The 20 best GMs in NFL history
Sylvia Allen/Getty Images

The 20 best GMs in NFL history

Four NFL teams fired general managers in the 2020 season's first three months, which will create an interesting stretch for this vital position. Teams will be looking for executives to craft rebuilds. Here are the personnel czars that previously led teams to sustained success. No coach-GMs are included here, just pure front office execs who assembled quality rosters.

 
1 of 20

Tom Donahoe

Tom Donahoe
Jerome Davis-Icon Sportswire

Though the Steelers made multiple playoff brackets in the 1980s, they were in decline by the decade's end. Promoted to Steelers front office boss in 1991, Donahoe hired Bill Cowher to succeed Chuck Noll weeks into his tenure. The Steelers made the next six playoff brackets and went to three AFC title games and Super Bowl XXX during Donahoe's nine-year stay. Donahoe's Kevin Greene signing ignited the "Blitzburgh" defense, and acquisitions of Jerome Bettis and Alan Faneca set up Steeler run games well into the aughts. Donahoe did not duplicate his success with the Bills, but the Steelers have not looked back.

 
2 of 20

Jerry Jones

Jerry Jones
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Jones deserves blame for the 1994 breakup with Jimmy Johnson. The Cowboys have not been the same. But they did win a Super Bowl post-Johnson and have made the playoffs 12 times since the seminal divorce. Jones has authored big hits and big misses at wide receiver and kept Jason Garrett too long. But the Cowboys landed franchise QBs in unexpected places (Tony Romo, Dak Prescott) and built the 2010s' defining offensive line -- amid a strong decade for Dallas first-round picks. The Cowboys could use more non-Jones-family help and do have a 25-year NFC championship game drought. But some credit is due here.

 
3 of 20

Ted Thompson

Ted Thompson
Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

On one hand, Thompson landed a top-five all-time quarterback talent with his first draft pick and fortified a roster around him to win Super Bowl XLV and form a 15-1 team the following year. On the other, the Packers GM's rigidity when it came to outside acquisitions did not give Aaron Rodgers enough support. That led to some bitter playoff exits. A two-time Executive of the Year, Thompson did change the Packers defense by signing Charles Woodson. This helped Brett Favre guide the team to the 2007 NFC championship game, but Green Bay's defense slipped as the 2010s wore on.

 
4 of 20

Carl Peterson

Carl Peterson
Kenny Felt-Icon Sportswire

The Chiefs resided off the competitive radar for most of the 1970s and '80s. Peterson's 1989 arrival restored the former AFL power to an upper-echelon AFC operation almost immediately. The ex-USFL champion exec built Super Bowl-caliber defenses during Marty Schottenheimer's tenure, and the 1993 acquisitions of Joe Montana and Marcus Allen represented peak Chiefs relevance between Super Bowl IV and Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs made seven playoff berths in the '90s and built an all-time offensive line in the aughts. Playoff wins proved elusive during Peterson's 20-year tenure, but he deserves credit for leading a revival effort.

 
5 of 20

Carmen Policy

Carmen Policy
Justin Sullivan-Getty Images

Although Policy was with the 49ers for much of their 1980s dynasty, his time with autonomy came in the '90s. Policy kept the 49ers in top gear into the salary cap era. He stocked the team with key draftees (Ricky Watters, Bryant Young, Dana Stubblefield), and a Deion Sanders-led 1994 free agency class helped the 49ers overtake the Cowboys and dominate in Super Bowl XXIX. (Though, sending Charles Haley to Dallas became a problem.) The 49ers made the playoffs in each of Policy's seven seasons, and his Terrell Owens Round 3 pick provided all-time slot value. Not on Bill Walsh's level, but the 49er dynasty's back half was not too shabby.

 
6 of 20

Kevin Colbert

Kevin Colbert
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In power with multiple titles since 2000, Colbert has been a steady hand for the modern Steelers. Usually swiping left on free agency, the Steeler boss has extended essential players and done well to replace the others. Landing Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger in consecutive drafts, Colbert also continued an unrivaled wide receiver assembly line. The Steelers tabbing a 34-year-old Mike Tomlin to replace Bill Cowher became a defining modern-era hire, and the Colbert-Tomlin partnership has two Super Bowl berths and zero losing seasons. The Colbert-era Steelers endured letdowns and an Antonio Brown meltdown, but they remain a top-tier franchise.

 
7 of 20

Rich McKay

Rich McKay
Al Messerschmidt-Icon Sportswire

The second-generation NFLer completed one of the most difficult rebuilds in NFL history, lifting the Buccaneers out of their decade-plus laughingstock status. McKay's first two draft choices -- Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, in 1995 -- are in the Hall of Fame. So is his first coaching hire (Tony Dungy). After 14 straight losing seasons, the Bucs made the playoffs five times from 1997-02. Ownership went over McKay's head in trading for Jon Gruden, and although it helped secure a championship, the McKay-Gruden 2003 split ended the organization's time as a true contender. McKay's Falcons GM stint included sporadic success and splashier headlines

 
8 of 20

Don Klosterman

Don Klosterman
Icon Sportswire

An AFL power broker who helped shape Chiefs Super Bowl teams, Klosterman was GM of the Oilers, Colts, and Rams. Following Don Shula's exit, Klosterman's first Colts year doubled as the franchise's first Super Bowl win. But the Colts and Rams owners swapping franchises in 1972 led to a 10-year tenure featuring mostly successful Los Angeles squads. Klosterman bolstered the Rams with high-profile trades -- among them the hauls collected for QBs Roman Gabriel and John Hadl. Though QB issues persisted, the Rams won the NFC in 1979. From 1967-79, Klosterman's three franchises made 12 playoff berths and eight league or conference championship games.

 
9 of 20

John Schneider

John Schneider
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Schneider and Pete Carroll lifted the Seahawks to their highest point; the franchise was a play-calling snafu from back-to-back Super Bowl wins. In Schneider's first three drafts, Seattle selected three likely Hall of Famers (Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson) after Round 1 to form a core that dominated the NFL for a time. Seattle's four straight defensive scoring titles are unparalleled, and the 2013 Seahawks were  the best 2010s team . Trades for Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham did not pan out, and recent Schneider drafts do not match his regime's early work. But the Seahawks have shown no signs of falling out of the contender mix.

 
10 of 20

Mickey Loomis

Mickey Loomis
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Two Loomis moves overshadow everything else from an 18-plus-year GM tenure, each coming in 2006. After a Hurricane Katrina-marred 3-13 season, Loomis hired Sean Payton and beat out the Dolphins for free agent Drew Brees. The Saints won one playoff game prior to these moves; they now have nine wins -- including Super Bowl XLIV -- and have seen Brees torch NFL passing marks. Loomis is not shy about equipping Brees with help, continually taking swings despite perennial cap constraints. Bountygate docks he and Payton somewhat, but this regime could well have multiple additional Super Bowl berths. January luck has escaped the Saints.

 
11 of 20

Ernie Accorsi

Ernie Accorsi
Rich Graessle-Icon Sportswire

Although Accorsi was not with the Giants when they stunned the unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, 17 of Big Blue's starters that night arrived during his 10-year tenure. Resigning his Colts GM post soon after ownership traded John Elway, Accorsi elevated the Browns into Elway's chief 1980s rival. On the wrong end of two "The" games, those Browns came agonizingly close to multiple Super Bowls. Accorsi built two Giants Super Bowl nuclei, assembling much of the 2000 NFC champion team and reloading after being on the other end of a QB power play. Accorsi's 2004 trade for Eli Manning enabled two future Giant victory parades.

 
12 of 20

Ron Wolf

Ron Wolf
Rich Graessle-Icon Sportswire

One of Al Davis' top lieutenants for much of the Raiders' rise, Wolf led the resurgence of a storied Packer franchise after a grim post-Vince Lombardi two decades. Within months of becoming Green Bay's GM, the Hall of Famer pilfered Brett Favre from the Falcons. A year later, in 1993 -- modern free agency's first year -- Wolf landed Reggie White, the best free-agent defender ever. The Packers went from zero non-strike-year playoff berths in 20 years to zero losing seasons during Wolf's nine-year stint, ending the NFC's Cowboys-49ers arms race by usurping both en route to back-to-back Super Bowls in 1996-97. 

 
13 of 20

Jim Finks

Jim Finks
Bettmann-Getty Images

Finks was never a Super Bowl champion, but the Hall of Famer played an essential role in three franchises' climbs. Although Bud Grant had the final say during Finks' Vikings' GM run, Finks' Chicago work set up arguably the greatest team in NFL history. The nine-year Bears GM drafted Hall of Famers Walter Payton, Dan Hampton, and Mike Singletary and 16 other 1985 Bears starters, before resigning in '83. Resurfacing with the Saints in 1986, Finks turned the NFL's saddest-sack franchise into a winner. New Orleans was 0-for-19 in playoff berths before Finks, who had them in four playoff fields in a seven-season run. 

 
14 of 20

Ozzie Newsome

Ozzie Newsome
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Newsome's first Ravens draft included two first-ballot Hall of Famers -- Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis -- and he later selected arguably the best safety ever (Ed Reed). Lamar Jackson became Newsome's parting gift. The NFL's first Black GM, Newsome ran the Ravens from 1996-2018. He assembled a Mt. Rushmore defense, with Baltimore's 2000 unit carrying an offensively limited team to a Super Bowl romp, and zagged by hiring a special teams coach in John Harbaugh. Hoarder of compensatory picks, Newsome continued to replenish Ravens rosters after letting free agents walk. This process helped lead to the franchise's 2012 championship.

 
15 of 20

George Young

George Young
Focus on Sport-Getty Images

The Giants once slogged through a 17-year playoff drought; Young's tenure ended that quickly. Hired soon after 1978's "Miracle in the Meadowlands," Young had the Giants in the 1981 playoffs -- buoyed by that year's rather notable Lawrence Taylor draft choice -- and teamed with Bill Parcells to make the team a 1980s power. The Giants stampeded to a championship, capped by a masterful performance from Young's first draftee (Phil Simms), in 1986 and won another four years later. A five-time NFL Executive of the Year, Young hired two NFL Coach of the Year honorees (Dan Reeves, Jim Fassel) post-Parcells en route to the Hall of Fame. 

 
16 of 20

Bobby Beathard

Bobby Beathard
Stephen Dunn-Getty Images

Beathard formed an unorthodox NFC juggernaut. Big on trade-downs, the GM used two of the three first-round picks he made in 12 Washington drafts on Hall of Famers (Art Monk, Darrell Green) and found the top "Hogs" via third-round pick (Russ Grimm), trade (Jim Lachey) and free agency (Joe Jacoby). Joe Theismann's injury led to a Bucs castoff (Doug Williams) being named Super Bowl MVP; Beathard also equipped his GM successor with future Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien, a Round 6 pick. His Joe Gibbs hire: also good. Beathard rebuilt the Chargers in the 1990s, drafting Junior Seau (and later Ryan Leaf) and turning a playoff drought into a Super Bowl cameo.

 
17 of 20

Bill Polian

Bill Polian
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Six-time Executive of the Year, Polian excelled with three franchises in a well-rounded career. The Bills went 2-14 in 1985, before Polian and Jim Kelly's 1986 arrivals. The GM built the dormant franchise into the premier AFC outfit, drafting Thurman Thomas (in Round 2) and numerous starters to allow for an unmatched four straight Super Bowl appearances. Hired as the Panthers' first GM, Polian loaded up Carolina's roster with free agents that had the team in the NFC title game in Year 2. The Colts followed a 3-13 season by drafting Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf, hiring Tony Dungy, and building a roster Manning could lift to two Super Bowls. 

 
18 of 20

Dıck Haley

Dıck Haley
George Gojkovich-Getty Images

A brilliant talent evaluator who ran the Steelers' drafts for 20 years, Haley was essential in forming one of the NFL's defining nuclei. The Steelers' 1974 draft changed the game, with Haley's haul including four Hall of Famers -- Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Mike Webster -- that helped the Joe Greene- and Terry Bradshaw-led team to four Super Bowl titles. Haley drafted numerous other Steel Curtain-era starters, including Hall of Famers Jack Ham and Franco Harris, and landed Rod Woodson in 1987. With no free agency in this era, draft czars were vital. Haley has a strong case as a Hall of Fame contributor.

 
19 of 20

Al Davis

Al Davis
Focus on Sport-Getty Images

Judging only Davis' GM work, the Raider icon compiled a case as the best ever. Davis hired John Madden, formed a four-Hall of Famer O-line at one point, acquired three legendary wideouts (Fred Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch, Tim Brown), and made the Raiders the most identifiable NFL brand. They won 11 games 11 times from 1967-85 -- beginning the run well before the 16-game era -- and were in 11 AFL or AFC title games. Davis' reclamation-project hot streak provided elite support for the three Super Bowl champions. While the owner/GM's final stretch steered the franchise's descent, few organizations have matched the Raiders' initial staying power.

 
20 of 20

Tex Schramm

Tex Schramm
Trevor Jones-Getty Images

Joining Tom Landry and scouting icon Gil Brandt as the troika that turned the Cowboys into one of the world's most recognizable teams, Schramm led the franchise's front office for its first 29 seasons. During that span: 20 consecutive winning seasons, five Super Bowl appearances, and draft revolutionization that ended with the Schramm-era Cowboys selecting nine Hall of Famers. Schramm acquiring top-five picks from the Giants and Seahawks in a three-year span netted them, Randy White and Tony Dorsett, extending the dynasty into the 1980s. The Cowboys became American royalty under Schramm, helping elevate the NFL in the process.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

More must-reads:

Customize Your Newsletter

+

Get the latest news and rumors, customized to your favorite sports and teams. Emailed daily. Always free!

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.