New Coaches: Who Makes The Grade?

February 14, 2021

Kicking off the 2021 offseason with a bang, a whopping seven NFL teams needed to find new head coaches. As of today, the vacancies are filled up. Let’s take a look and see what their hires mean for their teams.

Honorable mentions: Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills

Neither team hired a new head coach for obvious reasons, but both retained their dominant offensive coordinators. Continuity is an underrated aspect of football. Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy will be a hot name to target next year yet again while the Bills’ Brian Daboll looks to prove that Josh Allen’s meteoric rise was no fluke.

Atlanta Falcons hire Arthur Smith

OC: Dave Ragone

DC: Dean Pees

Smith deserves a lot of credit for Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill’s success, constantly putting them in positions to succeed through a run-dominant, play-action focused system. Getting Smith was an intriguing hire for a Falcons team that hasn’t had a threatening rushing attack since their Super Bowl year with Kyle Shanahan coaching the dynamic tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Smith has acknowledged this and has already said that things will be very different in Atlanta.

That flexibility is always welcome, but there really are too many questions about this roster to foresee how Smith plans to establish his offense. Will Matt Ryan be the secured starter with the Falcons holding the No. 4 pick in the draft? His contract certainly says so. Who’s the starting running back? Does Julio Jones return? These are questions for later — for now Arthur Smith is a bright new mind who could bring some fresh life to a stagnant franchise that floundered in mediocrity under Dan Quinn. Smith showed enough in Tennessee over his two seasons as offensive coordinator to deserve this shot.

Ragone worked as a quarterbacks coach for most of his career, although he worked in a variety of offensive positions while on the same staff as Smith. He’s never been a coordinator, but this will still be Smith’s offense with Ragone’s advice. Dean Pees brings experience as a 71-year-old coach who has been around for years. He should be an experienced voice to bounce ideas off for a first-time head coach like Smith.

Grade: B

Detroit Lions hire Dan Campbell

OC: Anthony Lynn

DC: Aaron Glenn

The Lions are in desperate need of the classic culture change, and if Campbell’s first press conference was any indication, that will be the case. Campbell, a former tight-end, comes from an offensive background after working with Sean Payton as an offensive assistant since 2016. His passion for the game is unmatched, although that’s far from a success indicator.

All in all, teams should play to their strengths. For Detroit, with Matthew Stafford soon to be traded, D’Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson are the lone stars on this side of the ball who are under contract. Swift finished inside the top-10 of PFF’s elusiveness ranks while Hockenson enjoyed a big sophomore jump with 67 receptions, 723 yards and six scores. Campbell has already discussed using Swift in the passing game more, particularly in the slot.

Campbell has only been an interim head coach in the past, coaching the Dolphins back in 2015 when he revitalized their rushing attack under his watch. Adding a former head coach in Anthony Lynn was a smart move while Aaron Glenn is a well-respected defensive coordinator who turned a once-weak New Orleans secondary into a dominant unit. Campbell also brought along Duce Staley, Philadelphia’s running back’s coach — the one who wanted to actually use Miles Sanders with any consistency.

Campbell was a surprise hire, but he should be able to lead this team in a way it hasn’t been before. Time will tell how his players respond when they inevitably face a losing season, but the coaching staff around him makes me confident in the future, assuming they can find a viable option under center.

Grade: B+

Houston Texans hire David Culley

OC: ?

DC: ?

Culley seemed like one of the only people who actually wanted this job, which says a lot about Houston. Between shaky ownership and a lack of overall talent outside of Deshaun Watson, who reportedly asked for a trade, there’s not much to like here. Culley was a Ravens assistant and has 27 years of experience. At age 65 he won’t be reinventing the wheel, but he could bring stability to a chaotic organization.

If they trade Watson, the Texans will be among the worst in the league this year, if not the worst. Culley won’t have much to work with, and his experience revolves mainly around wide receivers and the passing game — both clear weaknesses for the Ravens. It’s a puzzling hire that suggests there weren’t many takers for the job. Every year there are such hires that work out (Joe Judge), but there are plenty that don’t (Vance Joseph).

Since the deal has yet to be finalized, there isn’t a clear coaching staff although former quarterback Josh McCown and former Bears head coach Lovie Smith have been rumored as options. Smith would be a strong get as a defensive coordinator and McCown, as someone many expect to eventually be a head coach someday, would make for an intriguing offensive assistant in any capacity.

Culley received a five-year deal, so he will be expected to pick the quarterback of the future sometime soon. His future will be directly tied to that choice, and as we saw with Bill O’Brien, Culley will have a loose leash to coach as he sees fit.

Grade: C

Jacksonville Jaguars hire Urban Meyer

OC: Darrell Bevell

DC: Joe Cullen

After years of speculation, Ohio State’s pillar Meyer will finally make his NFL debut as the head coach of the Jaguars, armed with two first-round picks including the 1.01. It’s certainly not a bad situation to be in. Meyer wouldn’t be entering the NFL scope if he wasn’t committed to turning this franchise around. With Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence all but a Jaguar, there is a lot to like about this offense going forward, particularly for fantasy. Meyer has traditionally committed to one running back — good news for James Robinson, who thrived with volume.

Another reason to be excited about Jacksonville was the hiring of Darrell Bevell. To show how respected Bevell is, Matthew Stafford only asked for a trade once he knew Bevell was leaving Detroit. In five of his seven years as Seattle’s offensive coordinator, the team ranked inside the top six in scoring. Not bad. His time in Detroit was hindered by Stafford’s injury in 2019 and Kenny Golladay’s injury in 2020, but there was also an overall lack of talent. His misuse of D’Andre Swift early in the year was a concern, but something he rectified as the year progressed and he took over as interim head coach. With 14 years of NFL coaching experience he should be a big asset to Meyer.

Cullen is a first-time coordinator who worked wonders with Baltimore’s defensive line last season, albeit with superior talent. Given Meyer’s offensive mindset a lot will be asked of Cullen, who will be expected to change a Jaguars defensive scheme that hasn’t been altered in well over five years. He developed several players over his five years as Baltimore’s defensive line coach, such as Michael Pierce, Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan. Cullen is poised to make an impact on the 31st ranked Jacksonville defense that desperately needs a rebrand.

Grade: B+

Los Angeles Chargers hire Brandon Staley

OC: Joe Lombardi

DC: Renaldo Hill

This feels like an underrated hire that because it wasn’t a big name like Eric Bienemy or Brian Daboll, people lost interest. Staley, who led one of the league’s most dominant defenses with the Los Angeles Rams, is also a former quarterback who could have a unique perspective when mentoring their franchise cornerstone Justin Herbert. While his contributions should be felt on the defensive side given his success as the Rams defensive coordinator, his presence will be made on both sides of the ball.

Naturally, with a budding star in Herbert, the offensive coordinator position is crucial. Lombardi worked with the Saints for years, both as an offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach. He worked with Drew Brees, an all-time great, for 12 of his 15 seasons. Joe Lombardi also had a short 2014/15 stint with Detroit as their offensive coordinator, the same year both Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson recorded 1,000+ yard seasons. Both receivers as well as Matthew Stafford were Pro Bowlers that year. Joe is also the grandson of Vince Lombardi, who needs no introduction. It’s a really strong hire and Lombardi could earn himself head coaching talk over the coming years if Herbert’s trajectory continues to soar. It’s a smart move for the Chargers that should excite all fantasy players given his experience in plenty of fantasy-productive systems that have all leaned on the passing game.

Hill, the former defensive backs coach for the Broncos, is a former player himself after gritting out 10 years as a seventh-round pick — impressive. The Broncos secondary has outperformed the talent therein this past season, a feat many attributed to Vic Fangio in 2020, but Hill deserves some credit. While Staley will impose his own system, Hill is a nice addition to bounce thoughts off of — Staley and Hill coached together in Denver in 2019.

Grade: B+

New York Jets hire Robert Saleh

OC: Mike LaFleur

DC: Jeff Ulbrich

Man, the Jets don’t do much right, but they sure did the right thing here. Saleh is a terrific hire that may have confused some initially — with an uncertain quarterback situation, why not go with the flashy offensive mind? Well, like Detroit with Dan Campbell, play to your strengths. Quinnen Williams quietly played at a high level and while the Jets defense needs a lot of secondary help, the defensive line has talent to work with. Saleh is also a terrific motivator who has frequently received the praise of his players. He’s already reached out to every Jets player as of last week to “get (them) paid as much as possible.” This team will play hard for Saleh, which is already a huge upgrade over Gase.

Meanwhile, LaFleur is an intriguing offensive hire as a first-time coordinator. Brother of Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur, he naturally comes from a strong coaching tree with his family connections. What’s even more impressive is that he followed Kyle Shanahan from his early roots as a 2014 coaching intern in Cleveland. Mike LaFleur then followed Shanahan to Atlanta and eventually to San Francisco as the passing game coordinator. Shanahan is great mind to learn behind, and it’s finally time to see what Mike LaFleur can do as the offensive coordinator. With so many starting positions uncertain with free agency and the NFL draft still to come, it’s hard to imagine what this offense will look like. Regardless, all indications are that the Jets secured a bright, young offensive mind and strong leader in Saleh.

Speaking of leaders, Ulbrich, a former linebacker of 10 NFL seasons, is another solid coordinator who will surprisingly be calling plays on the defensive end — not something you see every day with a defensive-minded head coach. He worked with Saleh during their time in Seattle, and clearly holds a respected spot in Saleh’s heart. He has a long coaching history, most recently working in Atlanta with Raheem Morris when the Falcons’ defense showed signs of improvement.

It’s certainly a young group, with each of the aforementioned coaches not exceeding the age of 43. It’s a well-rounded group with proven production and years of coaching experience. The future is bright in New York after the dark age of Adam Gase.

Grade: A-

Philadelphia Eagles hire Nick Sirianni

OC: Shane Steichen

DC: Jonathan Gannon

Moving on from Doug Pederson was the shakeup that needed to happen after that sorry Week 17 tanking display. He lost the locker room. I don’t even mind the hire — the Eagles are essentially looking for the next Frank Reich after he left them years ago to join the Colts. Sirianni was a quarterbacks coach from 2014-2016 until Reich hired him to be his offensive coordinator in 2017. It was still Reich’s offense, but Sirianni had his say, at least according to Reich, on occasion. The offenses he produced have been productive, but the question has to be asked, how much say did he actually have?

The important thing to remember is that Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman were looking for a coach who would stick with and try to fix Carson Wentz, who fell off a cliff in 2020. That’s why Pederson was really fired — the relationship between the quarterback and the former head coach was untenable. The Eagles need Sirianni to be the Reich-clone who helped Pederson win a Super Bowl in 2017, but clones don’t exist — and this is just the beginning of the Reich tree. Let’s see if it will actually bear fruit.

As for coordinators, Steichen is a strange hire — and that’s putting it mildly. When fans are happy he left their team, that’s a warning sign. Many believe that Steichen’s role in developing Justin Herbert was smaller than he’s given credit for, and with the offense looking stagnant at times last year, it’s a stretch to think he will do better with the Eagles’ unproven weapons. There’s no Keenan Allen to work with here.

According to The Athletic’s Sheil Kapada, the Chargers were “the most frustrating team to watch.” A big reason was the Chargers’ early-down pass-rate, 19th in the league — which makes no sense with a dominant passer like Herbert. They were also 31st in rushing DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), leaving Herbert to frequently bail the poor play-calling out. It’s not what you want to force your young quarterback to do. Sirianni will have a strong hold on this offense but Steichen will be involved as yet another unproven voice on that side of the ball.

Position coaches are always hard to narrow down for projection since they have never run the entire defense before. Many viewed Gannon, the Colts defensive backs coach, as an attractive candidate, so that’s a positive. We did see Gannon get the most out of his players despite a low investment. He made Pierre Desir a capable corner in 2019, helped Xavier Rhodes have a bounce back year in 2020 and coached Kenny Moore to a Pro Bowl-snubbed season as one of the best slot corners in the league. It’s a solid hire that should get the most out of Darius Slay and Jalen Mills, two players who are crucial to the Eagles’ success on defense.

Like the Jets, it’s a young group, but it lacks the proven coaching experience I’d want in a situation with little margin for error. It feels like a situation where ownership avoided the best candidate in favor of their current situation with Wentz — which could be a brutal mistake if Wentz can’t turn it around. Risky.

Grade: C+