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Perhaps the ultimate irony of the NFL draft is that it doubles as a career builder for many prospects and a career killer for many coaches, general managers and executives.
We’ve banged out tens of thousands of words and hundreds of stories for you in recent months here and at PFW dot com on the prospects poised to use next week’s draft as their professional staging point. Today let’s identify the decision makers whose drafts could ultimately serve as career flash points.
We should preface the discussion with a reminder that more and more general managers around the league have ceded the final say on Draft Night to their head coaches. Bill Belichick obviously calls the shots in New England, but he’s hardly alone. Some NFL teams actual hierarchies are shrouded in secrecy, but rest assured, Jon Gruden, Kyle Shanahan, Pete Carroll, Bill O’Brien and Andy Reid are among the league’s growing number of head coaches who have the final say when it comes to their rosters.
We’re also not limiting this list entirely to guys whose livelihoods are dependent on this draft. You’ll notice the names of a few men who likely are safe for at least the next year or two but are unlikely to see their teams peak without making a major dent in this draft.
Bucs GM Jason Licht
Licht and new coach Bruce Arians have a rapport from their one-year stint together in the desert, but Licht absolutely needs a rebound on the personnel side to last longer than that with B.A. this time around.
Licht’s free-agent forays have mostly been unmitigated disasters with the Bucs, and his drafts, albeit better than his pro personnel moves, appear uneven at best and have been marred by some high-profile whiffs. (Seriously, who trades up for a second-round kicker, only to cut him less than 12 months later?)
The Bucs were wise to tab Arians, but allowing Licht to make the decision on Jameis Winston’s future with the club would be doing their fans a disservice. And with a 27-53 mark over his first five seasons, the Bucs face an interesting dilemma: They desperately need defensive help at all three levels, and Devin White might be the pick who can cover up some of those deficiencies. But what happens if Arians loves a quarterback at No. 5? It’d signal even more ominous storm clouds hovering over Licht.
Giants GM Dave Gettleman
Do we really need to explain? Ironically, Gettleman’s first draft with the Giants looks pretty good … if we ignore the fact he punted on Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen to draft a running back — an unbelievable one, we’ll add.
But paying Odell Beckham and trading him six months later is nothing short of malpractice, undoubtable evidence he misread the talent level of the roster he inherited, reinforced by last fall’s fire sale.
The Giants are a proud organization that’s been dragged relentlessly because of it, and attempting to get off the mat by ignoring their greatest need in a second straight draft, or perhaps worse, picking Daniel Jones in Round 1, ain’t it.
49ers GM John Lynch
Kyle Shanahan, not Lynch, calls the shots, but he’s also done some impressive work on the coaching side. As far as the personnel moves go, well, they haven’t been too pretty in the first two years.
San Francisco has overpaid left and right in free agency (Malcolm Smith, Jerick McKinnon, Kwon Alexander, among others) and completely failed so far to maximize their golden draft opportunities, with Solomon Thomas flirting with bust status, Reuben Foster on his second team, C.J. Beathard and Ahkello Witherspoon demoted and Joe Williams failing to stick. Yes, George Kittle is an animal, but he also looks like their only saving grace from the 2017 draft.
The jury is out on the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, and it’s obviously not Lynch’s fault that his first full season as the starter lasted less than eight quarters. But the more successful the three first-round quarterbacks whom San Francisco eschewed to sign and trade Jimmy G. become at a time when the NFL’s biggest advantage is a cost-control quarterback, the more pressure rises on Lynch. And the Niners are very limited on draft capital this year, seemingly make-or-break time for the franchise.
Texans HC Bill O’Brien
Like Shanahan, O’Brien calls the shots over his appointed general manager Brian Gaine in Houston. Unlike Shanahan’s Niners, O’Brien’s Texans are coming off their third division title in his five-year reign.
But this piece is largely about survival, and though we don’t think O’Brien belongs on the hot seat, he desperately needs a masterful draft that produces multiple stud blockers to help ensure Deshaun Watson’s vitality.
Good news: Houston, unlike the Niners, have a lot of draft ammo (four picks in the top 86). The potentially bad news is they also need to protect their other backfield after downgrading in free agency.
Broncos GM John Elway
How long can applying Band-aids to the Broncos’ hemorrhaging QB situation save Elway? The latest, Joe Flacco, might not (and shouldn’t) dissuade Elway from doubling down at the position with the 10th overall pick if Dwayne Haskins or Drew Lock falls. But it would likely mean that new coach Vic Fangio doesn’t get a Day 1 contributor he badly needs to help his talented but depleted ‘D’ or an undermanned O-line tasked with protecting an immobile quarterback whose injury list is increasingly long.
Denver is coming off its first back-to-back losing seasons in nearly five decades, and though the uncertain ownership structure probably affords Elway more time, he badly needs to replicate the success of the 2018 draft class, his first in years to produce so many early difference-makers.
Seahawks HC Pete Carroll
Fresh off one of the more impressive coaching jobs in the league last season, Carroll is totally secure in his post. But it’s fair to say after the record-breaking contract extension for Russell Wilson that his Seahawks require another hot drafting streak to help maximize their massive — and wise — investment.
Seattle built its mini-dynasty with shrewd drafting that produced the likes of Wilson (Round 3), K.J. Wright (Round 4), Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor (Round 5), to name a few. But as much as we like Jarran Reed (2016, Round 2), Shaquill Griffin (2017, Round 3) and Michael Dickson (Round 5 last year), Carroll and John Schneider haven’t scored multiple studs in the same draft since 2015 and probably haven’t executed a special haul since 2011 or 2012.
With a league-low four picks next week, multiple needs on both sides of the ball and a salary cap situation that will be as hard as ever to manage with Wilson's extension, the pressure is on Carroll to get back to Seattle's value drafting roots.
Cardinals GM Steve Keim
And we’ll finish today with the man who will start next week’s draft. The Cardinals are likely going to make Kyler Murray the first overall selection, an unprecedented move on multiple levels. Not only will he be the smallest first-round quarterback ever, Arizona will become only the second team since the merger (Colts in 1982-83) to draft a top-10 quarterback in back to back years.
Add to that the fact that Keim’s firing of Steve Wilks in January marked only the seventh time in the past decade a head coach was one and done, and tabbing Kliff Kingsbury represented one of the least-qualified hires the league has seen in eons, and we’re talking rarefied air here.
As we pointed out a couple weeks ago in this space, Keim did position the Cardinals well for the draft with a very productive and rational free agency. But doing so to make what might go down as one of the more irrational draft picks of all time epitomizes putting one’s job on the line.