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NFL general manager candidates: new names and familiar faces

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Associated Press
Tom Heckert (left) seeks a second chance as a GM. Nick Caserio (center) and Eric DeCosta (right) are risers to watch.

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» Why Johnny Manziel will make a positive first impression as Cleveland's starter.
» Darrelle Revis isn't the only Patriots defensive back in line for a healthy payday.
» Despite popular opinion, Sam Bradford could begin next season as the Rams' starting QB.
And much more, beginning with the top GM candidates in a complex market. ...

Last season's NFL champion was coached by a man who once was fired by the Jets and later was canned by the Patriots. In the Super Bowl, he beat a coach who was fired by the Panthers. And that coach, to get to the big game, beat another coach who long ago was whacked by the Browns.

The point here? Forever, NFL wisdom has held that coaches can benefit long-term from getting the ax.

So why doesn't that go for general managers, as well?

We briefly addressed the question in this notebook a few weeks back. And in the time since, feedback from league folks has rolled in, flowing right into the time of year when my annual "Future General Managers" list runs.

The fact remains, Washington Redskins GM Bruce Allen is the only man in that position that has held the same title somewhere else, which is striking when you count up the nine NFL head coaches who are in second-chance situations, and even more amazing when you look at retread success stories like Ron Wolf, Ernie Accorsi, Bobby Beathard and Bill Polian.

"All these second-chance head coaches, you always hear, 'Well, they learned so much from the experience,' " one current general manager said. "It's like any other job. The second-chance head coaches -- (John) Fox, (Andy) Reid, (Bill) Belichick -- they are better for the experience. It's like Jay Gruden said, he didn't realize the enormity of the job when he took it. For a GM, you have to manage departments, assess value. It's bizarre to me that you wouldn't want someone with experience."

One NFC executive laid out three reasons for this to us:

1) In the past, there has been less turnover in GM jobs than with coaches.
2) There are fewer young GMs than young head coaches, so fewer go back into the cycle.
3) There's less of a natural progression back after being fired, where coaches can immediately rebuild their reputation as coordinators. (Ken Whisenhunt's arc from 2012 to '14 is a good example.)

The executive then speculated that things could change this year, because two of the above conditions have shifted. The cycle has accelerated -- so fewer GMs are getting second shots at hiring coaches or drafting quarterbacks -- and there are more front-office folks in their late 30s and early 40s. That means the market for a new GM -- and there could be a half-dozen or so teams seeking one in a few weeks -- is more complex than it's been.

So with that in mind, we're presenting our candidates for 2015 in two groups: the second-chancers and the first-timers:

SECOND-CHANCERS

Mark Dominik, ESPN analyst: Was a Buccaneers lifer before being shown the door at the end of last season, so Dominik was part of a championship group early on and built a team that still has young talent. His downfall as GM in Tampa Bay was striking out on his first draft pick -- quarterback Josh Freeman -- which seriously set the franchise back.

Tom Heckert, director of pro personnel, Denver Broncos: Something of a victim of circumstance in Cleveland, Heckert built the foundation for a contending Browns team -- and he sparkled as an evaluator prior to that in Philly. In Denver, the team's success in free agency says plenty about Heckert. He did have a DUI arrest in 2013.

Jeff Ireland, consultant: Last year, CBS Dallas did a study, based on games played and starts, that ranked Miami as the NFL's top drafting team from 2009 to '13. And Ireland drafted Ryan Tannehill between Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden during that run. He wasn't perfect, but he was better than you think.

Scot McCloughan, consultant: McCloughan left Trent Baalke and, later, Jim Harbaugh with an incredibly talented team that made three straight NFC title games in San Francisco and was the righthand man to Seahawks GM John Schneider as Seattle became a champion. The Raiders could be a fit here.

Scott Pioli, assistant GM, Atlanta Falcons: Pioli's time in Kansas City carried off-field drama, but the on-field cupboard he left Andy Reid was fairly full. He drafted or re-signed nine Pro Bowl players in K.C. and left the new regime with $20 million in cap space. It wouldn't be shocking if the Jets inquired here.

Mike Tannenbaum, coaching agent: A hard run at a title after consecutive AFC title game appearances left the Jets in a tough spot after his ouster, but he got the team there in the first place and fostered an inclusive environment that people in that building have learned to appreciate in the two years since.

Brian Xanders, senior personnel executive, Detroit Lions: As Broncos GM, Xanders built the roster that lured Peyton Manning, with Demaryius Thomas among the franchise-level talents acquired. And in Detroit, he's spearheaded an effort to modernize the scouting operation and was part of a coaching search.

FIRST-TIMERS

Chris Ballard, director of player personnel, Kansas City Chiefs: Pulled his name out of the Tampa search last year, and he will probably be the first guy on a few lists. Has extensive experience in both college and pro scouting.

Nick Caserio, director of player personnel, New England Patriots: Many took his Dolphins interview in January as a signal that he's ready to seriously consider leaving Foxborough. Instrumental in Belichick's recent Patriot makeover.

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Eric DeCosta, assistant GM, Baltimore Ravens: Not a whole lot needs to be said about DeCosta, who has Ozzie Newsome's job waiting for him. It'd take a gold-standard gig (see: Giants) to pry him from that.

Brian Gaine, director of pro personnel, Houston Texans: Was a candidate for recent openings with the Rams, Jets and Dolphins, and is a trusted voice in the building of the new Bill O'Brien regime.

Tom Gamble, vice president of player personnel, Philadelphia Eagles: Carries a big stick as an evaluator for Chip Kelly and played a major role in the Niners' recent revival. The Jets interviewed him in 2013 and could circle back.

Will McClay, assistant director of player personnel, Dallas Cowboys: McClay has ascended to the top of the personnel department in Dallas. And with the Cowboys' resurgence, he should become a hot name.

Terry McDonough, vice president of player personnel, Arizona Cardinals: Worked for Belichick in Cleveland and Newsome in Baltimore, and the Cardinals' success has restored his rep after some tough years in Jacksonville.

Rick Mueller, director of pro personnel, Philadelphia Eagles: Mueller's work has flown under the radar, but he's a valued voice in Philly. And he played a big role in putting Sean Payton's Saints in position to routinely contend.

Ryan Pace, director of player personnel, New Orleans Saints: You never hear much about Pace -- and that's by design. But he leads the personnel side under GM Mickey Loomis, and has drawn interest in the past.

Jon Robinson, director of player personnel, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Robinson spearheaded solid Patriots drafts in 2010, '11 and '12, and joined Tampa in May. Some believe he could eventually land in Houston.

Matt Russell, director of player personnel, Denver Broncos: Widely regarded as one of the NFL's best evaluators of college talent, Russell is a confidant of John Elway on all decisions. Like Heckert, he has a 2013 DUI to explain.

Duke Tobin, director of player personnel, Cincinnati Bengals: Like McClay, Tobin works in an owner-centric model, and has played a substantial role in stocking a very talented roster.

Lionel Vital, director of player personnel, Atlanta Falcons: A Tampa finalist last year, Vital occupies the spot that current GMs Les Snead and David Caldwell once filled. Like McDonough, has a Belichick/Newsome pedigree.

Eliot Wolf, director of pro personnel, Green Bay Packers: Ron Wolf's son would be very young (32) to be a GM, but he is considered a rising star in the business. The success of John Dorsey and Schneider certainly doesn't hurt.

Four downs

1) Teddy Bridgewater keeps building. Bridgewater's unspectacular raw numbers (61.9 completion percentage, 2,136 yards, 10 TDs, eight INTs) will probably keep him from winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, but those in Minnesota believe he deserves consideration. And how he won the game last week against the Jets is a fantastic example of why. Early in the game, Rex Ryan brought a cover-zero blitz that the offense wasn't ready for -- and afterward, on the sideline, the coaches and Bridgewater talked about it. Next time around, they decided, a check to a receiver screen would be perfect to combat Ryan's pressure look. A couple hours later, in overtime, the Vikings were facing third-and-5 from their own 13, where a mistake could end the game. The play call got in late, and Ryan's defense showed a cover-zero blitz later. What did Bridgewater do? Killed the original play call, checked to the screen, executed it perfectly and watched Jarius Wright streak up the sideline for an 87-yard touchdown. Given the pressure of the situation, the time constraints and the mental processing needed, it was a pretty impressive play by a pretty impressive rookie. He's still not perfect, and the Vikings would like to see him put on some weight in the offseason. But he hasn't had the kind of unsightly game that rookie QBs often do, and he rarely -- if ever -- has a bad practice day, all of which would indicate that he'll keep getting better. And might even deserve that look for OROY.

2) Lifting the curtain on Johnny Manziel. It's tough to predict whether the Browns will make the playoffs in a jumbled AFC North and a crowded conference race for wild cards. But it's a pretty good bet that those in Cleveland will finish the season feeling good about Manziel -- thanks, in large part, to the presence of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Just as he did with Robert Griffin III during his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign in 2012, Shanahan has implemented elements of Manziel's college offense in Cleveland, and the Browns will carry the element of surprise into every game from here on out. We've seen -- both in Washington and San Francisco -- that the long-term viability in doing this is fleeting. But on a short-term basis, it generally works. And the players believe that, too. Josh Gordon said to me, "I think he's got enough, he's got what we need right now to move forward and pull off these last three wins." When I asked what he meant, the receiver responded, "He's willing to do anything, extend a play, and make something out of nothing. That mindset isn't in everybody. A lot of guys will quit, take a sack or throw the ball away. That's not what he does." The defensive players saw that, too, when Manziel guided the scout team over the first 14 weeks of the season. "You see him being Johnny Football," Donte Whitner told me. "You don't see him trying to duplicate anybody's quarterbacking style, just sitting in the pocket. If something's not right, you see him using his instincts and his intangibles, breaking the pocket. That's where I can see growth." And that's on the scout team. Suffice it to say, the Browns aren't going to be fun for opposing defenses to play. "It's a nightmare," Whitner said, with a sly smile.

3) Saints' problems are apparent. New Orleans' offense hasn't been the best of the Sean Payton era, but it's very clear that defense is where the fix needs to come. The Saints are 31st in total defense, 31st in yards allowed per play, 29th in run defense, 30th in yards allowed per carry, 29th in pass defense, 27th in yards allowed per pass play and 30th in scoring defense. That's across-the-board ineptitude. And going back to my notes, I thought this quote from Kenny Vaccaro, provided before last week's 31-point home loss to Carolina, was interesting: "We were hearing Super Bowl. We were hearing all that. Our heads were in the magazines a little. To fix it? I don't know. We've got the same players as last year, (when we had a) top-five defense. We brought in a ballhawk (Jairus Byrd). We gotta keep improving, we gotta win these last few games. But it's gonna be in the offseason -- I think it's gonna start there. It's just a mentality, start from scratch again, kinda like the 2012 and 2013 seasons. I came in here, everyone said we were the worst defense. You gotta treat every game like that, though. Can't get complacent, I think a little bit of that happened after we played so good last year. Guys were thinking we made it. We hadn't." Vaccaro did later allow for the possibility that the group could catch fire late in the year, but the fact that he thought his unit would need an offseason to fix some of the issues is a pretty good indication that larger change is coming -- something that has certainly been indicated in Sean Payton's messaging since the Carolina loss. Jobs are very much on the line.

4) Paid leave an issue. Earlier in the fall, one prominent quarterback was in touch with union officials to express concern over the idea of paid leave being built into the new personal conduct policy, allowing for players to be punished before their cases are adjudicated. After seeing Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson placed on the Exempt/Commissioner's Permission List, the scenario this QB was concerned about set up like this: Say a star teammate gets arrested on a Thursday or Friday, and sits Sunday, before being cleared by police shortly thereafter. As the argument here goes, because of the importance of each game, that kind of circumstance could lead to a season-altering loss. That hypothetical raised by this particular player is the reason why, over time, the concept of paid leave for violent crimes figures to be an interesting one to follow. The flip side of the argument here is pretty simple: It's incumbent on players now to avoid situations where they'd have to worry about being targeted. And most guys do anyway. But it's not so difficult to envision something like the above unfolding, which is why this part of the policy -- formalizing the action taken in the Hardy and Peterson cases -- merits watching in the same way the commissioner's role in discipline does. Of course, both the league and players' union had a chance to rework all aspects of the policy during the 2011 CBA negotiations. Clearly, the events of the summer and early fall had both sides reaching for the reset button on that inaction.

Three checkdowns

1) It's easy to see that Darrelle Revis could command $16 million a year on the open market in March, but he's not the only player in the Patriots' secondary set to cash in on the team's defensive renaissance. Devin McCourty's ability to play as a single-high safety has facilitated an ultra-aggressive style across the board. He's not quite Earl Thomas, but New England's asking him to do a lot of the things Seattle asks of its All-Pro.

2) If the Falcons do wind up switching coaches in the offseason, this past Monday night provided a vivid display of why that job will be attractive. Julio Jones' talent is obvious, and he's a major building block. But it's Matt Ryan's ability that is most enticing. One head coach I respect intimated to me over the summer that, of the under-30 quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Ryan are the two he'd want most.

3) Indications out of Waco have long held that Art Briles wouldn't leave the state of Texas for a job, NFL or otherwise, but I'd imagine that won't stop teams from trying to lure him out over the coming weeks. Why would he do it? Well, it's possible the challenge would intrigue him. And for NFL teams, bringing a spread-offense wizard to the pros could help in developing a young quarterback.

Two college players to watch Saturday

As we always do during this week, with no college games on the docket beyond Army-Navy, we'll highlight a pair of Heisman finalists. And since we've already studied all three Heisman finalists in past Notebooks, this is more of an update on the stock of these two:

In a weekly series, draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah polls five NFL personnel executives about college football's top prospects.

1) Amari Cooper, wide receiver, Alabama: Cooper clearly established himself as the nation's best wideout and the go-to guy on the No. 1 team in the country, absolutely thriving in a Lane Kiffin scheme that churned out monster seasons for Robert Woods and Marqise Lee at USC. So, what's the problem? Well ... "He's an easy route runner," one AFC area scout said. "Not a lot of wasted movement, solid hands, good speed. But I wouldn't say he's elite. He does a lot of things really well. He just doesn't do anything with a 'Wow' factor like (Sammy) Watkins, (Mike) Evans or (Odell) Beckham last year. The best thing he may be able to do is run after the catch." So add that all up, and you have a receiver who's good at everything, but not special in any one area. And that's where he falls victim to the rep that 'Bama's grown for players under Nick Saban -- because they're so well-coached, they're already maxed out at the college level. Cooper's case should be interesting, because he might not quite be the prospect that those aforementioned wideouts were, but he seems to have a high floor and, in all likelihood, will be the first receiver taken.

2) Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Oregon: It's hard to imagine having a better reputation coming into the NFL than Mariota will -- and assuming both he and Winston come out, the stark contrast in that area between the two will be as obvious as the difference in the weather of their locales. "He's the best quarterback (in college)," one AFC college scouting director said. "He's an athlete, he has size, a strong arm, he's smart, and he has all the intangibles. ... He has all the tools." The director then mentioned that Mariota has done it this year with more youth at the skill positions and said he expects to give Mariota a significantly higher grade than he gave RGIII in 2012. The one issue here is his pedigree in a spread, given the issues of Griffin and Colin Kaepernick, but most NFL folks think (hope?) he can make the transition. Like Blake Bortles last year, Mariota's capable of convincing a team he'll be able to figure it out. "I'm not sure that the spread's been the problem with those guys," one NFL quarterbacks coach said. "I mean, go back to Drew Brees -- he played in a spread offense in college. That was the spread then, they threw it 83 times in one game. And I don't think that guy's struggling because of the spread." Point is that being the right kind of guy is important. By all accounts, Mariota is that.

Extra point

The Rams entered this year with the youngest roster in the league for the third consecutive season. And it would seem that next year would be earmarked for the breakthrough -- if only we knew who the quarterback would be.

What I didn't expect back in August was that there'd be a good chance for Sam Bradford to still be the answer -- not after he blew out his ACL for a second straight year, and not with the team on the hook for $12.99 million in salary and $16.85 million in cap dollars for 2015.

But according to numerous team sources, the possibility is very real that the Rams enter next September with Bradford back as their starter. While the financials still need to be worked out, Bradford's ahead of schedule in his rehab and has been a constant around the facility and on road trips as he's worked to get healthy. He's also the only quarterback the team has under contract beyond the end of this season.

When I talked to Jeff Fisher about this on Tuesday, he didn't want to go in-depth on the plans at the position going forward. But he did offer clarity on whether he wants Bradford back: "Of course. He's the only reason I took this job, that and the owner. We'll get something worked out there."

That said, the Rams understand that they need to protect themselves, so they'll at least look at the idea of taking a quarterback early in the draft and almost certainly take one at some point.

No matter who's under center next season, he figures to be in a pretty good spot, with a potentially dominant defense, and a strong running game making it so the triggerman doesn't need to be Joe Montana to win games.

"It's coming," Fisher said of the roster's progress. "The thing about this team, to a man, they'll tell you they've got eight games left in their legs. And that's because they're doing the right things."

Thursday night's loss provided a good example, though, of what issues at quarterback can do to a team. And that's why so much still hinges on how the Rams handle the next few months.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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