey in the draft — quarterback Lance and running back Sermon — will be critical to a big rebound soon.
6. Andrew Berry, Browns (last year’s ranking: 24)
Berry has loaded up the Browns like they haven’t been for a long time. He wasted no time in his return to Cleveland to get the necessary final pieces for a playoff berth. The 34-year-old Harvard grad was smart to complete an elite offensive line and diversify the weapons for Baker Mayfield. This year, Berry made his mark with an defensive overhaul, adding Jadeveon Clowney, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Anthony Walker, John Johnson and Troy Hill as new starters.
7. Bill Belichick, Patriots (last year’s ranking: 4)
Belichick didn’t have the best year in watching Brady walk and win the Super Bowl elsewhere. Meanwhile, going with Cam Newton as the replacement QB had limited immediate results. Belichick also hasn’t had many draft hits of late, looking to change that with first-rounder Mac Jones as Newton’s competition and the future of the position. Given what Belichick has done in two decades on the job, however — remixing complementary personnel for Brady toward six rings — he will be in the top 10 as long as he’s doing his job. The core of his work in 2021 was landing top free-agent tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith for offense. Belichick will need big changes on defense to come to fruition soon.
8. Mickey Loomis, Saints (last year’s ranking: 5)
Loomis is another venerable GM with plenty of past results in his favor, a la Belichick. Since the Sean Payton and Drew Brees combination arrived in 2006, Loomis has done well to maintain skill and line pieces ideal for the offense, stamped by Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and the tackles. Now he’s looking for youth to serve from guard and tight end. Loomis also is responsible for a defensive turnaround with Cameron Jordan as the forefront. As the post-Brees era begins, watch out for the reclamation of Jameis Winston being Loomis’ latest coup.
9. Jon Robinson, Titans (last year’s ranking: 6)
Robinson has been outstanding with the offense, as the drafting of Derrick Henry put much in motion, including a worthy chance on Ryan Tannehill to solve quarterback. He has navigated through trades and free agency well, making Nashville a destination for veterans as diverse as Julio Jones and Bud Dupree. Robinson, still only 45, supports coach Mike Vrabel in his own version of the Patriot Way. He should win the Sporting News top NFL executive award at some point in his career.
10. Kevin Colbert, Steelers (last year’s ranking: 8)
The scouting report on Colbert has been strong since he took over as Steelers GM in 2000. He’s been key in reloading the roster well and has been rewarded with two Super Bowl rings for it. Colbert is in a groove finding ideal playmakers and role players for the consistent 3-4 pressure defense. Offensively, he keeps working to adjust to the often changing identity around Ben Roethlisberger. Without Colbert, the Steelers wouldn’t have their nice blend of star power and stabliity over the years under Mike Tomlin.
11. Chris Ballard, Colts (last year’s ranking: 11)
Ballard, 52, is another star personnel man who once had a close working relationship with Reid. Since he was hired from the Chiefs’ front office in 2017, Ballard has made his mark with aggressive moves. He first worked to support Andrew Luck and has transitioned well into taking chances on QB replacements under Frank Reich with Carson Wentz following Philip Rivers as a good gamble. Ballard also has drafted well for defense and made a big recent trade in acquiring DeForest Buckner.
12. Rick Spielman, Vikings (last year’s ranking: 13)
Spielman has been on the job since 2012.and done well to support the long-time coach he hired, Mike Zimmer. One of Spielman’s strengths is pushing the right buttons on rebuilding, such as trading Stefon Diggs for cap relief and replacing him with stellar rookie Justin Jefferson. Spielman also has stockpiled well for Zimmer’s specific style of 4-3 defense. Offensively, whatever Vikings philosophy is at hand — such as run-heavy or pass-happy — Spielman has an eye for the ideal combination of apt line and skill players.
13. Les Snead, Rams (last year’s ranking: 17)
Snead has been fearless making moves for Sean McVay, including a big blockbuster on offense (Matthew Stafford) to match the one he made on defense (Jalen Ramsey). The foundation of the line and skill players has helped the Rams’ latest expectations shoot sky high with Stafford. Defensively, Snead assembled an elite until for 2020 and is doing his best to restore the strengths there around cornerstone Aaron Donald.
14. Brian Gutekunst, Packers (last year’s ranking: 15)
Putting whatever personal feelings Aaron Rodgers might have for this GM’s handling of a certain situation aside, Gutekunst, only 48, has kept up a strong scouting tradition in four years taking over from the late Ted Thompson. He’s done some solid drafting overall, stamped by stars Jaire Alexander and Elgton Jenkins. Gutekunst also has found some key role player gems and picked good spots to boost the defense through free agency.
15. John Schneider, Seahawks (last year’s ranking: 10)
Schneider is steady in working with Pete Carroll. He has given Russell Wilson help in different ways, sometimes leaning skill over line. The defensive rebuild has been more challenging but Schneider did also recognize the Seahawks desperately needed a splash from Jamal Adams. Although some draft decisions remain questionable, one cannot argue vs. the solid, consistent winning results, even if there has been limited spectacular of late.
16. Jerry Jones, Cowboys (last year’s ranking: 12)
Jones is the rare owner who can pull off a good GM job with his deep football background and understanding of how to stockpile talent (and pay for it) in the modern NFL. As needed, his offensive focus has shifted from loading the line to getting luxurious on skill players for Dak Prescott. Defensively, Jones has been stronger bolstering the front seven than solving the secondary again.
17. Steve Keim, Cardinals (last year’s ranking: 23)
Keim has had many spikes on this list, including a SN NFL executive of the year nod in his second year, 2014. Despite being on the job since that time, he’s only 48 and was able to recover from some personal issues to lead the Cardinals into an exciting new era with Kyler Murray as the centerpiece. Keim has brought in two key former Texans, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt, the past two offseasons. Although Keim’s complementary drafting overall hasn’t been as good as his veteran acquisitions, Keim is back on track with his talent trajectory.
18. Tom Telesco, Chargers (last year’s rankings: 20)
Telesco, also 48 and on the job since 2013 like Keim, has followed many of the long-time GMs here in going on a roster roller-coaster. He’s done well to create playoff teams early for first Mike McCoy and Anthony Lynn; the key for Telesco is maintaining that momentum with the smaller moves. After some defensive successes, it was huge to hit on Justin Herbert as Philip Rivers’ successor.
19. Dave Gettleman, Giants (last year’s ranking: 22)
Gettleman proved how quickly he could turn around a situation in winning 2015 SN NFL executive of the year honors for setting up a Cam Newton-led Super Bowl team. Since that Panthers spike and subsequent hastened departure, Gettleman has hacked away to flip the Giants, his longest-term employer in the league. Gettleman got heat for his Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones first-rounders, but with more investments around them offensively, the slow-play rebuild can be rewarded with real results in 2021. Meanwhile, his experience on the other side have the Giants on the brink of fielding a special defense again.
20. Chris Grier, Dolphins (last year’s ranking: 29)
Grier, only 51, has been in his job since 2016. He did his best in the end of the Adam Gase era, which dragged him down a bit, but he’s rebounding well in the rebuild alongside defensive-minded coach Brian Flores. In conjunction with assembling strong secondary around Xavien Howard, Grier has given Miami more promise in the front seven. Offensively, there’s been a better youthful mix, but it’s tied to Tua Tagovailoa coming through as a first-round to QB make moves such as drafting Jaylen Waddle and signing Will Fuller count.
21. Duke Tobin, Bengals (last year’s ranking: 26)
Although there’s no official GM under Mike Brown, it’s time to acknowledge Tobin, the director of player personnel, is making the key calls now going on 22 years of experience. After some consistent playoff contending with an Andy Dalton-led offense and deep defense, Tobin and the Bengals have struggled to become a top-half winning team in the AFC North again. The Joe Burrow-Ja’Marr Chase combination follows the blueprint of Dalton and A.J. Green leading a rebuild, while Cincinnati is trying to get its defense up to speed with an even mix of big spending and shrewd drafting.
22. Ryan Pace, Bears (last year’s ranking: 25)
Pace, still only 44, was Sporting News’ NFL executive of the year in 2018 for Bears’ initial big turnaround with Matt Nagy. Since his three-year rise, there has been a disappointing fade, so this make-or-break season for GM (and coach) is marked by trying to aggressively solve QB again with Justin Fields. Coming from the Saints, Pace’s hits have come more on defense than offense, but he can shoot up again should Fields pan out the way Mitchell Trubisky didn’t.
23. Howie Roseman, Eagles (last year’s ranking: 7)
Speaking of roller coasters, no long-term young GM has fluctuated more on this list than Roseman, still only 46. Roseman has been chasing the ultimate high of being named SN’s NFL executive of the year in 2017 for Philadelphia’a superb Super Bowl 52 run. it looked like the Eagles would be remain a contender in the NFC armed with Carson Wentz, but that didn’t materialize as the new offensive issues developed quickly and defense faced sudden key holes behind its strong front four. Without Wentz or Doug Pederson, Roseman has been called upon to dig deep for answers, hoping Jalen Hurts is the biggest one.
24. Joe Douglas, Jets (last year’s ranking: 32)
Douglas, only 45, worked under Roseman before becoming GM of another green East Coast NFL team. In two-plus years, he was first needed to clean up the previous mess created by the Mike Maccagnan-Gase power struggle. A big part of that was realizing 2018 first-rounder Sam Darnold wasn’t the right fit as franchise QB. Now Douglas is putting his own stamp on the team with new coach Robert Saleh and rookie No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson. The defensive work is a little behind, but offensively, what’s around Wilson looks promising overall. Douglas is a good bet to earn SN executive of the year at some point in his budding career.
25. George Paton, Broncos (last year’s ranking: N/A)
John Elway turned to Paton, who worked under Spielman in Minnesota, to relieve himself of GM duties this year. The Broncos amassed diverse talent prior to his arrival, but Paton’s first offseason saw a big focus on shoring up the secondary for Vic Fangio, drafting Patrick Surtain II in the first round after already adding Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller to help re-signed Justin Simmons. Offensively, watch out for Javonte Williams in the rookie of the year race.
26. Martin Mayhew, Washington Football Team (last year’s ranking: N/A)
Ron Rivera operated as the de facto main personnel man in his first season with WFT, but now works with the former Lions GM Mayhew. Before a decent draft, Washington was solid in free agency, getting Ryan Fitzpatrick, Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and Charles Leno Jr. as new starters. There also was a defensive splurge on cornerback William Jackson III. The key will be whether rookie Jamin Davis can put it all together as a playmaker to provide the missing punch from a strong front seven.
27. Terry Fontenot, Falcons (last year’s ranking: N/A)
Fontenot, only 40, jumped from assistant status under Loomis in New Orleans to NFC South arch-rival Atlanta. There has been no lacking splash early on the job, marked by drafting tight end Kyle Pitts at No. 4 and then moving Julio Jones from the offense. Fontenot is playing the long game with cap issues in mind. He was patient in not stashing a replacement for Matt Ryan or overspending to solve running back. Defensively, the work will be cut out for him as he started with only a little tweaking.
28. Mike Mayock, Raiders (last year’s rankings: 19)
Mayock, the former draft analyst for NFL Network, has taken some big recent lumps working with Jon Gruden. Just 2021 was pretty rough, with a combination of odd signings and draft reaches. Overall, there has been good veteran money spent with limited results, including the Antonio Brown debacle. There also has been a game of defensive whack-a-mole, with deficiencies popping up in new areas. There doesn’t seem to be one binding philosophy, which suggests Mayock and Gruden are pulling the roster in different directions.
29. Brad Holmes, Lions (last year’s rankings: N/A)
Holmes did some gutting of a Detroit roster that needed it, so rating of his initial job is incomplete given he’s looking ahead to 2022 and 2023. Those offseasons will be stamped by the two extra first-rounders Holmes got in maximizing Matthew Stafford’s trade value with his former team, the Rams. While in makeshift state with veteran moves including getting Jared Goff back to replace Stafford, Holmes made his mark with Penei Sewell topping a solid draft class.
30. Scott Fitterer, Panthers (last year’s ranking: N/A)
Fitterer, who worked closely under Schneider in Seattle, gets a worthy lead shot in Carolina. He had a decent first draft, but he was limited in what he could do outside in free agency, focusing on filling some veteran holes around core young playmakers. The make-or-break early move, however, was trading for Darnold and thinking he was the Panthers’ best available QB solution.
31. Trent Baalke, Jaguars (last year’s ranking: N/A)
Baalke, five years removed from a rocky end to his 49ers’ tenure with Jim Harbaugh, got another full-time GM gig to support first-time NFL coach Urban Meyer. Drafting Trevor Lawrence was an early no-brainer, but Baalke’s handful of other key moves, down to signing Tim Tebow for Meyer, have been questionable at best.
32. Nick Caserio, Texans (last year’s ranking: N/A)
Caserio, who rose quickly as a personnel man under Belichick, is faced with plenty of major personnel challenges in inheriting a roster post Bill O’Brien with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over his most valuable player, Deshaun Watson. Caserio hasn’t been positioned well to infuse the needed new talent yet in 2021.