Much like my abdomen, the title of "general manager" in the NFL doesn't really come with any definition. There are 32 teams and 32 general managers, but in reality no one person runs any NFL team on his own. Giving credit or accepting blame will fall on the shoulders of the man in charge, often, but they are never successful or Matt Millen-ul on their own. Take the Seattle Seahawks front office for example.
At the top of all personnel decisions is an equal partnership between general manager John Schneider and head coach/Executive Vice President of Football Operations Pete Carroll. Note the "/EVPFO" there, I made it bold for a reason. Schneider is also given the title of Executive Vice President, and so the duo work together in making a roster. In charge of the business side of things is President Peter McLoughlin, who also owns the same title with the Seattle Sounders FC.
Just as former Senior Personnel Executive Scott McCloughan resigned this year (former GM of the 49ers) the team hired Jeff Ireland (former GM of the Dolphins) as a consultant for the draft. Considering that they had lost a talent evaluator, the team hired someone else that didn't have anything to do and likely had spent many days of his life preparing for the 2014 draft, despite the fact that it was Jeff Ireland. It also just goes to show again how many hands are up in this cookie jar.
There are many more names you've likely never heard, like Tag Ribery, Trent Kirchner, Scott Fitterer, and Dan Morgan (you may have heard of him, since he's a former star linebacker) that go into Seattle's drafts. While Schneider can campaign for Russell Wilson, there are still a lot of people that have to come together to make a consensus agreement on the matter.
And in the case of Wilson, you'd certainly like to know that offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is interested (with his connections to Wisconsin he was, of course, very interested) and that quarterbacks coach Carl Smith sees things he likes too (if he doesn't, we'll make him disappear), so yes, there are many people to consider when it comes down to drafting an NFL team.
Scouts spent countless hours in the fall evaluating the college ranks, then of course the pro staff can take more time after the season to prepare for the draft, with endless days of meetings that finally culminate in a class of players.
So if I were to spend a bunch of time researching draft picks made by "a GM" and declare that John Schneider might be the best GM in football (especially when it comes to drafting players), I would be remiss to not mention the sheer number of other people that are involved in these decisions. Got it? Good.
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's ignore all of those other people and just focus on the general managers anyway.
Schneider is now in his fifth season as general manager of the Seahawks, which actually makes him the longest-tenured GM in the NFC West. That being said, David Fucillo of Niners Nation pointed out to me through electronic mail that Trent Baalke was really becoming de facto GM of the 49ers before the 2010 draft. That would be an important clarification for Baalke, because that draft class for San Francisco was likely better than any of the ones they've had since.
Though they netted Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick in 2011 (Smith's value as a draft pick should absolutely be in question, off-field issues are just as important as on-field ones), the 49ers grabbed Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Anthony Davis, and Anthony Dixon in 2010.
Though second round pick Taylor Mays was a bust, Schneider has similar disappointments of his own.
That being said, Baalke was not the GM in 2010. The aforementioned McLoughan left shortly before the draft, and so someone had to do it. But whether or not Baalke had considerably more influence that year than anyone else amid the confusion, who knows. They were quite fortunate to come away with two Pro Bowl players and a regular starting right tackle.
However, not enough time has passed to really know if Baalke's drafts will pay off. The 2014 class obviously can't be evaluated (though it can be graded by sports writers on the internet, which is highly important and meaningful) and the 2013 class netted a Pro Bowl safety (Eric Reid) and two high-profile players (Tank Carradine, Marcus Lattimore) that were expected to miss the season anyway. Most likely it's Baalke's 2011 draft, including A.J. Jenkins in the first and LaMichael James in the second, that looks like a waste right now.
Overall from 2011-2013, Baalke has drafted 28 players, including three in the first, four in the second, and two in the third. Out of the first rounders, one is definitely not going to play with San Fran next year, while another may miss some games due to the fact that he appears to be "a troubled youth."
Out of 28 drafted players by Baalke in three years, only four have started more than six games.
One of the players to start six games is cornerback Marcus Cooper, a seventh round pick in 2013, but he was released before the season and ended up being a key reserve for the Kansas City Chiefs. (Cooper netted 21 pass deflections, three interceptions, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown as a rookie. The 49ers, meanwhile, kept Craig Dahl...)
Another fellow West GM is Les Snead of the St. Louis Rams. Again, his collaboration with head coach Jeff Fisher (much like the ones had in San Francisco and Seattle as well) is paramount, but already they've had some good drafts. And it's not just because the Rams have had the highest picks, they've also managed to move down and still acquire good players. I think the most interesting thing at all is that despite the fact that St. Louis added a number of picks by moving down, Snead still isn't averaging as many picks per draft as Schneider or Baalke.
In his first four years, Schneider averaged 9.75 picks per year. That's the highest average of any GM in the NFL with the exception of Howie Roseman of the Philadelphia Eagles. Also a new GM in 2010, Roseman took two more players in his first four seasons than Schneider did. That being said, Roseman has netted just one Pro Bowl player with those 41 picks.
(I only went up to 2013 since the 2014 class is worthless right now, but it's worth noting that Philly drafted seven players and Seattle drafted nine, so the two GMs have now both drafted 48 players in five years. Still the highest average in the league.)
Of course, I use "Pro Bowl player" as simply a placeholder for extremely-better measurements of value, but it is a starting point. You know that based just on that alone that in Roseman's career as the Eagles GM, he probably hasn't drafted more than a couple "world-beaters." (The one player is Nick Foles.)
You could also use "Career AV" from Pro-Football-Reference as a jumping-off point.
In his first four years, the player that Roseman drafted that has the highest career AV is cornerback Nate Allen. A second round pick in 2010, Allen has 20 AV in four seasons.
In Schneider's tenure as GM, Bobby Wagner came out as the eighth-highest AV among Seahawks draftees since 2010. He has a career AV... of 20. If you forget about Pro Bowl appearances, you'll still find that Schneider has drafted eight players with at least 20 career AV since 2010, and two of them, Wilson and Wagner, have only been in the league for two years.
But let's go back to focusing on the NFC West for now. Snead drafted 17 players in his first two seasons as GM, and just picked 11 players in 2014 for a total of 28 in three years. If that strategy continues (and I can only assume it will) then the Rams might actually be on their way to getting back to the playoffs. However, the question now becomes: Can the Rams not "Rams" these picks?
They've whiffed pretty hard on some second round picks under Snead and have opted to keep their wagon hitched to Sam Bradford. They'll absolutely need their 2013 and 2014 classes to step up this season.
Speaking of Ramsing the draft, the Cardinals invented "Ramsing" back when it was called "Cardinalsing." If you're like me, you're praising current GM Steve Keim for his draft selections of Patrick Peterson and Michael Floyd. And if you're like me, you're totally wrong about Keim drafting those players. It was Rod Graves, the GM from 1997-2012 that selected both Peterson and Floyd, as well as linebackers Sam Acho and Daryl Washington, and Darnell Dockett, and Dan Williams, and Larry Fitzgerald, and Anquan Boldin, and... and... and seriously how has Arizona sucked for so long?
If you're not paying that much attention, the current success of the Cardinals is much like the amount of guff we give Baalke and Jim Harbaugh for essentially taking over an already-talented team and making them better. It was actually Graves (and Ken Whisenhunt) that assembled most of this team that's all-of-a-sudden good.
The problem with Graves is that in his tenure the Cards used 18 first round picks, and out of those players, for every Fitz there was a Leonard Davis (2nd overall) and an Andre Wadsworth (3rd overall.)
Levi Brown, Thomas Jones, David Boston, Matt Leinart, Tom Knight, Wendall Bryant, Bryant Johnson, Beanie Wells...
In Keim's first draft he gets praise for snagging Tyrann Mathieu in the third and Andre Ellington in the sixth, but there's plenty of reason for concern, and you'll see why soon.
So those are the four GMs of the NFC West, all of varying degrees of success (I think only one of them has a Super Bowl ring) but also all of whom are regarded as better at their jobs as some other guys around the league. Overall, I'd say that the current group of guys in the division are considered the smartest as a whole among any division in the league.
But let's do some comps.
John Schneider in 2010:
In his first year as GM, Schneider landed a first-team All-Pro safety, a second-team All-Pro safety, and a Pro Bowl tackle. (Tate probably deserved some recognition as a Pro Bowl punt returner this past season as well.) That was in his first season alone. In five drafts with the Detroit Lions, Martin Mayhew has selected just one player that has made a Pro Bowl and he had to do that with the second overall pick. (Ndamukong Suh.)
Though Baalke oversaw the 49ers draft in 2010, he officially became the GM after Jim Harbaugh was hired in 2011. Let's compare the two GMs drafts from that year.
John Schneider, 2011:
We can't complain about the fact that Seattle has won a Super Bowl with the players they've drafted under Schneider, but it will be interesting to see if Sherman is the only player that will remain with the team after next season. Tough contract decisions are coming up for Wright, Maxwell, and Smith, while easy contract decisions were made for Carpenter, Moffitt, LeGree, and Levingston. (Aka, no contract.)
Trent Baalke, 2011:
The 49ers drafted Smith with the seventh overall pick, which seems like a fine choice, but it wouldn't be fair to ignore that when you draft one player, you're also judged on the ones you didn't take with similar value. While they got Smith, who had more sacks in his first two years than any player in NFL history I believe, they passed on J.J. Watt.
Let's forget that though for a second, because maybe it's nitpicking to say that Smith was a "bad" draft pick. He could turn his off-field troubles around and continue to be an all-world player. San Francisco also passed on a quarterback like Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert only to snag Kaepernick in round two. That's definitely a positive on Baalke. A bad GM would (and did) take Gabbert instead.
That being said, Schneider grabbed the most valuable player of either class, and did it in the fifth round. His fourth round pick has been a more reliable linebacker than Smith and was taken 92 picks later.
Baalke drafted 10 players, five of them have never started an NFL game. Culliver has started six, wasn't that great, tore his ACL in 2013, has made derogatory statements about gay people and women, and was arrested in January of this year. So yeah, he's been a pretty good pick so far. Bruce Miller was converted to fullback and plays a lot but is roughly as valuable as Michael Robinson, the player he replaced. Kendall Hunter never stood a chance at starting, but the team has felt the need to draft running backs constantly ever since.
Still out of this draft, the 49ers landed a starting QB, a great LB when he plays, a starting fullback, a backup running back, and a corner that had shown potential on the field prior to injury. Mostly the QB and the LB are the keys here.
The Seahawks drafted nine players and only two have never started an NFL game. Their third round pick is already out of the league, and their fourth round pick is on another team. The team's first round pick couldn't stick at tackle, and has been underwhelming as a guard.
Still, the fourth round pick is a solid sometimes-Pro-Bowl-caliber linebacker, the fifth round pick is possibly the best corner in the game and don't you ever talk about him, the sixth round pick emerged last season as possibly a great starting corner, and the seventh round pick won Super Bowl MVP honors.
In 2012, the Rams hired Jeff Fisher to be the head coach and Les Snead to be the general manager after another terrible season. St. Louis had won just 15 games over their last five seasons, the lowest total over a five-year span in NFL history. Though his name makes him sound like he may have been the original owner of the 1937 Cleveland Rams, Snead was only 40 at the time he was hired. He looks a lot more like he could be a current tight end in the NFL rather than a guy running an entire team.
One day before his 41st birthday, Snead traded the second overall pick to the Washington Redskins for three firsts and a second.
2012 John Schneider:
|75||Russell "F*%#ing" Wilson||QB||32||31|
It's Schneider's third draft now and it's just becoming child's play at this point.
Though the argument could be made that they were wrong about the future "incrediblosity" of Irvin's abilities as a pass-rusher (I still think he's a fine player, but maybe not the best player they could have drafted in hindsight and the picks they used to move down (Howard and Lane) haven't been so impressive) it's pretty clear that Schneider has got-it-goin'-on.
Wagner has the highest AV of any player drafted in the second round that year. Though Lavonte David went 11 picks later and just put together one of the best seasons of anyone last year, nobody is upset with Wagner. I don't think.
All of the picks after the third round are more of what we'd come to expect of an average GM, not Schneider, but still you've got a backup running back, a starting guard, a cornerback that's going to compete to start this season, a linebacker who is going to make his third attempt to make the team (though still with the team), and a defensive end/tackle that was impressive in short bursts as a rookie. Only two out of 10 players are off the team, and you'll see in a moment with San Francisco how nice that is compared to the alternative.
But I intentionally glossed over the coup of the 2012 draft: Russell Fucking Wilson.
After 74 players were chosen, Schneider convinced everyone in the war room that the player who would lead them to the promised land was Wilson, and he did. And it only took two years. And Wilson is pretty much a top-10 (or top five) QB after two seasons in pretty much any category you can think of. And he's got more career AV than anyone in the draft, including two of the best QB prospects of the last 10 years.
So if you ignored the entire draft except Wilson, the Seahawks would still get an overall "A" grade for that pick alone. Except they also picked up a great starting linebacker, an intriguing pass-rusher, and the best pick of the seventh round just for shits and sheezys.
How'd the other two guys do?
2012 Trent Baalke:
/Baalke gathers his staff for a Tuesday meeting.
"Gather around everyone, gather 'round. Have a seat. Sit down, Vic. Vic. Vic. VIC! Thanks, Vic. Listen everyone, we got the numbers back from our 2012 draft and I have some bad news... A.J. Jenkins has more career starts than anyone else we drafted that year."
/Jim Harbaugh squeezes his hat so hard it turns into a diamond.
As of right now (and probably forever) Jenkins is the worst player drafted in the first round. Of everyone drafted in the second round, James has the fewest games played of anyone other than Brock Osweiler. He has a lower career AV of any second round pick other than Isaiah Pead. In the third round, Baalke traded down with the Indianapolis Colts and picked up a fourth and fifth round pick. The player that the Colts chose with that pick was T.Y. Hilton; the best player of the third round that year, save for one. (winky face.)
Looney is still on the team, as a backup. Robinson was released in the final cuts of 2013. Slowey was released in 2012. Fleming tore his ACL shortly after the draft. A year later, he tore his other ACL and was released. Johnson was traded to the Colts for a conditional pick.
Riding high on a successful first season under Baalke and Harbaugh, the 49ers did go to the Super Bowl in 2013. But their rookie class now just consists of a backup running back (like, fourth string), a backup guard, and... nope that's it.
2012 Les Snead:
It's hard not to look at this draft and start to think that finally the Rams are starting to get it, and that Snead has similar philosophies as Schneider. St. Louis moved down again with the Redskins pick, opting to let the Cowboys drafted Morris Claiborne and move down another eight spots and pick up another second round pick.
If they had stayed at two, they could have had Justin Blackmon, Matt Kalil, or Robert Griffin.
If they had stayed at six, they could have had Claiborne, Mark Barron, Luke Kuechly, Dontari Poe, Fletcher Cox, or Michael Floyd.
Instead they pick up Brockers, a player that has more career AV than any of the next 32 players drafted until you hit Wagner at 47th overall. And while Kuechly is amazing, right now Snead's moves down look pretty amazing when you consider that in hindsight, Brockers might be a top-five talent from that draft. (Currently eighth in career AV from the 2012 class, while noting that QBs naturally get more AV so he's behind Ryan Tannehill.)
But also impressive is that Snead didn't put all his eggs in one basket, doubling down at the positions he and Fisher really wanted to upgrade. They drafted two receivers and only one of them has worked out. They drafted two corners and one of them was highly impressive. They drafted two running backs and it was the seventh rounder that has done better than the second rounder. (Though Richardson was released recently.)
Still, nobody had more draft capital in 2012. Nobody. It's not even close when you consider that the Rams owned 7.7% of the top 65 picks. And I'd be hard-pressed to believe you wouldn't be disappointed with wasted second round picks on Quick and Pead, especially when you consider that they could have drafted Alshon Jeffery at 45 but traded down again instead.
And at 65 they drafted Trumaine Johnson, instead of drafting a capable backup for Sam Bradford. Say... Russell Wilson?
Go on, say it! Say. My. Name.
If you combined all 27 players drafted by these three GMs in 2012 and ranked them by career AV, the order would start to look like this:
Wilson, SEA, 31
Wagner, SEA, 20
Brockers, STL, 19
Jenkins, STL, 15
Irvin, SEA, 10
Sweezy, SEA, 10
Givens, STL, 10
And you'd have to name 13 players from the Rams and Seahawks until you hit the first pick to rank from the 49ers. Speaking of 13...
In 2013, the Arizona Cardinals hired Steve Keim,
an oil tycoon a person who had been in the front office since 1999 and hasn't known what's it's like to work for a single other team. And yet despite that, he still somehow has found success. (Just ribbing you, Steve!)
Keim was also 40 when he was hired. In fact, all of the NFC West GMs are relatively young. (It's hard to find exact ages and birthdays, but I believe that Baalke is the oldest of the four by only a few years.) A far cry from the 71-year-old Jerry Jones, who still accidentally calls Tony Romo "Roger Staubach" from time to time. (It's just a joke, don't sue me, Jerry!)
(What, you didn't know that all these people read my articles?)
But this wasn't Keim's first rodeo. He had a major part in some actually-good drafts by the Cardinals in his previous 15ish years with the organization. This was just his first chance to have final say. How would he do against three guys that had their own cases to be made as "king shit" of the NFC West? Let's start with the actual king again.
2013 John Schneider:
In addition to the players they drafted, the Seahawks also trade their first round pick (and a seventh and a 2014 third) to the Minnesota Vikings for Percy Harvin. Though we can't judge Harvin as a "draft pick" per se, we can say that Schneider deemed Harvin more valuable than any player he could have drafted at 25 that year, even at the extra cost of a new contract. So it's a draft decision, but I won't judge Harvin as a draft "pick."
Which is too bad, because without him the class was fairly empty in the 2013 season. That being said, it's far too early to actually judge these players and how good of picks they are. There is so much more time left to find out if Williams or Simon or Michael will become great players. They might. So could other guys whose names I didn't mention. That doesn't mean that we can't make some judgments.
We can judge that Harper was a bad pick, because he didn't make the team. Even if he goes on to succeed elsewhere, it ended up being a bad pick for the Seahawks. Seymour and Powell are also gone. But Seattle drafted 11 players and it was guaranteed that they wouldn't all make the roster.
Bowie has the potential to be the steal of day three, and Willson looks like he could develop into a very exciting pass-catcher at tight end. So there's that.
There's a lot more time to judge this draft, I would just say that after one year, it's clearly not having the impact that the 2010, 2011, and 2012 drafts had after only one year. Of course, those teams had a lot more room to give, and so the 2013 class didn't have much of a chance to win playing time. The fact that Bowie made eight starts is more of a sign that the offensive line was decimated by injuries than anything else. Had these guys been drafted in 2011, Simon may have been forced into action earlier, as well as Michael, and they may have not spent a pick on Williams knowing that he wouldn't play.
Still, it's hardly a "bad" draft after just one year. If you want to see a bad draft, revert back to "49ers, 2012." Speaking of San Francisco and the end of times...
2013 Trent Baalke:
Baalke used a third round pick he had acquired the previous year in order to move up and select Reid, which is looking like a pretty great move for San Francisco. Out of the 28 players that Baalke drafted between 2011 and 2013, Reid definitely looks like the second or third best after Smith and Kaepernick. (Note that Baalke's best picks come in the first round or early second, while any players after that have brought very little value to the team. And even then: Jenkins.)
After losing the Super Bowl and trading for Anquan Boldin, the team felt comfortable punting their 40th and 131st picks of the draft. At least for a year, since Carradine and Lattimore were value picks that wouldn't contribute as rookies due to the fact that they were recovering from injuries, but may have otherwise been first round picks. That being said, the healthy players didn't contribute a ton either.
Patton had plenty of opportunities. Why? Because he was a wide receiver on the San Francisco 49ers in the year 2013. He finished with three catches for 34 yards. McDonald played in all 16 games and made eight catches. Luke Willson went 103 picks later and had 20 catches.
Lemonier might be a pass-rusher to "watch" in 2014, but so far we don't know yet what he will be. Dial, Moody, and Bykowski will also compete for jobs this fall. It's not entirely unlike the Seahawks draft for the fact that they didn't have many opportunities last year. The 49ers traded multiple picks for Reid, the Seahawks traded multiple picks for Harvin. Both teams drafted tight ends with potential, both teams had good picks in the seventh round.
The problem with San Francisco's 7th round breakout star? He plays for the Chiefs because Harbaugh cut him last year.
So I can't say either Seattle or San Fran "won" the 2013 draft yet. There were a lot of similarities in their drafts, but San Francisco had a lot more capital. I definitely think that given that information, Baalke should win it in the long run. But will he? Or will it be one of the other guys?
2013 Les Snead:
Snead again has the added advantage of multiple early picks and more jobs to win on the Rams. Still, this is looking like a pretty solid draft for St. Louis no matter how you look at it. All seven players remain on the team, though Bailey has been suspended for four games. Austin flashed brilliance as a rookie, while Ogletree had over 100 tackles, an interception, nine pass deflections, and six forced fumbles(!).
And Stacy had almost 1,000 yards as a rookie, helping fans (and the team) forget about Pead and Richardson.
The Rams went 15-65 in the five years before Snead and Fisher, and have gone 14-17-1 in the two years since. They went 6-4 outside of the division last season.
2013 Steve Keim:
Despite everyone loving the Mathieu pick (rightfully so) the truth is that this was a draft that's been decimated by injuries so far. Cooper missed the season with a broken leg, Okafor missed all but one game with a torn biceps, and Swope has already retired due to concussions. Meanwhile, Kevin Minter was just bad.
The other good pick looks to be Ellington, even though it was Taylor that most were excited about before the season. At this point, the Cardinals still have a terrible running game either way, but the additions of Cooper and free agent tackle Jared Veldheer might change that.
Keim's first official draft is a big, old "who knows!" with one possibly major steal in the third round. Though again, Mathieu's season was cut short by injuries too.
Overall, the Seahawks, 49ers, and Cardinals all sat a ton of their picks from last year due to injuries or just not winning a job. It could produce another major influx of talent into the division this year, or it may never develop that way. We don't know much yet, but we do know that squirrely Snead has the early lead right now.
At least for this one year...
Because as we all know, only one of these guys has produced a Super Bowl-winning team, and Schneider did it by basically bringing in a team almost-entirely constructed by him and Carroll. Baalke inherited some of the most important players on the 49ers, while enhancing it with only a few more guys brought in through the draft.
Snead has done a good job of building through the draft, only really getting the benefit of a few key players (Sam Bradford, Chris Long) that were already there, but the Rams will likely need to make headway -- and the playoffs -- in one of the next two years.
And Keim is simply taking over control of a team he's help build for many years. That being said, I can't exactly give him credit for Patrick Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington, and others, when he was just a part of the machine, not the guy running the controls. He'll be judged the on the personnel moves made since 2013, and so far, Arizona fans have little to complain about from last season.
Especially compared to the previous two decades.
Overall there is no question as to who the best GM is in the best division. Now the question stretches further:
Is John Schneider already the best GM in the whole league?
To be continued (insert ellipses)