As the reeling Jets and cratering Cardinals race to the bottom of the standings and the top of the 2019 draft board, they can look to the NFL’s Executive of the Year field for prime examples of dramatic transformations in just one year.
Chicago’s offseason shopping spree is the latest case of the modern NFL’s team-building cheat code: a young franchise quarterback occupying just a sliver of the salary cap with a modest rookie contract. Mitchell Trubisky and Jared Goff took their lumps as rookies only to turn their careers around under new coaches with added firepower on offense. Can New York and Arizona surround Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen with similar support systems in Year 2?
Following Indianapolis’ lead would increase the chances of success. What’s better than a quarterback on a rookie deal? Entering the draft process with a top-two or -three pick and no need for a new field general. Sitting in the draft’s catbird seat, the Colts jockeyed down three spots to No. 6, picking up a trio of second-round picks (two in 2018, one in 2019) for their trouble.
When the Colts embarked on their comprehensive rebuilding effort, they were a 4-12 outfit with a fired coaching staff, a defense bereft of talent, an offensive line that doubled as a long-running joke, a ground attack that couldn’t reach the century mark and a quarterback incapable of throwing a football. Now they’re the darlings of the AFC, riding the crest of a five-game winning streak and eyeing a postseason berth at least a year or two ahead of schedule.
As depressed as fans of the Jets and Cardinals might be entering the final month of a lost season, the Bears and Colts were just as down-and-out last December. It’s for that reason — among others — that their general managers headline our list of the top candidates for NFL Executive of the Year.
1) Ryan Pace, Chicago Bears
Pace bounced back from last year’s failed free-agency class, headlined by head-scratching payouts to Mike Glennon and Markus Wheaton. After hiring Andy Reid disciple Matt Nagy to develop Mitchell Trubisky, Pace set about bolstering his quarterback’s surrounding talent. The worst receiving corps in the league got a complete makeover with free-agent additions Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton joined by second-round slot receiver Anthony Miller. How did those moves work out? Before suffering a shoulder injury in Week 11, Trubisky was on pace to set single-season franchise records for touchdowns and passing yards while also leading all quarterbacks in rushing yards.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears had the makings of a top-10 defense if they could re-sign their cornerbacks, add an impact edge rusher and find help at inside linebacker. Mission accomplished. Pace matched the Packers‘ offer sheet for Kyle Fuller, who has played at a Pro Bowl level this season. After reuniting former 49ers outside linebacker Aaron Lynch with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Pace swung for the fences in early September, paying a ransom in draft picks and salary for 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. Fangio has reaped the rewards of that blockbuster, with Mack and first-round linebacker Roquan Smith leading a defense that ranks first by a wide margin in Football Outsiders’ metrics.
How dramatic is Chicago’s 2018 turnaround? The same organization that won just three division games in three years under John Fox recently matched that total with three NFC North wins in a 12-day span.
2) Chris Ballard, Indianapolis Colts
Eight months ago, the Colts were a laughingstock, reeling from Josh McDaniels’ post-Super Bowl decision to back out of his agreement to take on Andrew Luck as a personal reclamation project. Blindsided but unbowed by the betrayal, Ballard settled on Frank Reich, fresh off a string of brilliant game plans that helped catapult Nick Foles to MVP honors in Super Bowl LII. Reich has been a home run hire, leading Indianapolis out of the darkness and helping Luck finally realize his vast potential as the Comeback Player of the Year front-runner.
Not long after landing Reich, Ballard seized on the opportunity to take advantage of a Jets franchise desperate for a quarterback savior. Armed with a windfall of draft picks thanks to his trade with Gang Green, Ballard took the long-running punchline out of his offensive line and overhauled a defense viewed as the league’s most talent-starved. Guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard have each won Rookie of the Month recognition, in-season acquisition Mike Mitchell nabbed Player of the Week honors and Lions castoff Eric Ebron is leading all NFL tight ends in touchdowns.
Ballard’s Midas touch has accelerated the Colts‘ timetable for a return to playoff contention by a year — if not two. When he goes window shopping next offseason, Ballard will have more salary-cap space at his disposal than any general manager in the league.
3) Brett Veach and Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
There’s no better example of fortune favoring the bold than Kansas City’s 2017 draft-day trade for a raw but extraordinarily talented Patrick Mahomes. Unless it’s the 2018 resolution to jettison Alex Smith, an MVP candidate coming off a career year for a perennial AFC contender. It takes incredible fortitude to ditch a team leader who ranked with Tom Brady and Cam Newton as the winningest quarterbacks of the previous three years. It takes rare vision to imagine and execute the possibilities of an expanded playbook with a first-time starter under center.
Mahomes isn’t the only new face in Reid’s starting lineup. The signing of Sammy Watkins gave the Chiefs yet another athletic freak to scare defenses, as if Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt and Chris Conley weren’t creating enough spacing issues for opponents. In terms of pure athleticism, this is one of the most loaded offenses we’ve witnessed.
4) Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland, New Orleans Saints
In the wake of the heartbreaking “Minnesota Miracle” debacle last January, the Saints made it clear that this year’s approach would be Super Bowl or bust. After re-signing future Hall of Famer Drew Brees and defensive end Alex Okafor, Loomis and Ireland mortgaged the future, surrendering next year’s first-round pick for the opportunity to draft pass rusher Marcus Davenport. Despite missing three games with a toe injury, the No. 14 overall pick in the draft has been a disruptive presence for a defense that has improved throughout the season. Subsequent trades brought starting cornerback Eli Apple and premium Brees insurance in Teddy Bridgewater.
Other newcomers include third-round wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, veteran tight end Benjamin Watson and hard-hitting linebacker Demario Davis — the latter representing one of the best free-agent acquisitions of the offseason. New Orleans’ brass has built a dangerous juggernaut, rolling over the last five opponents with an average victory margin of 22.4 points.
5) Les Snead, Los Angeles Rams
Akin to the Saints, the Rams have the luxury of a competitive advantage within their division because their top priority is flying a championship banner rather than rebooting the roster. Snead joined the NFC arms race with gusto, acquiring a trio of former All-Pro defenders in Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters while signing reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald to a mega contract. Filling an in-season need at edge rusher, Snead sent a pair of mid-round draft picks to Jacksonville for former No. 3 overall selection Dante Fowler Jr.
Whereas a rebuilding team might have been content to promote promising second-year receiver Josh Reynolds as Sammy Watkins‘ replacement opposite Robert Woods, Snead sent a first-round pick to the Patriots for field-stretching wideout Brandin Cooks. That gambit has paid off twofold, with Cooks on pace for a career year and Reynolds available for depth when slot receiver Cooper Kupp went down with a season-ending ACL injury. Snead’s aggressive recruiting has made Los Angeles a destination organization, standing toe-to-toe with New Orleans in the race for the NFC’s top playoff seed.
6) John Dorsey, Cleveland Browns
Anyone can deconstruct a roster; the trick is in reconstruction. The previous regime deserves credit for stockpiling the draft picks that Dorsey has parlayed into a star cornerback (Denzel Ward), a game-breaking power back (Nick Chubb), a speedy wide receiver (Antonio Callaway) and a starting linebacker (Genard Avery). Most importantly, Dorsey pulled the trigger on the right quarterback (Baker Mayfield) when the rest of the football world expected him to go for Sam Darnold at the top of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Watching last week’s victory over the Bengals, it was hard to miss not only the contrast between the two Ohio clubs but also a potential changing of the guard going forward. It was just a few years ago when perennial AFC North contender Cincinnati was praised for fielding the league’s most talented roster. Now it’s the neighbor to the north that boasts young, blue-chip talent headlined by a quarterback with shades of Brett Favre and Drew Brees.
If Dorsey succeeds in busting the ghosts haunting the Factory of Sadness, the plaudits will go well beyond Executive of the Year.
7) Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore Ravens
Back in late April, John Harbaugh touted Newsome’s final draft haul as perhaps the finest in their 11 years together. Seven months later, that rookie class appears to be saving Harbaugh’s job. Just as the season was heading south with three consecutive losses to playoff contenders, first-round picks Lamar Jackson and Hayden Hurst arrived on the scene along with third-round tackle Orlando Brown and undrafted power back Gus Edwards. Now the Ravens are riding those hotshot rookies into Atlanta, hoping for a third straight victory and a tighter hold on the AFC’s No. 6 playoff spot.
8) John Elway, Denver Broncos
A month ago, this suggestion would have seemed preposterous, but change happens quickly in the NFL. After nearly ending the Texans‘ five-game winning streak, Denver succeeded in thwarting the six-game streaks of the Chargers and Steelers. That rare gauntlet run has Denver in prime position for a wild-card push, facing only one team with a winning record the rest of the way.
After a sluggish start, Case Keenum is earning praise as the organization’s best leader since Peyton Manning. Thanks to added depth, the offensive line has survived season-ending injuries to three starters, paving the way for a ground attack that ranks second in yards per carry (5.2). Phillip Lindsay has emerged as the offensive heartbeat, rushing for more yards through 11 games (780) than any undrafted rookie since the 1970 merger. On the other side of the ball, No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb is on pace for 13 sacks, just 1.5 shy of Jevon Kearse’s NFL rookie record.
The Broncos haven’t experienced back-to-back losing seasons since the early 1970s. If they avoid that ignominious fate this year, they can point to Elway’s loaded draft class as a savior.
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.