Best talent evaluators take risks, make hard decisions

From left, Green Bay's Ted Thompson, Indianapolis' Bill Polian, San Diego's A.J. Smith, New England's Bill Belichick, and Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome rank among the best team builders in the NFL. ESPN.com Illustration

First, no names mentioned here are gurus.

These men all have great supporting casts that help make them the NFL's five best talent evaluators. I make it a point to address this because I had the pleasure of being surrounded by a number of highly talented scouts and directors. Rich Snead, now with the Oakland Raiders, was a huge factor in the success we had with the Tennessee Titans.

I had an outstanding crop of scouts working with me, including C.O. Brocato, the only NFL scout ever nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A number of aspects need to be addressed when your decision maker is identifying personnel. Assuming all of the measurables, intangibles, character checks and background checks are in order, here are some remaining issues:

Can you identify a player?

Do you really know the difference between a 3-4 nose tackle and a 4-3 defensive tackle? An in-the-box safety and a two-deep safety? A left offensive tackle and a right offensive tackle?

Unless you have played all of those positions, you can't know the difference without having extensive experience. The truth is all rookies in the NFL must learn. It does not matter if you are a rookie player, rookie coach or a rookie general manager. That's why when people with extensive playing time, coaching time, scouting time or all of the above have a decided advantage when they are thrown into a decision maker's seat.

Having a field scout or a director of personnel try to explain the difference simply will not help.

Do you know how to put a team together?

There is no outline or book on how to put together a football team.

Being able to look at pieces to a puzzle and knowing how they fit -- or what is missing -- will help you here. This is not a game plan you can copy from another team. Every situation is different and unless you have worked the process several times, the chances of success are slim.

Can you make a decision?

Before a decision is made, speculation runs rampant. After a decision is made, it's second-guessed. Can you make the correct decision, even if it's an unpopular one? Do you have the knowledge and conviction to know what is best for the franchise today, tomorrow and beyond?

Now we are aware of some of the criteria that a talent evaluator needs to know to be great. So let's get to the list. Each one of these guys has strengths in different areas. My five best evaluators (with their current teams), in alphabetical order, are:

Bill Belichick, New England Patriots: Scott Pioli's name also should appear here, but I have known Bill forever and for that reason I know just how good he really is. These guys will outwit you, outsmart you and out-resource you. Bill and I started lining fields together and he is now arguably the best coach in the NFL. There is little that will go on in a football franchise that is foreign to him, and to top it off, he will outwork you on a daily basis.

Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore Ravens: Newsome has extensive experience and expertise. He was a great NFL player and the league's first black general manager. His forte is high draft choices (he was a first-rounder himself) and free agents, but he is always willing to look at another team's veteran castoffs.

Bill Polian, Indianapolis Colts: Polian might be my personal favorite because he is so unorthodox. He is experienced and smart, and has an outstanding eye for talent. Many of the boundaries that limit other decision makers don't seem to affect Polian. I once introduced Polian to my son as the best GM in the NFL because "he never drafts anyone over 6-foot tall, but they all make the Pro Bowl." It's a humorous but partially true look at Dwight Freeney, Bob Sanders, Robert Mathis and many more of Polian's undersized players who end up superstars.

A.J. Smith, San Diego Chargers: Smith is a longtime talent evaluator who earned his spurs working under John Butler. He is a draft specialist with a keen eye and the guts to make a trade or move that will improve the value of his club. Smith is not an everyday shopper, but an opportunist, and he is smart. He is willing to take a chance on someone who might not pass every test, but he has yet to be wrong.

Ted Thompson, Green Bay Packers: A "pup" of the group, Thompson played for 10 years and has been in NFL front offices for nearly 16 years. He has a very clear vision as to what his club should look like, and how his players should play. How could anyone get excited when in the 2006 season the Packers started a rookie center and two rookie offensive guards? We saw the results of Thompson's work in 2007. Was Brett Favre delusional when he said that the team might be the best he had played with, or were Favre and Thompson the only ones who really knew?

Former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese frequently contributes to ESPN.com.