A year or two ago, you probably wouldn’t have found Bucs’ GM Jason Licht high in any rankings of the NFL’s 32 GMs. But as Licht’s draft picks have blossomed and his moves in free agency have proven to be extremely shrewd, respect around the league has grown by leaps and bounds. This past week, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal slotted Licht third in a ranking of the league’s GMs. The rankings were based solely on the drafting success (or lack thereof) of each GM since 2015.
The only GMs to finish ahead of Licht were Colts’ GM Chris Ballard and the Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert, widely considered two of the best GMs in the game. Still, with a list based solely on drafting since 2015, it is tough to understand how those two could be ahead of Licht.
Ballard had that amazing 2018 draft with OG Quenton Nelson, LB Darius Leonard and OT Braden Smith. But the Colts’ shot caller had four second round picks that year, with two of them flopping so far (EDGE Kemoko Turay and EDGE Tyquan Lewis), and all three of his second round picks in 2019 have been disappointing (CB Rock-Ya Sin, EDGE Ben Banogu, WR Parris Campbell). Ballard’s 2020 draft class showed promise this past season (WR Michael Pittman, RB Jonathan Taylor, S Julian Blackmon, but if you’re comparing four years of drafting to Licht’s six, they better be four incredible years. Really only one of Ballard’s drafts matches that criteria.
As for Colbert, there is no doubt he’s done a stellar job of keeping Pittsburgh relevant despite aging stars, but he can’t hold a candle to what Licht has done in the draft. General mangers are more responsible for franchises’ first round picks than any other selection, and Colbert’s had some underwhelming ones to be sure. EDGE Bud Dupree became a quality starter, but he took years to develop into a competent player after being a first round pick. In 2016 CB Artie Burns was a complete bust despite repeated efforts to make him a regular starter. T.J. Watt in 2017 headlined a terrific class, but since then Terrell Edmunds and Devin Bush have yet to make good on their draft pedigree.
When you stack that group up against TE O.J. Howard, DT Vita Vea, LB Devin White and OT Tristan Wirfs, I’m not sure how you can rank Colbert over Licht based on the past six drafts. Although Colbert has added impressive talent like WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, CB Cam Sutton, RB James Conner, DT Javon Hargrave, WR Diontae Johnson, WR Chase Claypool and EDGE Alex Highsmith in the second and third rounds, Licht has matched and passed him with OT Donovan Smith, OG Ali Marpet, WR Chris Godwin, CB Carlton Davis, OG Alex Cappa, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB Jamel Dean, S Mike Edwards and S Antoine Winfield Jr.
Consider that Licht lost two very promising day two picks to freak career-ending injuries in S Justin Evans and LB Kendall Beckwith, and his hit rate is even more impressive. As much as I appreciate Ballard and Colbert, there is little question in my mind that Licht is the best drafting GM in the NFL over the past six years. His top three ranking here is admirable, but the Bucs exposure on the national stage is still new enough that nobody wants to put Licht on top just yet. That will change soon.
Even if I may squabble with Rosenthal’s rankings, he does tremendous work and is a great follow on Twitter. You can read Rosenthal’s complete ranking right here:
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft