While George Paton was in South Bend for Notre Dame’s Pro Day on March 31, he paused his busy schedule to visit with an old friend, who can be credited with igniting Paton’s NFL career.
That friend is Bill Rees, who coached Paton at UCLA and gave him his start in the NFL in 1997 as a scouting intern with the Chicago Bears, when Rees was their director of college scouting. Now, 24 years later, the new general manager of the Denver Broncos, Paton stood side-by-side with his former mentor while doing what they’re best known for: scouting.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Rees, now the director of scouting at Notre Dame. “He was here early and was the last to leave.”
It was that same mentality Rees saw in Paton years ago that made him hire his former player, despite his lack of experience. At 28 years old, Paton’s NFL resume consisted of time as a walk-on defensive back at UCLA and his three years as a part-time junior varsity high school football coach at his alma mater, Loyola High School in Los Angeles.
But Rees knew Paton would exceed expectations.
“He had all the intangibles and when it came time to look for a young guy that wanted to get into the NFL, get into coaching, get into player personnel — he was a very logical and very good candidate,” said Rees, who was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at UCLA from 1979-94. “George’s work ethic, his ambition to learn and absorb — no job was too small, no job was too big. He jumped in and rose very quickly because of his overall intelligence and his work ethic and his passion for scouting.”
Paton has come a long way since being the Bears’ intern, in which he lived on a friends couch in Chicago for two years just to have his one shot at the NFL. After four years with the Bears, he spent five years in Miami working alongside now-Dolphins GM Chris Grier and then spent the last 13 in Minnesota learning under Vikings GM Rick Spielman. And on Thursday, he’ll conduct his first NFL Draft as the Broncos’ GM.
So far, Paton has checked all the boxes as a general manager. He’s said the right things and, from all indications, signed the right players. Though, heading into the draft holding the ninth overall pick, few know what Paton’s going to do, including his former colleagues.
But what they do know is that Paton is going to be patient, aggressive and most of all, prepared. Because they’ve seen it time and again in Chicago, Miami, Minnesota and now Denver.
“George is the kind of guy who would be successful in anything he does. I truly believe that,” said Pat Roberts, who worked alongside Paton as a scout in Chicago and Minnesota. “I knew he was going to be successful because of his combination of intelligence, knowing how to treat people, how to interact with people and his drive and work ethic. It’s a pretty good recipe for success.
“You’re going to find this out, but he’s going to do everything in the best interest of the organization and he’s going to have a really good poker face. That’s just who he is.”
It was the summer of 1998 when Roberts, who was 24 at the time, first met Paton. He was preparing to take Paton’s place as the Bears’ scouting intern, as Paton had been promoted to a full-time pro scout and was given the duty of training Roberts.
“I was a little intimidated by him,” Roberts said. “George is as professional as you get. He was a professional from a young age. He’s a grinder, but he’s got some savvy. He knows how to deal with people, but he also knows how to get the work done. And it was a lot of grunt work. I mean, he earned his way. He would do everything from filing combine reports — literally filing it by hand — to doing Rick (Spielman’s) board every day to writing player reports.
“The guy’s always working. And if he’s not working, he’s thinking about it.”
In Paton’s first year with the Bears, he was a sponge, soaking in as much knowledge as possible. He attached himself to Spielman, who was the pro director at the time, learning from Spielman’s first-one-in, last-one-out mentality.
“I think it started back when he was an intern in Chicago,” Spielman said Jan. 14 in a Broncos press conference when Paton was hired. “I remember that's how I was brought up through this business, and I know we get in here early, and I taught him and that's what I was taught — you don't leave till the coaches leave. Then the offseason it even gets busier, but that's what makes George incredibly unique is his work ethic. What do you want to call it — a 'grinder'.
A year into working in the NFL, Paton earned the respect from the Bears’ front office, due to his willingness to do whatever was asked while also always being one of the most knowledgeable people in the room thanks to the hours of study.
Soon, he became one of the most trusted scouts in Chicago’s front office.
“He would leave no stone unturned. And I think that has really followed him throughout his NFL career,” said Rees, who has spent time in five different NFL front offices spanning 20 years. “If there is more film to watch, he’ll do that. If he has to go see someone live in-person at a workout, he’ll do that. If he needs to go see a player play in a game, he’ll do that. If it’s analytics to find out more information to put the final touches on the puzzle, he’ll do that.
“George was very capable really from the get-go. You could see how rapidly he was moving up the chain in the league. It was obvious that he had a very good eye for talent, he had an extremely good work ethic and he was very smart.”
Paton was promoted in 2000 to the assistant director or pro personnel — Spielman’s right-hand man — before leaving with Spielman for Miami in 2001 to be the director of pro personnel. He served that role for five years and took that same position in Minnesota in 2007. By 2012, he was promoted to assistant general manager under Spielman, who was named the Vikings GM, and in 2015 Paton was named assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel.
Paton has excelled at free agency and the draft, living in the film room during the off-season, Rees and Roberts said. His evaluations were thorough and his opinions strong.
“George doesn’t speak very often. He takes everything in and when he does speak, everyone listens and it carries weight because he thought about it thoroughly,” said Roberts, a Vikings scout for the past nine years. “Many times in Minnesota that happened where maybe we’d be going back and forth with a couple players and George would sit back, kind of take everything in and then speak his mind. And all of the sudden it was almost like there was some clarity there. That’s just the way he is. He doesn’t get animated. And that’s probably why he carried so much weight, because that’s just not his personality -- he’s laid back, he’s calm, he’s well thought out, he’s going to say his peace and the best part is he was never a ‘yes’ man. He always gave his opinion and that’s why he’s so good at what he does.”
'The smart move.'
Paton interviewed and even turned down several GM openings during his time in Minnesota, hoping to find the right fit for him. He found that in Denver.
“I’m really excited for him because I think it’s a really good match,” Rees said. “I think it’s a good match for Denver and I think it’s a good match for George. He’ll do great things there.”
Now Paton will have the final say.
While his opinion always mattered in Chicago, Miami and Minnesota during the draft process, Thursday he’ll get to make his own decisions. But those decisions, Paton says, will be a product of the lessons he's learned.
“You take something from everyone you’ve been around. They all have certain strengths. I don’t want to go through each guy, but you do,” Paton said Thursday. “From (former Bears GM) Mark Hatley and my first job in Chicago. Just the rare instincts and the way he treated people. Bill Rees — I’ve never been around a guy who just knows how to recruit players and evaluate players. Rick Spielman — just the collaboration, the human being and the detail.
“I can go through each one. You take a little bit of everyone and try to use it while at the same time, being genuine and being yourself.”
Paton has always stayed true to himself and has promised as much to Broncos Country.
“Every decision he makes will be having done thorough research. It’s not going to be on a whim, it’s not going to be because someone else is telling him to do it,” Roberts said. “When George makes a decision, it’s going to be in the best interest of the organization. It’s not going to be because it’s the sexy or flashy move, it’s going to because it’s the smart move. That’s how he was trained.”
Paton will have many important decisions to make during the NFL draft from April 29-May 1 — maybe even drafting the Broncos’ future franchise quarterback. Denver’s long-term future hinges not only on the picks Paton makes this year, but in years to come.
But he’ll be ready, because it's a day for which he's spent 24 years preparing.
“George is very capable. He’s going to draft the best players for the team,” Rees said. “There will be very little if anything that surprises him. And he might just surprise a few of you along the way.”