NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):
» Odell Beckham Jr.'s antics surprising to scout, not surprising to opponents.
» Will the Bears move forward with Jay Cutler after all?
» The key to Khalil Mack's breakout season in Oakland.
And much more, beginning with a look at the NFL's power brokers of the future ...
It took the San Francisco 49ers less than a calendar year to go from model franchise to a living, breathing metaphor for dysfunction.
And at the root of it, the problem was this simple: One guy didn't get along with another.
The San Francisco coaching staff became fractured, with some assistants considered by colleagues to be operatives of GM Trent Baalke, and others firmly in Jim Harbaugh's corner. A significant number of coaches didn't trust the trainers or the strength staff, since many of them predated Harbaugh (current Michigan strength coach Kevin Tolbert was one notable exception) and served, in several assistants' minds, as the GM's voice on the ground. Likewise, as the dueling, type-A coach and GM splintered, the locker room fractured.
In January 2014, the Niners were seven points short of consecutive conference titles. Before the calendar year was out, the building had imploded and Harbaugh was gone. A year removed, the Niners are 4-10.
All because two guys couldn't make it work.
That's today's NFL. So as I set out to put together my seventh annual Future GMs list, that's where we'll start: With an explanation of the importance of finding the right partner for whoever on this list winds up getting a shot at one of those coveted spots.
"That is the most important thing," one veteran NFC general manager said. "And it is for multiple reasons. The coach and GM have to share a vision. And once you start that relationship, you have to have clearly defined roles. If it's that [the coach] is coaching and I'm bringing [players] in, once I start to veer and step over that line, everything becomes blurred and dysfunction follows."
The GM continued, "You have to involve your coaches, you have to hear them and make them a part of the process. And the coaches have to be clear with you. Everyone has to check their ego at the door. Now, if the GM and coach don't trust each other, it really is amazing how something so simple can start going backwards because of egos."
In New England, Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, Seattle and Cincinnati, you don't hear about a whole lot of line-stepping -- and it's not a coincidence those clubs keep winning. Conversely, last year, while the Niners became the poster children for power struggles, Philadelphia went through a less-drastic restructure to try and align the football side of its operation. This year, rumblings of such acrimony in Indy and Houston made the idea of change seem inevitable in the former city and possible in the latter.
There's a chicken-and-egg element here, of course: Did failure cause or just reveal the problem? But San Francisco was an example of how quickly a good thing can go bad with a shaky GM/coach rapport.
"It's ----ing huge," another NFC GM said. "It's paramount that the relationship is amicable and respectful and communicative and split down the middle. You really have to have an understanding of and respect for each other's roles, and they have to be well-defined, so there's no tripping up. And you have to understand the coach will be involved in personnel and evaluations, and the coach has to be direct about what they need. It's huge."
So with that in mind, here's our 2016 list, split into three categories (and alphabetized) -- separating those on the cusp from rising stars, and first-timers from possible second-chancers ...
ON THE CUSP
Chris Ballard, director of football operations, Kansas City Chiefs: Could've had the Bucs job in 2014, was close in Chicago last year. Strong evaluator who's waiting for a "true" GM job (with full power/responsibility).
Nick Caserio, director of player personnel, New England Patriots: Caserio just signed a deal last year taking him through the rest of the decade. But that won't stop others from asking -- and Detroit or Cleveland might.
Eric DeCosta, assistant general manager, Baltimore Ravens: DeCosta's flirted in the past, but is content to remain as Ozzie Newsome's heir apparent. He thought about Chicago, and would only leave for a gold-standard job.
Brian Gaine, director of player personnel, Houston Texans: Organized, talented and Parcells-tree-connected, Gaine has become a trusted resource for Bill O'Brien. Interviewed in Miami, St. Louis, Chicago and New York.
Omar Khan, director of football and business administration, Pittsburgh Steelers: Long pegged to be Bill Cowher's GM if Cowher ever were to get back in, Khan's skill with the cap and connections would be valuable to any coach.
Will McClay, senior director of college and pro scouting, Dallas Cowboys: A former coach who's worked his way to the top of the scouting department in Dallas and has influence with the Joneses. But would he want to leave?
Terry McDonough, vice president of player personnel, Arizona Cardinals: Jason Licht's replacement as Steve Keim's right-hand man has a strong reputation as a hard-nosed, fearless evaluator who turns over every rock.
Duke Tobin, director of player personnel, Cincinnati Bengals: Like McClay, Tobin has already reached the scouting peak of an owner-driven operation. He's got a quiet way, but the talent in Cincy speaks for itself.
ON THE WAY UP
Scott Fitterer, co-director of player personnel, Seattle Seahawks: A great communicator and personality just promoted from college director who has helped John Schneider build an outrageously talented young core.
Brian Gutekunst, director of college scouting, Green Bay Packers: If you're Ted Thompson's college director, you're trusted -- the roster there is almost entirely home-grown. Gutekunst has logged lots of time on the road.
Joe Hortiz, director of college scouting, Baltimore Ravens: DeCosta still runs the draft in Baltimore, but Hortiz has had a major hand in the team's success finding guys over the years, and drew interest from Philly last year.
Brandon Hunt, pro personnel coordinator, Pittsburgh Steelers: Guys rarely leave Pittsburgh, but the young Hunt (who replaced Doug Whaley) has gone from out-of-college Steeler intern to pro director in 10 years.
Bob Quinn, director of pro scouting, New England Patriots: In his 16th Patriot season, Quinn has a ton of experience on both the college and pro sides. Detroit is said to be looking for a young up-and-comer. Quinn could be it.
Eliot Wolf, director of player personnel, Green Bay Packers: Only question is if Thompson's top lieutenant is ready. A pro-side guy, over 12 years, Wolf's built a rep separate from his dad, and could well succeed his boss.
Mark Dominik, ESPN analyst: Word is that Dominik is looking to get back in. And given his versatility as a front-office man, Dominik could pair well with a strong coach.
Jeff Ireland, assistant general manager, New Orleans Saints: Ireland built a better roster in Miami than many realized, and his first draft in New Orleans was loaded with guys playing a lot now. Could be promoted there.
Scott Pioli, assistant general manager, Atlanta Falcons: Pioli's been entrusted to run the scouting department in Atlanta, and a look at the roster he left behind in K.C. would indicate he deserves another chance.
Chris Polian, director of player personnel, Jacksonville Jaguars: Polian's played a major role in building a young, talented roster in Jacksonville, and he was part of a lot of wins in Indy. If there's change in Buffalo ...
1) Questions about Beckham. I'll never forget seeing Odell Beckham Jr. at LSU's pro day in the spring of 2014. He was dazzling on the field, for sure. But off it, you got an even more vivid image to take with you: The star speeding through the parking lot of the Tigers' facility in a flashy, tricked-out sports car, despite the fact that you couldn't go five feet without bumping into a scout or a GM from an NFL team. And that's very much Beckham. Talented and flashy and flamboyant and embracing every part of being a star with a blonde mohawk and sleeves of tattoos. "Absolutely," said one AFC scout who wrote him up in college. " 'Metrosexual' was the term I heard thrown around quite a bit." So in the NFL, it's pretty easy to figure what path players are gonna use to try to get in his head: The same one most guys would use when messing with a friend who's meticulous about his appearance, the way Beckham is. That's not to say it's right, but it's one piece of this. The next piece, then, is when the player himself shows cracks, that you can get to him. And that much has been apparent in some games, but not all of them. The Bills, for example, saw Beckham come unglued on tape in a preseason game, and tested him in that regard in October. Describing Beckham's reaction, one Buffalo player said, "It was bad. He was taking swings at guys and generally being a b----." A player on an NFC East rival said he isn't surprised by Beckham's antics, either, and that his club saw them on film, too. On the other hand, just before the Carolina game, the Dolphins had no complaints about Beckham's behavior, which those in Miami thought was because a) close friend Jarvis Landry was on the other team and b) Brent Grimes (who covered Beckham) is quiet on the field. At any rate, there's no question Beckham will deal with opponents baiting him from here on out, the same way schoolkids might mess with the hothead in class, which is interesting because that didn't seem to be Beckham's rep before this year. At LSU, the aforementioned AFC scout said, there was "nothing like this. Nothing malicious about him. No anger problems. No behavioral issues. From what I knew about him as a college player, this sort of stuff is uncharacteristic." And that makes you wonder if Beckham's meteoric rise into mainstream stardom led to this perfect storm -- throw an edgy, angry-playing corner like Josh Norman into that mix, too -- that exploded last Sunday at the Meadowlands.
2) Bridgewater rising. The questions hovering around Teddy Bridgewater's play in November might have been legitimate, but they also were indicative of how impatient we've all become with quarterbacks in general. After all, the guy's slump came in the midst of his crossing of the 20-start threshold. And it was really through the problems he had in the middle of the year that he showed his true colors, putting his faith in those around him. "The biggest thing he's done is trust the process," one Vikings source said. "He stuck with the plan -- and we've had a plan for him since he got here. He stuck with it, and the progress is showing up." The play that might have encapsulated his growth best, as far as the staff saw it, came in the second quarter on Sunday, just before the two-minute warning as the Vikings looked to break the game open. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio gave the quarterback a look he didn't expect on a play-action play. Turning after carrying out the fake, Bridgewater adjusted on the fly and dropped the ball in a small window between Bears linebacker Shea McClellin and safety Chris Prosinski. It landed right on the back shoulder of Mike Wallace for a 34-yard gain. It showed, in one fell swoop, Bridgewater's ability to process quickly and find a better option within the play, keep his eyes downfield with signs of trouble around him and put the ball on a receiver deep. And the quarterback was also on point with the short stuff -- the 173 yards compiled after the catch by the Vikings' skill guys came largely because Bridgewater got it to the right receiver and put it in a spot where that player could keep going without breaking stride. In the end, the numbers really do tell the story. Bridgewater completed 17 of his 20 passes for 231 yards, four touchdowns and no picks in a blowout win over the league's third-ranked passing defense, which is run by one of the most respected coordinators in football. Every young QB has his ups and downs, but the long-term signs are progressively getting better on the Vikings' quiet leader.
3) Miami's coach search. The Dolphins brass -- led by executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum -- has started vetting candidates as it prepares to hire its next coach. Some of the work here has been looking at the decisions of the past to try and set up a brighter future. In particular, the Dolphins have delved into and studied the 2006 and 2009 coaching cycles, because those were the respective years Tannenbaum hired Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan in New York, and so they have institutional knowledge of those years. And part of that will be looking at what the Jets and others missed on available candidates like Jim Harbaugh, Ron Rivera, Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy, all of whom went on to pretty successful runs as NFL head coaches. Additionally, Miami has looked at names that were less popular ones (like Bruce Arians) that worked out to figure out why the market went away from those guys. The overarching idea, of course, is to break the groupthink that envelopes the coaching carousel each year. And because there figure to be as many as a dozen openings, the guys in Miami know that there could be competition for a number of candidates. (One of the reasons Tannenbaum was hired was because of his connections in coaching and ability to land the right one.) So the Dolphins have this to sell: a young, under-contract quarterback; a young group of skill guys led by DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry; foundation pieces for the defense in Ndamukong Suh and Reshad Jones; a league-high 29 players who are 24 or younger; and, of course, the weather and scenery and lack of state income tax. The flipside is that owner Stephen Ross has a checkered rep in the coaching industry (pursued Harbaugh when Tony Sparano was still in place, fired Joe Philbin over the phone). But Ross has shown a willingness to both invest in the product -- the Dolphins basically will have a new stadium next fall -- and stay out of day-to-day football matters. And at least on the surface, it looks like Miami has used its head-start on the 2016 market wisely.
4) Cutler's future. It seemed implausible during this past offseason that Jay Cutler could remain in Chicago in 2016. Now, the possibility seems more real every day. The Cutler of 2015 has belied his long-standing reputation: He's been accessible and approachable to teammates, coaches and front-office folks. And he's made a good, positive impression on coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace, often poking his head in to check in on his bosses. In general, he's more outgoing than he's been, and that's in part attributable to having guys around whom he has a background with (offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains). On the field, two areas of improvement over the course of the season have reflected his commitment best. First, he and Loggains have spent hours upon hours working on eliminating what they call bad turnovers: Mistakes that can be attributed to sloppiness. To that end, Cutler's spent time in drills having bags thrown at him and bodies around him to make sure he keeps the ball tight to his body and that his pocket movement with traffic around him is sound. The upshot: He's eliminated fumbles that aren't a result of bone-crunching or blind-side hits. Second, he's adapted well within the offense to the point where he can now consistently get the unit out of bad situations by changing the play call. The problem here going forward is that Gase, a prime head-coaching candidate, might not be around next year, and that makes it harder to project what Cutler will be at age 33 in 2016. But there is enough positive here to believe that, even if Gase is gone, it'd make sense to keep Cutler at $16 million next year, when $10 million of that is already fully guaranteed. Decision Day is St. Patrick's Day -- if Cutler's on the roster then, the remaining $6 million of his '16 base becomes guaranteed.
1) If Jim Caldwell is fired, he'll have been canned twice with just five seasons (three of them winning seasons) as a head coach under his belt. And consider this: If Detroit wins out, he'll have 18 wins over his two years, which is just one win off the winningest two-year stretch in club history. That's not to say he definitely should survive. That much will be up to the new GM, who will replace a man (Martin Mayhew) who was given more than enough time. It just illustrates how, to some degree, Caldwell has been a victim of circumstance both in Detroit (ownership change prompting organizational overhaul) and Indy (Peyton Manning's injury).
2) The NFL's charge into Mexico has slowed a bit. According to a source, the league expects to have a decision before the Super Bowl on whether or not they'll be holding a 2016 game south of the border, and that decision will largely ride on the readiness of Azteca Stadium to host the players (with a suitable locker room situation), the media (with space for the broadcast network, etc.) and the coaches (with adequate technology for communication). The NFL also needs to find a team to give up a home game -- if the Raiders or Chargers are in a temporary site in L.A., they can be forced to do it -- and work out scheduling and logistics. Meanwhile, in the U.K., the league has started its season-ticket renewal process.
3)The four-year, $42 million deal the Packers struck with DL Mike Daniels represents good value for one very important reason: If they tagged him, they'd have been paying too much to do it. Franchise tags for defensive ends should settle between $15 million and $16 million in February. And so, absent a contract, Green Bay would've had to give Daniels that to keep him off the market. Problem is, Daniels isn't really a defensive end. He's an interior lineman playing end in a 3-4. If he was in a 4-3, he'd be a tackle, and his tag would be $2 million less, which doesn't sound like a ton, but can be when it comes to negotiating leverage. So the Packers erased all that by getting a deal done. Two other guys who set up similar dilemmas for their teams as 3-4 linemen: Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson (up this year) and Eagles DE Fletcher Cox (up next year).
Two prospects to watch in the College Football Playoff
1) Michigan State OT Jack Conklin (vs. Alabama, Cotton Bowl -- Thursday, Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN): Any offensive lineman facing the Tide's front has had his hands full this year, and there's no question this game will be one on which the Spartans' three-year starting left tackle will be judged. Per Michigan State's figures, Conklin has allowed just four sacks in 38 career games (37 starts), but there are other questions about how he'll hold up here and at the next level. "He really struggled in the Oregon game," one AFC college scouting director said. "He needs to get stronger and I really didn't think he was a top athlete. He may be more of a right tackle or even a guard. He's not elite, but he's steady. He needs to improve his strength." Another AFC exec countered that Conklin "is gonna play in the league for a long time," noting that there aren't marked weaknesses in his game. Taking all that into account, if strength is the question, this national semifinal will give him the chance to provide an answer. The scouting director noted that Conklin was overwhelmed at times by Oregon's DeForest Buckner, and didn't have many one-on-one opportunities against Ohio State's Joey Bosa. In this one, he figures to see stout interior men A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed plenty, as well as an array of edge rushers from an Alabama front that moves its pieces around plenty.
2) Oklahoma WR Sterling Shepard (vs. Clemson, Orange Bowl -- Thursday, Dec. 31, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN): Shepard is one of the best stories in college football. His dad was a star at Oklahoma and died when Shepard was 6, at which point first-year coach Bob Stoops and his program took the kid in as their own. He's since grown into one of the most dynamic weapons in college football, as a major contributor in each of his four seasons playing for the Sooners. This year has been the best yet, with Shepard posting 79 catches for 1,201 yards and 11 touchdowns as Baker Mayfield's most-trusted target. And he's now set up to potentially be a solid Day 2 value for someone. "Slot guy -- he's quicker than he is fast," said an AFC area scout assigned to Oklahoma. "Good athlete, good hands, productive. And great character. He's just not very tall or fast, but he's otherwise a very, very good football player." Maybe the biggest question facing Shepard now is what he was up against in the Big 12, which in the opinion of some evaluators isn't much. "The Big 12 isn't known for defense," the area scout said. "It would be nice to see him produce on this kind of stage against a better-than-average defense." In particular, the NFL types in the house will keep a keen eye on his matchups with Tiger sophomore CB Mackensie Alexander.
And it certainly was for defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. This was, to be sure, a shining example of the benefits of the team's plan to have Mack rush more in Year 2 than he did for Dennis Allen's staff as a rookie. But what stuck out to Norton most wasn't that it happened, but how it went down.
"The most impressive thing to me was his consistency," Norton said from his office. "It didn't happen at the beginning of the game. The sacks came at the end of the game. When everyone's supposed to be tired, he just kept coming. He learned the opponent and got better within the game, and got sacks from both sides. And the guys around him provided opportunities he took advantage of."
Indeed, all five of Mack's sacks came in the second half, and three of them went down in the fourth quarter, and that was, in Norton's mind at least, an indication of who Mack is. And it's because of who Mack is that the outburst against the Broncos wasn't exactly a revelation for Norton. Truth is, not much of anything in this 15-sack campaign has been.
"I'm not surprised at all by it," Norton continued. "We watch his work ethic every day. He's here early, he stays late, he asks questions, he watches film. And when you talk to him, his mindset is very clear and very focused. He's not caught up in all the distractions. He eats ball, he drinks ball, he sleeps ball, he lives ball. All he wants to do is improve and make everyone around him better."
That's what the tweak to Mack's role in Oakland back in the spring was intended to do.
Del Rio and Norton saw a player who was handling a number of responsibilities as a rookie, and playing half his snaps up as a linebacker and half of them down as a lineman. As part of that, he was splitting his time between two different meeting rooms and, when you boil it down, stretching himself a little thin.
The idea this year has been to simplify. The Raiders planned to play him down 90 percent of the time and rush him on almost all passing downs.
"One, we wanted to give him more opportunities," Norton said. "Two, he's able to work on it in practice every day. Practice is the only place players have to get better. And now he can sit there and watch the film, watch other players, go over and over it, without dividing his attention. We wanted him to concentrate and understand exactly who he is. Sometimes, you give guys too much and their identity becomes unclear. We made it real clear: Your job is to be aggressive and go get the quarterback."
He's certainly proven to be capable of that.
Along the way, Mack has transformed himself from an athletically-gifted-but-raw player lacking true pass-rush moves -- and understanding of how to read tackles -- into more of a tactician. Mack certainly still has a ways to go, but he understands that.
"He's absolutely just scratching the surface," Norton said. "He has so much room to grow. I don't know where he's going, but if he keeps this pace, if he stays this guy, keeps the growth going, there's no telling how far he can go. The great ones have a mentality, certain goals, a certain motivation, they can't be sidetracked. And he has that."
That, Norton continued, is what makes the Raiders think they could have an all-time great on their hands, with the key being staying the course: "That five-sack performance, Charles Woodson's done it for 18 years and [he's among the league leaders] in interceptions. You see Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, those guy, it's longevity that sets them apart -- you know what you're getting every time. The LTs of the world, you know exactly what you're getting. He has to create this reputation. And then he has to sustain it."
If 2015 is just the start of that, we all have a lot to look forward to.