How top Detroit Lions GM candidates have fared in their QB evaluations

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Joe Hortiz was the director of college scouting for the Baltimore Ravens in 2018, when the team zeroed in on one of the draft’s most polarizing prospects as its replacement for Joe Flacco.

Lamar Jackson was not a fit for every team and every offense, with some seasoned observers suggesting he move to wide receiver. But beyond his unique dual-threat ability, Hortiz and the rest of Baltimore’s front office, including now-retired general manager Ozzie Newsome and the man who replaced him, Eric DeCosta, fell in love with Jackson’s leadership ability.

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At the NFL combine that year, Ravens quarterbacks coach James Urban was on the field for quarterback drills, and area scout Andrew Raphael helped organize the position group. Both gave glowing reviews about Jackson as a playmaker and person.

“The scouts that are running the group talk about how this guy’s the alpha, and Andrew gets a chance to see it,” Hortiz recalled in a podcast on the Ravens website last year. “Lamar was the leader. The guys gravitated to Lamar. If you come out of the combine with the biggest thing that we felt about Lamar was his leadership and the way people gravitated towards him even though there may have been some other highly touted quarterbacks in his group.”

Newsome made Jackson the final first-round pick of his illustrious career, but Hortiz, one of the top GM candidates in this year’s hiring cycle, played a pivotal role not only in that selection but in assembling a collection of talent that made Baltimore one of the best teams in the AFC last season.

Successful NFL general managers are more than scouts. They oversee all football operations for their team and must be equally adept managing people and handling the administrative side of the job.

But if the Lions are going to escape their decades-long malaise, their next leader must be able to properly identify and acquire talent, including, most importantly, at the quarterback position.

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Hortiz, like several other potential candidates to replace Bob Quinn, who was fired along with Matt Patricia last week, has a strong track record when it comes to evaluating quarterbacks, even if he did not directly pull the trigger on any of the Ravens’ recent successful quarterback draft picks.

As was the case with Jackson, Hortiz ran the Ravens’ college scouting department when the team drafted Tyrod Taylor in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. He also was the team’s east coast scout in 2008, when the Ravens drafted Delaware’s Flacco in the first round.

Less successfully, the Ravens also spent late-round picks on signal callers Keith Wenning and Trace McSorely in the last six years.

The Lions have not hit on a quarterback since taking Matthew Stafford with the first pick of the 2009 draft, and their next GM’s legacy may be defined by who he finds to replace Stafford and when.

Stafford turns 33 in February, has two years left on his contract and will need an extension soon if he stays in Detroit. He was noncommittal about his future Monday, and even if he returns for 2021, the Lions could target his potential replacement early in the draft.

Along with Hortiz, out-of-work former GMs John Dorsey, Thomas Dimitroff and Rick Smith and Seattle Seahawks vice president of football operations Scott Fitterer are some potential candidates who have at least played a hand in major quarterback draft hits in recent years, while others have a less appealing track record at the position.

Dorsey, arguably, has the most proven eye for scouting quarterbacks of anyone in the NFL.

He was Cleveland Browns general manager in 2018, when the team took Baker Mayfield at No. 1 overall. Jackson went 32nd in that draft, and while Jackson has an MVP to his name, Mayfield and Josh Allen have separated themselves as the best of the four top-10 quarterbacks that year, and Mayfield’s Browns are 8-3 and likely playoff bound for the first-time since 2002.

Dorsey also was GM in Kansas City when he engineered the trade up from the 27th pick to No. 10 in 2017 to take Patrick Mahomes, the best player in the league and reigning Super Bowl MVP.

He also was the director of college scouting when the Green Bay Packers took Aaron Rodgers in 2005, and the lead scout when the Packers signed Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner as undrafted free agent in 1994.

“Aaron had a unique mind,” Dorsey said on the Jed Hughes Podcast last month. “He had an incredible mind. He was smart. He never would get flustered. He was extremely competitive. And I think that shows up in his play today because he’s one of those young guys who can actually walk up to the line of scrimmage and know what defenses he’s going to face before the ball’s even snapped and you need those quick mental reactions from quarterbacks in today’s football.”

Chiefs director of player personnel Mike Borgonzi, a potential GM candidate who has worked on both the college and pro scouting sides in Kansas City, also was part of the Chiefs’ front office that drafted Mahomes, as well as late-round quarterback misses Aaron Murray and Kevin Hogan.

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Dimitroff, a one-time Lions scout who was fired by the Atlanta Falcons in October, drafted just two quarterbacks during his time in Atlanta: Matt Ryan, the No. 3 pick of the 2008 draft, and Sean Renfree, a seventh-rounder five years later. As New England Patriots director of scouting, however, Dimitroff helped run a draft that yielded Matt Cassel as a seventh-round pick in 2005.

Some potential GM candidates, like Minnesota Vikings assistant general manager George Paton and Seattle Seahawks vice president of player personnel Trent Kirchner, have spent more time on the pro scouting sides over their careers, but were with their organizations when they drafted players like Teddy Bridgewater and Russell Wilson.

Kirchner’s cohort in Seattle, Fitterer and Ed Dodds (now the assistant GM with the Indianapolis Colts), also were in the Seahawks front office in 2012, when Wilson was the steal of the draft as a third-round pick and Fitterer served as the team’s director of college scouting.

Paton was promoted to his current position in 2011, the same year the Vikings took quarterback bust Christian Ponder with the 12th pick of the draft.

Smith, the Houston Texans GM in 2006-17, has been out of the league since he took a leave of absence following the 2017 season to help care for his sick wife. He missed on three quarterbacks that he took in the fourth round or later in his 12 drafts, Tom Savage, T.J. Yates and Alex Brink, but nailed is last quarterback draft pick, Deshaun Watson, whose huge Thanksgiving day performance — 17 of 25 passing for 318 yards and four touchdowns — helped pave the way for Quinn and Patricia’s firing in Detroit.

Three former GMs who could generate Lions interest this hiring cycle have had more misses at the quarterback position.

Jerry Reese won two Super Bowls as general manager of the New York Giants, but he struck out on a couple mid-round quarterbacks he picked to complement Eli Manning: Davis Webb, a third-rounder in his last draft of 2017; and Ryan Nassib, a fourth-rounder in 2013.

Former Browns GM Ray Farmer was in charge of personnel when the Browns spent a first-round pick on Johnny Manziel, though owner Jimmy Haslam was the driving force behind that pick. Similarly, San Francisco 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters, a rising star in the scouting world, was director of college scouting when the Denver Broncos took Paxton Lynch in the first round, though that was a John Elway-Gary Kubiak production.

Jeff Ireland has helped build the New Orleans Saints into an NFC power as college scouting director, but as general manager or the Miami Dolphins in 2008-13 he passed on Ryan with the No. 1 pick to take Michigan offensive lineman Jake Long, and quarterback Chad Henne in Round 2.

That proved to be the wrong decision, doubly so when Ireland took Pat White a year later in Round 2. Ultimately, he found one of the best’s current quarterbacks in Ryan Tannehill with the eighth pick of the 2012 draft, though Ireland was fired before Tannehill made good on his talent — after the Dolphins traded him to the Tennessee Titans, proving perhaps that evaluating quarterback talent is a crapshoot like everything else.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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