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Who's really in charge? NFC South squads seek balance

When it comes to building an NFL roster, hierarchies vary from team to team. Some organizations are driven by general managers, others by owners, a few by head coaches -- and of course, many franchises divvy up checks and balances. Albert Breer takes an in-depth look at all 32 power structures in this eight-part, division-by-division series, which aims to answer one simple question for each NFL team: Who's really in charge? Read the NFC South breakdown below. Click here for other divisions.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Owner: Arthur Blank, 12th year
General Manager: Thomas Dimitroff, 6th year
Head Coach: Mike Smith, 6th year
Other front-office notables: Rich McKay, President and CEO; Lionel Vital, Director of Player Personnel; Nick Polk, Director of Football Operations.

Who's really in charge? Thomas Dimitroff retains final say over all personnel matters, as well as the 53-man roster, while Mike Smith holds control over the final 46-man game-day roster. Though Dimitroff (the son of an NFL scout) and Smith both have old-school foundations, they've transformed the Falcons into a cutting-edge organization that attracts poachers from across the league. And that's partially because the two are connected at the hip when it comes to all decisions, with an emphasis on making consensus-based calls.

In each of the past two offseasons -- with Les Snead going to the St. Louis Rams last year and David Caldwell going to the Jacksonville Jaguars this year -- Dimitroff's top lieutenant has left to become a general manager elsewhere. Next up is Lionel Vital, the team's new director of player personnel, whom many expect to quickly become a GM candidate. It's not a mistake, either, as Dimitroff has made it a priority to mentor young guys who aspire to be GMs, a point of emphasis he saw early on as a young scout working for Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s. Vital has gotten the same open door Snead and Caldwell did to learn about being a GM under Dimitroff; he remains part of the decision-making process until the end, whereas most team operatives in Atlanta peel off about three-quarters of the way through.

Rich McKay serves as a confidant, but his focus of late has shifted to the team's efforts to build a new stadium. Nick Polk handles contracts, with Dimitroff's guidance. And Arthur Blank, from a football standpoint, stewards the Falcons' brand. Smith reports to Dimitroff, and Dimitroff reports to Blank, keeping him informed on football matters. Blank will swoop in on big decisions, having sat down with players like Matt Ryan, Steven Jackson, Dunta Robinson and Osi Umenyiora during contract talks.

An outside perspective from an NFC personnel director: "It's probably one of the better-run organizations in the league: great people, great coaching staff, great scouting staff. ... They can't keep the staff together, and that's a credit to the people there. The system is in place, and everyone believes in the system. Thomas doesn't need to do any 'rah-rah' stuff, because he's surrounded himself with self-motivated guys who aspire to be the best at what they're doing, and aspire to reach the top of their profession. ... Lionel probably gets his shot, and other guys will get plucked soon. ... (The relationship between Smith and Dimitroff) is a true partnership in every sense. Final say's never brought up. At the end of the day, the right decision will be made."

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Owner: Jerry Richardson, 19th year
General Manager: Dave Gettleman, 1st year
Head Coach: Ron Rivera, 3rd year
Other front-office notables: Brandon Beane, Director of Football Operations; Don Gregory, Director of College Scouting; Mark Koncz, Director of Pro Scouting.

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Who's really in charge? The structure of the Panthers' front office isn't as complicated as that of some other teams. So, as was true of former GM Marty Hurney during his 11 seasons in Carolina, Dave Gettleman (the longtime New York Giants personnel man) has final say over all football matters, including the 53-man roster. Gettleman reports directly to owner Jerry Richardson. Ron Rivera reports to Gettleman -- and the relationship between them is still a work in progress.

The two actually first met over breakfast the day after Gettleman was hired. In the time since, Gettleman has leaned on his own experience to catch up on what Rivera and his staff want in players at each position. The new GM is trying to incorporate an inclusive decision-making process, not unlike what he was a part of with the Giants. Both Don Gregory and Mark Koncz were held over from the Hurney regime -- Gettleman liked that Gregory is a "grinder," and he appreciated Koncz's ability to ferret out background info.

For Gettleman, the primary difference between New York and Charlotte might be how ownership operates. Where the Maras are in-the-office owners whose job is football, Richardson has outside businesses to tend to, and he isn't in the building as much. The GM talks with Richardson at least once a week; he has used his boss as a resource, applying his business knowledge to football problems.

An outside perspective from an NFC personnel executive: "My guess is, (Gettleman will) have his own twist on the Giants' system there. He was in Denver and Buffalo, so he has a lot of experience in different places. He's exceptionally smart, and he's a grinder who will play no favorites. He'll keep the guys that deserve it, and work really well with the coach there, and be egoless about it. I think he'll do a lot of things like they've been done in the places he's been. He worked with (Bill) Polian, and Ernie (Accorsi) and Jerry (Reese), with (Mike) Shanahan in Denver, so he's seen it done right. He'll take the best of everything he's learned, be true to his scouting, see what he sees and trust his instincts. And there are some tough decisions coming there, because the structure of the team and its cap are out of whack. ... He's been a grinder -- just does his job and trusted that his reputation would be enough to get him an opportunity. He's a meat-and-potatoes guy, but a very, very three-dimensional guy, who lives, eats and breathes the job, and has a diverse set of skills, but is also spiritual, well-read, a family man and very smart."

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Owner: Tom Benson, 29th season
General Manager: Mickey Loomis, 12th year
Head Coach: Sean Payton, 8th year
Other front-office notables: Rita Benson LeBlanc, Vice Chairman/Owner; Khai Harley, Director of Football Administration; Ryan Pace, Director of Pro Scouting; Rick Reiprish, Director of College Scouting.

Who's really in charge? It's easy to forget that, for all of the success that head coach Sean Payton has had, it was actually Mickey Loomis who led the charge on hiring him. And it's Loomis who retains power over all personnel decisions, including the 53-man roster. But because Loomis' background is on the cap and contract side of things, as a GM, he's a consensus-builder who leans on Payton, as well as Ryan Pace and Rick Reiprish.

All that said, this is very much Payton's show, and his fingerprints are all over the roster. The coach has defined an identity for the franchise, working extensively with the GM to find players who fit -- not just from an on-the-field standpoint, but also in the locker room. Payton ultimately reports to Loomis, who sometimes serves as a buffer between the coach and Rita Benson LeBlanc. Tom Benson, at his advanced age, isn't quite as involved as he used to be.

Lieutenants like Khai Harley -- who handles the cap and contracts -- Pace and Reiprish might be even more important now, with Loomis splitting his time between the Saints and the Benson family's other major sports property: the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans.

An outside perspective from an NFC personnel director: "I've always admired the way they do it, getting the right guys to fit exactly what they do. They take chances, and guys can resurrect themselves there. I really admire Sean, and I admire Mickey, too. For Mickey to be the GM and stay out of the way, and let Sean do it, that's why they win. They have a certain type of guy that fits the coach. Sean is aggressive, and so are his players. Drew Brees wasn't Drew Brees until he got to New Orleans. That goes hand-in-hand with Sean; he told Drew, 'You have to be aggressive like that.' Also, Harley does a good job there, in emphasizing drafting ahead of needs. ... It's a totally different culture, the way they practice, how they prepare. They just have football guys in that locker room; they hold each other accountable and they all want to be the best."

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Owner: Malcolm Glazer, 19th year
General Manager: Mark Dominik, 5th year
Head Coach: Greg Schiano, 2nd year
Other front-office notables: Dennis Hickey, Director of Player Personnel; Mike Greenberg, Coordinator of Football Administration; Butch Davis, Special Assistant to the Head Coach.

Who's really in charge? The Bucs ran a coach-driven system for seven years under Jon Gruden. The end result -- an aging roster in need of an overhaul -- led the Glazers to make the move to Mark Dominik, who has full decision-making power over personnel and final say on the 53-man roster. Greg Schiano has control over the 46-man game-day roster and oversees his own staff.

In the end, the idea is for the two sides to work together on building the team. Gruden had a reputation in Tampa for getting upset when the club couldn't or didn't get a player he wanted, which, some believe, was a big part of the reason that the Glazers built a division of power into the organization. Dennis Hickey, who is considered a prospective GM candidate in league circles, has become a trusted No. 2 for Dominik, while Butch Davis, for whom Schiano worked at the University of Miami, is the second-year coach's closest confidant.

Despite the Glazers' shared time with the English Premier League's Manchester United soccer team, the family has remained intimately involved in the Buccaneers' affairs, with Malcolm's three sons (Bryan, Edward and Joel) overseeing the franchise. Dominik and Schiano both report to them, further illustrating how things are split up within the organization.

An outside perspective from an NFC personnel executive: "I've always been a fan of Mark. He's been there, he's had a prominent role with the club for a while, and he's always done a good job in personnel. He's got a good scout's eye, and he's a good communicator. I can't imagine he doesn't have a good relationship with the coach, despite what you might've heard. Schiano, I've heard stories about how often he turned over the staff at Rutgers, and that those guys that were pursuing jobs out there worried about that. ... We always knew, when he was at Rutgers, he was a relentless recruiter; he was gonna go into different areas people hadn't before to get kids, and do things others didn't there before, which is good. He plays the role of the tough-ass, and he wants his team the same way. What you see, it's pretty accurate in portraying who he is."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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