It's the first week of December and there are already four NFL teams -- the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars -- searching for their next general manager.
Hiring a general manager is the first step -- a critically important one -- toward turning an organization around. Once that person is in place, the new GM typically leads a search for a new head coach and ultimately makes his recommendation to ownership.
It's important for new GMs to establish a criteria going into their interviews with head-coaching candidates so they can find the right person for the job. I've constructed my own criteria to use when hiring a new head coach based on what I learned from Pro Football Hall of Famers Dan Rooney and Joe Gibbs.
Rooney, the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner, emphasized three traits when hiring a head coach: leadership, communication and character. A head coach must command the room and be able to communicate with a diverse group of people. Gibbs focused on management ability and how well a prospective coach could evaluate players and staff. When Gibbs arrived in Washington in 1981, he wanted to run a wide-open offense, but quickly adjusted to a system that leaned on two-tight end sets after discovering his initial vision wasn't working -- a radical move in the NFL at that time. Being able to put his ego aside and construct a game plan that better suited his personnel was so valuable. He led Washington to an 8-3 finish that season after a 0-5 start, and won his first of three Super Bowls with the team the following season.
Next in the pecking order of general manager responsibilities is establishing the reporting structure -- or who reports to whom. During my time as general manager in Washington and Houston, the head coach and I reported directly to the owner. Personally, I would not have taken a GM job unless I had a direct line to the owner because he or she will ultimately decide who is hired and, most important, fired. One immediate decision a new GM may have to make is whether or not to retain members of the current staff.
Lastly, establishing a great working relationship with the head coach is very critical to organizational success. The head coach must present his vision for what the team looks like on and off the field, and in turn, the GM's job is to get the coach the players to fit the system. This vision must be clear for all parties and discussed in the interview process. Responsibilities on other matters -- including final say on trades, waiver claims and free-agent signings -- must also be discussed in full.
And all of that is just the start.
Today, after talking to my sources around the league, I'm breaking down the current state of the four franchises with general manager vacancies. Which areas of each roster must be prioritized? Here are three actionable items:
- A majority of the Falcons' issues are on the defensive side of the ball. The front seven has struggled to hold its own in 2020, so it would make sense to get bigger along the defensive line and at linebacker.
- Improving the pass rush must be a huge priority. The only proven pass rushers on the roster right now are defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive end Dante Fowler, who is having a down year by his standards. Atlanta must add at least one more rusher at linebacker or defensive end in free agency or the draft.
- What is the plan at running back? Todd Gurley, who's made his money in the red zone in 2020, and Brian Hill are set to become free agents. Do you bring one or both of them back? Or let them walk? Will Atlanta sign a back from what is shaping up to be a decent pool of talent at the position in free agency or look to the draft for help?
- Do you keep quarterback Matthew Stafford? The veteran didn't discuss his future in Detroit when asked about it earlier this week, but the question will be addressed one way or another after the season. Though he's not in peak form and will be 33 years old at the start of next season, I would keep him. His arm talent hasn't dropped off and he's a great leader in the locker room.
- Detroit should extend Kenny Golladay, who's in the final year of his rookie deal. He is the Lions' top offensive playmaker right now, having recorded 1,000 yards in 2018 and '19 and a league-leading 11 receiving TDs last season. Though he's battled hamstring and hip injuries that have sidelined him for all but five games this season, the 27-year-old wide receiver still has a lot to offer as a nightmare matchup for most defenders.
- On defense, adding speed and playmaking ability across the board should be high on the to-do list. There is room for improvement on all three levels of the unit.
- Do you keep J.J. Watt, who carries a salary cap figure of $17.5 million in 2021? He is still a good player who will make the occasional splash play, but he's not the dominant force who won three Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2012 through '15.
- Create cap space. Right now, Over the Cap projects Houston will need to shed salary just to be cap compliant in 2021. ILB Benardrick McKinney, RB David Johnson, RB Duke Johnson, TE Darren Fells, OG Zach Fulton and OT Senio Kelemete are among the potential cap casualties.
- Re-sign Will Fuller. The Texans' WR1 was in the middle of a career season (53 catches, 879 rec. yards, eight TDs) prior to his six-game suspension for violating the league's PED policy, which brought his 2020 season to an end and will cause him to miss Week 1 in 2021. In the final year of his rookie deal, Fuller has built a rapport with franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson despite battling injuries during his career. The belief is he can still help this offense.
- It's time to find the quarterback of the future. After releasing Blake Bortles following the 2018 season, Jacksonville has failed to find a permanent replacement. The Nick Foles experiment did not work out, there are questions about Gardner Minshew's ability to carry a franchise and Jake Luton simply isn't ready. The Jags must figure out a solution if they want to contend for the AFC South title.
- The Jaguars currently have 11 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, including two first-rounders (one was acquired from the Rams in the Jalen Ramsey trade), and would hold the No. 2 overall selection if the season ended today. The Jags need to hit on a majority of their picks to bulk up their talent-poor roster.
- This one is simple: Add some veterans to the young defense in free agency.