There are hidden gems in every quality organization, exceptional executives who go largely overlooked. They seek, and receive, little limelight or fanfare, are outshined by others and keep a decidedly low profile.
They have so much to do with the franchise's success, and, frankly, most teams revel in the individual's relative obscurity. It makes it less likely the exec will get noticed for general manager openings and, if the team is lucky, they'll manage to keep the person around for years after they are qualified for more prominent, higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
But in this time of year, just before the NFL begins purging itself of staffs, and on the cusp of what could be an offseason of great front-office turnover, it's appropriate to shine a light on some of those men. And it's also worthwhile to point out some of the many highly-qualified candidates who have the misfortune of being out of the league for the past year or two but who, based on merit alone, should be helping to oversee a club's personnel.
For all the talk about impending coaching changes, this appears to be a year where significant general manager maneuvering could be afoot. And with so many teams needing to reshape their future and rebuild for the future, the role of the general manager will be vital in any progress they make.
If I had to initiate such a venture, looking for a young, bright, dynamic face of my front office, I'd probably start with Omar Khan, Pittsburgh's director of business and football administration. Khan, 35, moved through the ranks with the Saints and Steelers, one of the key behind-the-scenes figures for the franchise. He's helped the small-market team engineer strong contracts, manage the salary cap, cultivate relationships with agents and rival execs around the league and is thought of highly on all fronts.
Good luck finding much about him in the media guide or locating too many pictures of him -- he's precisely the kind of right-hand man Pittsburgh's expert GM, Kevin Colbert, would hope to have around for a long, long time. But Colbert also knows how hard Khan has worked to beef up his skills on the football side of things, studying the game from beyond just the business perspective. People tell me Khan is a quick study, very insightful, but also smart enough to know what he doesn't know, not threatened by those with a deep scouting background, understanding the importance of hiring independent thinkers to help run personnel and not yes-men. Many of the younger GMs in the league, especially those with more of a cap background than a hardcore scouting resume, feel threatened by the grizzled scouts, but I wouldn't see that being a problem with Khan.
Teams like the Dolphins and the Jets, who may not make a front-office move, would be wise to keep him in mind if they did. From what I have heard, former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, who is aiding the Panthers in their GM search, is pushing long-time Giants exec Dave Gettleman. But that would be another spot when pairing a young GM with a young coach like Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy makes sense as well. Khan was a finalist for Seattle's GM opening a few years back before essentially pulling out (as did Baltimore's Eric DeCosta, who at this point isn't leaving the Ravens as their GM-in-waiting), and several teams have approached Khan in recent years.
(Indianapolis' Tom Telesco is very similar to Khan in background and growth, has been sought after by teams in recent years and is coveted by owner Jim Irsay, but it's only a matter of time until he is running his own team as well, I suspect).
I continue to hear that it is likely the Browns do not retain Tom Heckert in their GM role, with sources saying former Browns, Raiders and Eagles personnel man Mike Lombardi is a top candidate for this job -- something I first reported back in September. Lombardi worked for Browns CEO Joe Banner with the Eagles, and Banner respects his talent-evaluation skills. I also hear the new Browns regime has reservations about quarterback Brandon Weeden, who looks like he was highly over-drafted in the first round, and trading up for Trent Richardson in the top five, in an era of so much depth at that position, has raised some questions as well (Richardson has hardly been the most explosive back in this draft class).
Dave Gettleman, who is New York's pro personnel analyst, has quality credentials as well. He isn't talked about in the media as much as other members of New York's front office, with Mark Ross getting lots of attention and some interviews in recent years -- another hidden gem. But if Panthers owner Jerry Richardson skews a little older, and wants more experience, Gettleman's 15 years with the Giants and 25 years in the league go a long way. Frankly, I'm baffled Giants assistant GM Kevin Abrams isn't talked about more. He's ready for the big stage as well, and is another of the low-profile guys who help make a winning organization great.
Jacksonville is virtually certain to make a change, with general manager Gene Smith a holdover from the prior ownership regime, former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert not worthy of playing ahead of Chad Henne and the team flirting with the first-overall pick. I would expect the beefed-up front office to include some new-school execs, steeped in statistical analytics and Moneyball thinking -- owner Shahid Khan's son, Tony, is a big proponent of that movement in this sport. But they're going to need some old-school evaluators as well, and sources said San Francisco's director of player personnel has been recommended highly to them. Tom Gamble was in the mix for Oakland's opening last year and has experience working for forward-thinking bosses, in the 49ers CEO, Paraag Marathe.
Buffalo is languishing again, and could be in need of a change at the top. Doug Whaley, formerly of the Steelers, would be considered for a promotion from his assistant GM position, league sources suggested, if Buddy Nix is let go.
Arizona could have a shake-up of the coaching staff and front office, Sunday's much-needed win over Detroit notwithstanding, perhaps putting longtime GM Rod Graves in a different position. Many I speak to believe the team's assistant GM, Steve Keim, would be the successor, and Carolina could be a team that seeks to interview him this offseason.
Likewise, few would be surprised if San Diego promoted Jimmy Raye from within, and perhaps even Tennessee with exec Lake Dawson, as other clubs have talked to those two men about general manager positions in the past. (Miami would be very, very wise to consider assistant general manager Brian Gaine for its GM job should the tumultuous tenure of Jeff Ireland come to an end).
Houston's director of college scouting Mike Maccagnan has continued to garner more attention for his work under GM Rick Smith, and I expect will get opportunities to interview elsewhere for GM jobs starting this offseason.
As for those more well-known entities, several league sources expect Bill Polian to be a lead candidate in Kansas City if a regime change is made there, with he and his son Chris, the former Colts GM, able to run the franchise in a very hands-on manner, which is in line with how owner Clark Hunt traditionally delegates responsibility.
And I cannot understand why veteran personnel men like Bobby DePaul and Bill Kuharich aren't helping assemble rosters for an NFL team. DePaul made savvy acquisitions of veterans like Thomas Jones and Jay Cutler during his long stint with the Bears, yet was a scapegoat from former GM Jerry Angelo, whose failings in the draft had much more to do with the team's issues (DePaul was a pro personnel director -- a young buck like Khan or Telesco would be wise to bring him in if they get their shot atop a team).
Take a look at the young players who Chiefs GM Scott Pioli has rewarded with contract extensions since taking over in Kansas City -- most of them were drafted by Kuharich during his stint there as vice president of player personnel. It's ridiculous how quickly this league casts aside and turns away from accomplished evaluators, and without a doubt some of it has to be with the movement to younger general managers.
But you'll never convince me that guys like this wouldn't bolster a franchise, a set of qualified eyes to foster decision making, voices not afraid to give an honest opinion at a time when, sadly, that's frowned upon in many organizations that seem more focused on group-think and self-preservation than assembling the best front office possible.