In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):
» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 14.
» Why the Cleveland Browns are in pretty good shape.
» Which division will be the NFL's best in 2013.
» And much more, beginning with his annual look at the NFL general managers of the future ...
I spent the majority of the first 40 days of this calendar year with the New York Giants, covering much of their run to a fourth Lombardi Trophy. When you're around a team that way, you pick up on things.
Here's one: Everyone working for the Maras' proud franchise seemed to be happy to be there.
This includes the coaches, led by Tom Coughlin, who fell hard for the franchise in the late 1980s as a Bill Parcells assistant and returned a decade-and-a-half later. It includes the players, guided by Eli Manning, whose family helped orchestrate his draft-day trade there in 2004. And it includes the front office, captained by general manager Jerry Reese, a grinder who was weaned on the team's ways as a young scout and rose steadily to the top of the flow chart.
So this is where I'll start my fourth annual "Future GMs" column, by looking at what teams are seeking. The Carolina Panthers' job is open, and the Cleveland Browns' is expected to be. Three other teams, I'm told, have launched the preliminary stages of a search, even with their current GM still in place. There could be plenty of openings.
With solid early returns on young GMs like Thomas Dimitroff (Atlanta Falcons), John Schneider (Seattle Seahawks), Ryan Grigson (Indianapolis Colts), Rick Smith (Houston Texans, Trent Baalke (San Francisco 49ers), and Les Snead (St. Louis Rams), a pattern has become clear and a mold has been cast for owners: Find the consensus-builder, the unifier, the personality manager. That gives you the best chance to build what Reese and the Giants have, which is a healthy work environment for everyone.
"You have to be able to manage people, to trust people, and to trust the relationships you've built," said one NFC GM. "If you make everyone feel like they have a legitimate voice, you've got the best shot to make it work. If you start locking people out of the room, you make it difficult for them to buy in."
There are trends to follow. The importance of the draft -- accentuated now by controlled salaries at the top of the board and the continued failures of "free-agent splash" clubs -- means college scouting matters. But so does pro scouting, which is where ascendant personnel men learn roster management and receive "in the office" experience. And the business side is always vital. However, in the end, the one thing recent history teaches us is that leadership is as essential as any of the other clubs a candidate has in his bag.
"It's all about the team," said an AFC GM. "If you have a guy who's an a-hole, who won't hand anyone the keys, you're not gonna have the true concept of what team is in your building. ... If you're gonna come in and be a Neanderthal, what good is that gonna do? You wanna bring a place together. You want everyone to feel involved. If everyone's a part of it, everyone does their job at a higher level."
Nick Caserio, New England Patriots director of player personnel: New England has done a great job restocking through the draft since 2010. Caserio is due for his shot. Those close to him say he's fantastic. Two questions linger: First, would he leave? And second, would his hyper-intense nature lend itself to leading a department?
David Caldwell, Atlanta Falcons director of player personnel: Considered a young riser, his association with Dimitroff and Snead will help his cause. Caldwell came up on the college side as a trusted aide to Bill Polian and was Dimitroff's hand-picked college director before he moved up to replace Snead.
Eric DeCosta, Baltimore Ravens assistant GM: The first choice of everyone for the past five years. Last year, he had his deal reworked and is basically treated as a GM before he's become one. It'd take a team president-type offer to pry him from Baltimore, where he's set to succeed Ozzie Newsome.
Brian Gaine, Miami Dolphins assistant GM: Miami's been up and down, but one rival GM told me Gaine "really knows what he's doing. And I think he's ready." Gaine has a diverse and varied background and is considered the kind of people person who can be a unifying force.
Tom Gamble, San Francisco 49ers director of player personnel: A name on the cusp, Gamble has pro and college scouting background, as well as coaching experience. He interviewed in St. Louis last year; that the Niners have sustained last season's success only helps his cause.
Dennis Hickey, Tampa Bay Buccaneers director of player personnel: The Buccaneers' rebirth should springboard Hickey into the mix for openings. He's run the draft the past six years for Bruce Allen and Mark Dominik in Tampa, and he came up under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. Another grinder of a scout.
John Idzik, Seattle Seahawks vice president of football administration: Idzik is a sleeper to keep an eye on, because of his versatility. He's a business-side guy who runs the team's cap, but he also does some college scouting for Schneider and has a wealth of experience with franchise rebuilds, going back to Dungy's Bucs.
Steve Keim, Arizona Cardinals vice president of player personnel: A big personality who made his bones as an on-the-road scout, he's been knocking on the door for some time. Some believe Cards GM Rod Graves will eventually move into an upper executive role, paving the way for Keim to replace him.
Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers director of football and business administration: Long seen as Bill Cowher's GM, Khan might now be less inclined to wait on a coach who might never come back. A really good leader who knows the business, Khan might need to be paired with a strong personnel guy, but he can do the job.
Jason Licht, Arizona Cardinals director of player personnel: Licht has a wealth of experience in good organizations, having worked under Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles and served two stints under Bill Belichick in New England. Seen as a capable manager of people, he was a finalist for the GM position with the Chicago Bears last year.
Jimmy Raye, San Diego Chargers director of player personnel: He used to top these kinds of lists, but as San Diego has cooled off, so has his stock. Still, Raye's name came up repeatedly, because of his college scouting acumen and NFL experience and bloodlines. The Spanos family likes him; he could replace current Chargers GM A.J. Smith.
Marc Ross, New York Giants director of college scouting: A finalist in Chicago last year, Ross is in the running for the Panthers job now. The book on Ross: He's a good communicator and evaluator with, as one Giants official put it, "an executive skill set." One question that came up in my research: Can he win the interview with the owner?
Tom Telesco, Indianapolis Colts vice president of football operations:A promotion kept him in Indy last year, but the Colts will have a hard time hanging on to him this time around. He's been essential in a transitional phase, and is seen as an outstanding, detail-oriented evaluator who can lead and listen.
Also getting a mention: Kevin Abrams, Giants assistant GM; Chris Ballard, Bears director of pro scouting; Lake Dawson, Tennessee Titans vice president of player personnel; John Dorsey, Green Bay Packers director of football operations; Ray Farmer, Kansas City Chiefs director of pro personnel; Mike Maccagnan, Houston Texans college scouting director; Ryan Pace, New Orleans Saints director of pro personnel; Tag Ribary, Seahawks director of pro personnel; Louis Riddick, Eagles director of pro personnel; Matt Russell, Broncos director of player personnel; Doug Whaley, Buffalo Bills assistant GM.
Four things I'm looking for in Week 14
1) Adrian Peterson's run for 2,000. At this point, the Vikings' stud needs 554 rushing yards in his final four games, just a tick above his pace through 12 games, to hit 2,000 for the first time in his career. And it's no coincidence -- just about everyone says this is the best he's ever played, which is ridiculous, considering he's less than a year removed from his knee injury. "In a lot of ways, he's better than he was before the surgery," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told me last week. "I never thought I'd say that. But he's done things to make himself better." Frazier said he's a more patient runner. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers concurred, saying, "I think this is the best he's played in the four years I've been here." Peterson agrees, too. What's interesting is that he sees the knee not as an impediment but as a motivator. "I wanna help this team win a championship, that's why I tell people it was a blessing in disguise," Peterson said. "It made me hungrier, it made me work harder than I thought I could work. That's what you're seeing." This week, AD and Co. get the Chicago Bears. While 2,000 yards is square in his sights, his team's playoff visions will fade without a win.
2) Packer people. At the end of last Sunday's win over Minnesota, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers ran into the tunnel and leapt onto tight end Jermichael Finley's back. Finley pivoted and smiled as Rodgers playfully shoved his big target. They did have reason to celebrate -- Finley had recorded six catches, his most since Week 1, and Green Bay had just pulled back into first place in the NFC North. But this one had a little more significance. The disconnect between Rodgers and Finley this season has been well-documented. Finley told me that in an effort to amend that issue, he and Rodgers have been meeting, both professionally and away from football, to bond for 30 minutes here, 40 minutes there, and an hour every Saturday before a game. "It's a relationship," Finley explained. "That's where you get the chemistry going -- he sees what I go through off the field, I see what he goes through off the field. It's great." Getting receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson closer to 100 percent is essential for Green Bay. Getting more from Finley could make the Packers lethal again.
3) Robert Griffin III vs. the Ravens. For the past month, the Washington Redskins have been playing with house money, battling back from a 3-6 start as an underdog that was presumed to have been ousted from contention. Now, as one of the hottest teams in pro football, the Redskins are just a game out of first in NFC East and a game out of the conference's final wild-card spot. In a short week and with regional bragging rights at stake, they get a wounded animal from Baltimore coming down the interstate to fight for its own playoff positioning. Griffin's passing every test. At first, he was putting up big numbers. Now he's winning. On Thanksgiving, he beat Rob Ryan's Dallas Cowboys defense senseless on a short week. On Monday, he won in his first repeat match against a division opponent. And the truth here? He's becoming a regular in this section of the notes, because he's now a must-see player every week.
4) The New York Jets' quarterback situation. Amazing how the Jets stay in the spotlight, even as their season has slipped away. This week, it's for good reason. The quarterback decision is one that will help set the course for the franchise going forward. What's interesting to me is that we really do have a good idea as to what the team has in Mark Sanchez, who's started all 59 games he's played as a pro, and we've got a decent body of work on Tim Tebow (16 career starts), but we really don't know what's there in Greg McElroy. Here's what one AFC exec told me Monday night: "He's a game manager. Smart, good instincts, pocket presence and general awareness. Average arm strength, won't stretch a defense vertically, so they'll be limited in the deep passing game. He has short- to mid-range passing ability and accuracy, but average zip and velocity. He won't win the game with his arm alone, but will be aware of situations and manage the game well. Average mobility, and he can be effective in the three- and five-step pass game, but needs a run game." Asked if he stacks up with Sanchez, the exec responded, "Not in ability, no." Sounds like he'd have been a better fit for the bullying 2009 Jets than the 2012 Jets.
1) Postponing last Sunday's game in Kansas City wouldn't have helped. I've been hesitant to really weigh in on the decision by the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs to stage last Sunday's game at Arrowhead, mostly because I can't fully relate with the suddenness of the tragedy that the players were trying to deal with at kickoff. One veteran Chiefs player raised a good point to me, saying that postponing the game would've done nothing. He said the real debate should've been about whether to cancel the game altogether. He thought there was merit to that idea, but said that postponing to Monday or Tuesday would've just made the weekend more difficult for the players, then left them with no time to process it all, with a short week going into this Sunday's game in Cleveland. I thought that made sense. Another thing I noticed in Kansas City: Players still were iffy on whether or not playing Sunday was a good idea. Even after a win. Linebacker Andy Studebaker might have said it best, in a quiet moment by his locker: "For some guys, it wasn't easy (playing Sunday). I was one of those guys."
2) Whoever's running the Browns next year will have a roster with serious potential. Nine skill guys touched the ball for Cleveland last Sunday. Seven of them were 26 or younger. Five were 24 or younger. And Sunday's stars, receiver Josh Gordon and running back Trent Richardson, are 21 and 22, respectively. The offensive line is anchored by 28-year-old Joe Thomas and 27-year-old Alex Mack. And the defense has building blocks like cornerback Joe Haden (23), tackle Phil Taylor (24), safety T.J. Ward (25), tackle Ahtyba Rubin (26) and end Jabaal Sheard (23). Maybe it's not a Super Bowl team in the making, but add all this to what could be a top-10 pick in 2013 and the coaching and GM jobs in Cleveland look a lot more attractive. The past four years have been disjointed for the Browns, but as it turns out, former coach Eric Mangini and current coach Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert did a pretty good job laying a foundation here. Someone could reap the rewards, particularly if rookie Brandon Weeden really is the answer under center.
3) The Falcons showed a little something last Thursday night. What's remarkable about the job that coach Mike Smith's done in Atlanta is how the team mirrors his steady demeanor. Best example: Over the past three years, the Falcons really haven't suffered a "shocking" upset loss. The closest thing would be a September game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, but Tampa Bay was playing well at the time, it was a divisional game, and it was on the road. The trouble for Atlanta has been turning it up a notch when it matters most. The notion of "swagger" can be overrated -- it should only be a byproduct of winning -- but it's something Smith and Dimitroff took a look at in the offseason. The according adjustments were reflected in the coordinator hires, both Dirk Koetter (on the offensive side) and Mike Nolan (on the defensive side) coming in with reputations as gunslingers. Lo and behold, on the biggest night of the year, the Falcons pick off New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees five times -- twice in the fourth quarter -- and produce an 11-play drive to control the clock in the waning moments, flipping the script on this nasty NFC South rivalry. If Atlanta finally gets that elusive first playoff win for Smith and Dimitroff, I think last Thursday's imperfect triumph could stand as the first sign it was coming.
Two college players to watch on Saturday
1) Kansas State QB Collin Klein (at New York City, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN): No games this weekend, so we'll take a look at a couple of the finalists to be awarded the Heisman Trophy on Saturday. And since we already have a good idea about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o -- a likely first-rounder who will need to prove he can keep up in coverage as a pro -- we're going to focus on the quarterbacks, both enigmas as potential prospects. I spotlighted Klein earlier in the year, and that's where I first heard the comparison to Tim Tebow. Two months later, I figured we could circle back, following a season in which Klein completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,490 yards, 15 scores and seven picks while leading his team to an 11-1 finish. As it turns out, not much has changed in the eyes of evaluators. "He is what he is," said one college scout. "He's not a passer. He's benefitting from playing in an awful conference for defense. If anything, he's come back down to Earth since the earlier part of the season." Then, the scout reminded me, "Eric Crouch was a good college player too."
2) Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel (at New York City, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN): Let's start with this: Johnny Football has been an absolute joy to watch this year, and his artistic brilliance is one thing that's so great about the college game, where varied offenses open the door for his brand of creativity. That said, evaluators look at him with skepticism now, while allowing for the caveat that he has time to grow. "He's 175 pounds," said one NFC exec. "He's Jeff Garcia, just a smaller person. And his arm strength is average at this point. The better comparison might actually be Ty Detmer." Both Garcia and Detmer had solid pro careers, the former as a solid starter and the latter as a valuable backup. Neither were stars. So as fun as it's been watching Manziel play as a redshirt freshman, his continued development will be even more fascinating.
The NFC West will be the best division in football next season. The St. Louis Rams' continued competitiveness against the mighty San Francisco 49ers is no mirage. There's a young base in place for Jeff Fisher now in St. Louis, and a bevy of draft picks for Snead to build with over the next two Aprils. And the Seattle Seahawks, in Year 3 of the Pete Carroll-Schneider regime, are starting to hit their stride with a uniquely built roster.
The Niners, too, remain young. They're here to stay.
That leaves the Arizona Cardinals, who have a talented club that's had its season fire-bombed by unsightly quarterback play. If Graves and coach Ken Whisenhunt find the right triggerman in the spring -- easier said than done, I know -- things could change in a hurry for a franchise that still hasn't recovered from the retirement of Kurt Warner.
Add it all up, and in just four years, the West could well go from sending a 7-9 team to the playoffs to being the most fearsome foursome in the league.