2020 NFL coaching carousel review, Pt. 2

In Part One, I took a look at last year’s new coaches and graded out their 2020 performances. This time around, we’ll dive into the seven open positions from this offseason, the attractiveness of each job, and grade out the men who filled them.

All cap numbers courtesy of OverTheCap.com.

1.Jacksonville Jaguars

New coach: Urban Meyer
Former position: Retired
Hire grade: B

Few college coaches accomplished more in the 21st century than Urban Meyer, the new head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Meyer won three national championships (two at Florida, one at Ohio State), three Big Ten championships and a pair of SEC titles in 17 total seasons. His .853 win percentage is the highest of any Division I FBS coach in the last 30 years. In all reality, Meyer is the best college coach to man the sidelines this century outside of Alabama’s Nick Saban.

Saban, who is arguably the best college football coach ever, was not able to master the pro game. In two seasons as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Saban compiled a 15–17 record and never appeared in the postseason. Saban joins the likes of Steve Spurrier, Chip Kelly and Bobby Petrino on the list of college greats who failed in the NFL.

Unlike Kelly and Petrino, Meyer is a legendary college coach and widely considered one of the best in recent history. Unlike Saban and Spurrier, Meyer will have an immensely talented quarterback running his offense, as the Jaguars are expected to draft Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence first overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Lawrence, the best quarterback prospect to enter the draft since Andrew Luck left Stanford in 2012, instantly becomes the best Jaguars quarterback in years (if not ever) and the best quarterback Meyer has ever coached.

Now is the time for a coach like Meyer to come to the league. The NFL resembles the college game more than ever, with spread offenses and dual-threat quarterbacks — two staples of Meyer’s powerhouse teams at Florida and Ohio State — becoming more prevalent each season.

New Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke has a lot of work to do on defense, but an offense led by Meyer, Lawrence, running back James Robinson, and wide receivers D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault will be immediately competitive. Baalke has success working with a former college coach — he was the GM in San Francisco when Jim Harbaugh led the Niners to Super Bowl XLVII.

No team in the league has more projected cap space than Jacksonville, which should allow Baalke to arm Meyer with plenty of weapons on both sides of the ball. Assuming Meyer translates his success in the college game to the NFL, the Jaguars are shaping up to be a consistent AFC contender for the first time in franchise history.

2. Los Angeles Chargers

New coach: Brandon Staley
Former position: Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator
Hire grade: C+

Maybe Chargers president of football operations John Spanos thinks a defensive coach will get his team out of its years-long rut.

Spanos handed the reigns of his team to three consecutive offensive-minded head coaches — Norv Turner, Mike McCoy and Anthony Lynn — with middling results: The Chargers have not advanced past the divisional playoffs since 2007 and have won 10 or more games only once since 2010.

Enter Staley, the latest in a long line of young assistants who spent a little time with Rams head coach Sean McVay and earned a head-coaching gig of their own. Staley led a talented Rams defense to the top of the league in 2020 and will now be tasked with translating the talent in Los Angeles’ other locker room into success on the field.

Instead of hiring the latest guy who knows Sean McVay, the Chargers should have brought in a head coach capable of maximizing the talent of quarterback Justin Herbert. At the very least, the team should have hired a talented offensive coordinator to complement Staley, much like the Bills did in hiring Brian Daboll alongside head coach Sean McDermott.

Herbert’s continued development will instead fall to new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who has years of experience working with Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees but has not proven an ability to develop a still-raw talent like Herbert.

There is potential for the Chargers to recreate some of the magic McDermott and Daboll created in Buffalo, but both Bills coaches were more proven than the new regime in Los Angeles is today.

Staley inherits a talented squad with the ninth-most cap space ($23.8 million) in the league as of press time. Cornerstones like Joey Bosa and Derwin James lead the defense, while Staley also benefits from the most valuable commodity in the modern game: A young, talented quarterback. These qualities made the Chargers job one of the more attractive openings this winter, but it will be up to the unproven Staley to bring it all together for the Bolts.

3. New York Jets

New coach: Robert Saleh
Former position: San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator
Hire grade: B+

The New York Jets are in dire need of a culture shift. In truth, they have been for some time — no Jets coach in the 21st century has coached more than a year and left the job with a winning record.

Robert Saleh may be the guy to finally establish a winning identity on the green side of Gotham. The former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator knows what it takes to win. Saleh, still just 42 years old, has already been to two Super Bowls as an assistant —Super Bowl XLVIII with Seattle and Super Bowl LIV with San Francisco. Saleh played a key role in coaching the Legion of Boom and rebuilt the Niners’ defense into one of the most fearsome units in football.

Equally as important is Saleh’s relationship with his players. Saleh is one of the most passionate coaches in football — he’s been the bald guy screaming on the sidelines after every big defensive play made by his 49ers defense — and has a history of getting his players to buy in.

The Jets paired Saleh with new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. The younger LaFleur has been coaching under offensive guru Kyle Shanahan since 2015 and will bring an interesting wrinkle to a Jets team waiting to be molded by the right coaching staff.

General manager Joe Douglas has a history of learning under some of the best minds in football. Douglas spent 15 years as one of Ozzie Newsome’s top scouts in Baltimore and four more as Howie Roseman’s vice president of player personnel in Philadelphia. Douglas is armed with $67.9 million of cap space, third-most in the league, and a treasure trove of draft picks. These factors alone made the opening in New York surprisingly attractive.

The true X-factor, however, is quarterback Deshaun Watson, who reportedly wants to play for Saleh and has made the Jets his preferred trade destination. Should Watson end up in New York, Saleh and the Jets would be one of the league’s more intriguing teams heading into the 2021 season and beyond.

4. Detroit Lions

New coach: Dan Campbell
Former position: New Orleans Saints assistant head coach and tight ends coach
Hire grade: C-

No offense to Detroit’s new head coach, but Dan Campbell is the type of guy a team hires when their first choice —perhaps a Michigan native who had widespread support among the Lions fan base — takes the head coaching job somewhere else … like, say, New York.

Campbell, a former tight end who played 10 years in the NFL, entered the coaching realm in 2010 and spent the last five seasons as Sean Payton’s assistant head coach in New Orleans. That is certainly a great learning tree to sit under, but Campbell is a really underwhelming hire for a team staring down the barrel of another rebuild.

The bar in Detroit is low — Campbell’s predecessor, Matt Patricia, only united the Lions through their disdain for Patricia himself. Campbell will be liked by his players, and he will provide more than a couple interesting sound bites (during his introductory new conference, Campbell said his Lions players will “bite a kneecap off”) but there won’t be much winning in the Motor City, at least not in 2021.

Matthew Stafford, the one constant in Detroit who managed to keep the Lions afloat multiple times over his 12 years with the team, was replaced with Jared Goff, who was exposed by Bill Belichick in Super Bowl LIII and hasn’t recovered. The Lions will be notably worse with Goff under center, especially if one, or both, of receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones leave the team this offseason.

Questions abound in Detroit even after Campbell’s hire. Goff clearly isn’t Detroit’s long-term answer under center. Will the Lions target someone like Trey Lance or Kyle Trask at no. 7 this spring? Do they wait to see what Goff can do in 2021 and potentially move for someone like Sam Howell or Tyler Shough in 2022?

With limited cap space ($5.9 million as of press time) and a team to rebuild from the ground up, Campbell will have his work cut out for him in Detroit.

5. Atlanta Falcons

New coach: Arthur Smith
Former position: Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator
Hire grade: B

Let’s start with the good news: Arthur Smith is a pretty good hire by Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Smith is young, but he worked his way through the Titans organization, starting as an offensive quality control coach in 2012 and ascending to offensive coordinator in 2019. When former offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur left Tennessee to take the head coaching job in Green Bay, Smith kept the offense clicking, as the Titans finished 12th in total offense in 2019 and third in 2020.

Now, for the bad news: Atlanta’s cap situation is a disaster. The Falcons are currently projected to be $20.3 million over the cap next year, the sixth-worst mark in the league. Almost 70 percent of Atlanta’s 2021 cap is tied up in five players, an astronomically bad situation that almost certainly played a part in former general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s firing in October.

There is a silver lining, however. Dimitroff’s replacement, Terry Fontenot, spent 17 years working in various front-office roles in New Orleans. The Saints, rather famously, have little concern for the salary cap on a year-to-year basis and Fontenot surely learned some salary gymnastics in the Big Easy. He’ll need every last one of them — there are no easy paths to cap relief unless Atlanta wants to cut Matt Ryan and designate it as a post-June 1 move, which would save them $17.5 million.

Although Atlanta’s immediate future is cloudy, Blank may have found a great candidate to lead the Falcons through the fog. There are decisions to be made in the near future, especially with Matt Ryan aging and increasingly ineffective. Those decisions will ultimately decide if Smith is a success in the ATL.

6. Philadelphia Eagles

New coach: Nick Sirianni
Former position: Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator
Hire grade: C

The hiring of Nick Sirianni does not move the needle. Sirianni is a solid if unspectacular choice, another young, white, offensive-minded head coach in a league chasing the next Sean McVay.

Bringing Sirianni into Philadelphia reeks of a front office desperate to find a coach in the Doug Pederson/Frank Reich mold, but without the personality that will ruffle feathers with management.

Reports out of Philadelphia this winter suggest that is precisely the reason Pederson, who led the Eagles to the only Super Bowl victory in franchise history, was fired Jan. 11. Multiple reports from NFL insiders implied Eagles ownership frequently meddled in Pederson’s affairs, and Pederson was “sick of people telling him what to do”, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Philadelphia used to have one of the most highly regarded franchises in the league. Now the team is a mess with an owner who interferes to such a point that a Super Bowl-winning coach reaches his breaking point. On top of that, the Eagles currently sit $47.3 million over the projected 2021 salary cap of $180 million. Philly may have to designate Carson Wentz’s trade to Indianapolis as a post-June 1 move just to get under the cap.

A once-ascendant franchise sits at a true crossroads with plenty of work to do before returning to the heights experienced just three years ago. Philadelphia, however, is still not the least-appealing opening of 2021.

7. Houston Texans

New coach: David Culley
Former position: Baltimore Ravens assistant head coach, wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator
Hire grade: F

That auspicious title belongs to the job recently filled by David Culley.

The last time Culley was a coordinator, at any level, was at Texas-El Paso, five years before the birth of his quarterback (for now), Deshaun Watson. That offense was an outright disaster, averaging 20.0 points per game in 1989 and 17.4 points per game in 1990. Culley spent the next 27 years (!) as a wide receivers coach before a two-year stint coaching quarterbacks in Buffalo.

Most recently, Culley was the passing game coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens … owners of the worst passing attack in football, statistically speaking.

This would normally induce a series of head scratches and/or face palms, but it’s the Texans. Houston is a train wreck of a franchise and this is what train-wrecked franchises do.

In fact, the Houston Texans are the reigning and defending holders of the Worst NFL Franchise title belt. Their former team owner, the late Bob McNair, once referred to Texans players, most of whom are Black, as “inmates running the prison.” And in 2020, a Sports Illustrated report compared executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby to Littlefinger from Game of Thrones.

Most notably, Houston may be the first team in NFL history to trade a franchise quarterback before his prime. By all accounts, Deshaun Watson is the consummate professional and any team would be thrilled to have Watson as their franchise cornerstone. Well, any team except the Texans, apparently.

Reports this winter indicated the team told Watson they would include him in the process of hiring Houston’s next head coach, then swiftly became the only team with an opening not to interview Watson’s top choice, Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, over wildcard weekend. Before that, former head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien traded the best wide receiver in football, DeAndre Hopkins, for pennies on the dollar. Watkins, a close friend of Hopkins, found out about the trade on social media.

Now, Watson wants out. Who can blame him? This organization is rife with office politics practiced by people who don’t understand how to build a successful football team.

Barring a trade of Watson, which is a catastrophic failure on many levels, Houston will not have a first- or second-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft. The team lost J.J. Watt, the best defensive player in team history, for nothing … even though multiple reports suggested there were strong trade offers for the former All-Pro defensive lineman.

Culley may be a great coach, but he isn’t the type of guy to move the needle in any meaningful way. In fact, ProFootballTalk recently reported multiple league sources who believe Culley is a bridge to Josh McCown, of all people.

It really is hard to tell what Houston is doing, but whatever it is isn’t good, and Culley isn’t the guy who is going to fix it.

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