One of the first pieces of a new NFL season takes place before the current NFL season ever ends, and that’s the hiring and firing of coaches. This NFL off-season we had seven teams with openings, some like the Texans and Lions who made moves before the regular season even ended and others, like the Eagles, who decided to go in a new direction after Week 17. After a few weeks of interviews, all seven openings have been filled.
After next week’s Super Bowl it will be more than a month before the new NFL Season officially begins, but with new coaches in place we can start to see how the off-season will take shape for several teams. So, let’s look at the new faces in new places and consider what it might mean.
This was, perhaps, the most attractive coach opening. The Jaguars were miserable in 2020, going 1-15 under former Head Coach Doug Marone. The silver lining is that effort landed them the No. 1 overall draft pick. The team also has more than $69 million in cap space along with some good young pieces on offense, including wide receivers D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault and running back James Robinson.
To fill their coaching opening, the Jaguars hired Urban Meyer. Meyer has a long and celebrated history in the Collegiate Ranks, most notably with the Florida Gators and Ohio State Buckeyes. Meyer was with Florida from 2005 through 2010, going 65-15, 5-1 in Bowl Games and topping the AP Poll Twice. After a brief retirement, Meyer served as Head Coach at Ohio State from 2012 through 2018, going 83-9, 5-2 in Bowl Games and winning one National Championship.
Meyer is a big name that should be a big draw for fans. He should have good draft capital, including two first round picks in 2021, and cash for the front office to play with. It will be interesting to see if he can successfully transition from the college coach ranks like Pete Carroll, who went from USC to the Seahawks and has been a perennial contender, or more like Chip Kelley, who burned bright with the Eagles before burning out in the NFL. It won’t hurt that Meyer will likely enter his first season with former Clemson star Trevor Lawrence as his new QB.
Prediction: I think the Jaguars will attract some talent but won’t make a huge leap in 2021. I see them in the five to six-win range.
New York Jets
The Jets were long the front-runner for the top pick in the NFL Draft and were the last team to get a regular season win. But the Jets ended up winning two games, proving that former Head Coach Adam Gase was just as bad at strategically losing as he was at winning. Gase won only nine games in two seasons with the Jets and, as was long expected, parted ways with the team shortly after the season. He leaves behind a team with the No. 2 overall draft pick and more than $65 million in cap space, but the team is going to need it. Under Gase, the Jets experienced a talent exodus that could take some time to overcome.
The Jets filled their open slot with Robert Saleh, a long-time assistant who was a hot name in coaching searches prior to the 2020 season and again in this cycle. Saleh has plenty of NFL experience as an assistant, working in the NFL since 2005 with stints for the Texans, Seahawks, and Jaguars. But it’s his experience as the Defensive Coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, a post he’s held since 2017, that gained him the most attention. Saleh’s ferocious defense during the 2019 season was largely credited with helping the 49ers win the NFC and make it to the Super Bowl. Jets fans, and the team’s Front Office, must hope he brings the same intensity to a raw, young team.
The Jets also face some of the most difficult off-season questions. Sam Darnold, a former Top 5 pick, has had three uneven seasons. The Jets could stick with Darnold and build around him or could easily use the No. 2 overall pick to grab a potential franchise quarterback. There’s also a third option as Texans’ star Deshaun Watson asked for a trade and is rumored to prefer the Jets as a landing spot. Were the Jets able to pair Watson with young weapons like Denzel Mims and Chris Herndon, veteran Jamison Crowder and find help for the line and running back group, the Jets could bounce back to being competitive sooner than expected.
Prediction: The big question here is Watson, and ultimately I’m going to guess he does not end up with the Jets. I think the team drafts around Darnold and gives him one more shot, ending up in the six to eight-win range.
The Falcons didn’t need a full season to decide it was time to move on from Dan Quinn, and for a while Interim Coach Raheem Morris looked like he sparked the group. Ultimately the Falcons struggled with injuries and struggled to win games. The team ended up with the No. 4 overall pick, which is the good news. The bad news is the salary cap, where the Falcons are currently more than $33 million over the cap for 2021. That means some hard decisions, and little money to make improvements.
While Morris got a shot to interview, the Falcons ultimately went with former Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator Arthur Smith as Head Coach. The last Titans’ Offensive Coordinator to get a Head Coach slot was Matt LaFleur, who has gone to two NFC Championship Games in two seasons with the Green Bay Packers. The road figures to be tougher for Smith with big questions on offense and defense, no cap space and aging stars like Julio Jones and Matt Ryan eating a big chunk of the payroll. Smith worked for Joe Gibbs for two seasons in Washington but has been with the Titans since 2011. He worked in a variety of positions, but spent the past two seasons as Offensive Coordinator, where the Titans’ offense are good, but run heavy. That made sense for a team anchored around Derrick Henry. The Falcons don’t have that luxury, as the current roster includes only Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison and Tony Brooks-James under contract at the running back position heading into the off-season.
The Falcons felt like one of the least desirable, if not the least desirable, openings for Head Coaches. Doubtless Smith will have his work cut out for him in the near term.
Prediction: The Saints likely face changes, but Tom Brady could well be back for the Buccaneers and the Panthers are further ahead in a re-build. Life in the NFC South won’t be easy, particularly with the Falcons’ roster and salary cap challenges. I’d be surprised if they were better than six wins.
The 2020 season was somewhat of a disaster for the Eagles. The NFC East wasn’t good, and the Eagles seemed like a decent bet to win the division and earn a fourth straight playoff berth. But they couldn’t win games. Star quarterback Carson Wentz ended up getting benched, and while rookie Jalen Hurts gave them a spark, wins didn’t necessarily follow. So, in a mild surprise, Eagles’ coach Doug Pederson was given a pink slip following the season. In five years with the Eagles, Pederson was 42-37-1, including a 4-2 mark in the playoffs. He also led the Eagles to a Super Bowl title following the 2017 season. But a sticking point for ownership seemed to be Wentz, who wasn’t a part of Pederson’s plan moving forward. So, Pederson and the Eagles parted ways, and the search began.
Enter Nick Sirianni, who is the new coach for the Eagles. He has been coaching in the NFL since 2009, working for the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers before becoming Offensive Coordinator in Indianapolis in 2018. He worked with different starting quarterbacks each year with the Colts and now gets Wentz, who was rumored to be a target of the Colts when it looked like he might be on the market. Doubtless given what happened with Pederson, part of Sirianni’s pitch must have included Wentz. And the Eagles have some weapons around him already.
The Eagles also hold the No. 6 pick in the NFL Draft. The Eagles have some young stars like running back Miles Sanders, receiver Jalen Reagor and tight end Dallas Goedert on offense, but they also have significant cap issues. That will leave the Front Office with some work to be done to erase a projected overage of more than $51 million.
Prediction: The NFC East is still wide open, and the Eagles have talent. The team has also struggled with injuries and inefficiency. I think Sirianni will get the team back to slightly over .500 and competing for a division title.
I liked the Lions’ roster and prospects heading into the 2020 season. I predicted them to make the playoffs and Matt Patricia to be Coach of the Year. I was wrong. The Lions struggled mightily and Patricia was fired before the season ended. The Lions ended up in last place in the NFC North, again, and began the off-season looking for a new coach to lead a re-build.
Enter Dan Campbell, who takes over as Head Coach. Campbell started coaching in 2010 with the Dolphins, taking over as Interim Head Coach there after Joe Philbin was fired in 2015. Campbell went 5-7 in that stint but didn’t get the permanent job in Miami, or anywhere else. He instead moved over to work with Sean Payton and the Saints as Assistant Head Coach and Tight End Coach. Now, he gets his shot to lead a team on his own. But it will be a challenge, especially after the Lions and franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford mutually agreed to part ways. On January 30, Stafford was traded to the Rams for Jared Goff, a third round pick and two future first round picks.
The Lions hold the No. 7 pick in the NFL Draft, which is good, but boast just under $3 million in projected cap space. The Lions have holes to fill. New Offensive Coordinator Anthony Lynn, formerly the Chargers’ Head Coach, will have young tight end T.J. Hockenson, second year running back D’Andre Swift and receiving prospect Quintez Cepheus. But with Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones as free agents, and Stafford moving on the Lions lost a lot of weapons and experience on offense. It’s fair to wonder how free agents will perceive the team, and while two firsts for Stafford are great, neither will come in 2021. And the team had some mighty struggles on defense, too. This will likely take some time to get worked out.
Prediction: I’m much less bullish on the 2021 Lions than I was on the 2020 version. Campbell seems fired up and intense, but we’ll see how that translates to being Head Coach. Regardless, the Lions’ roster problems don’t present an easy fix. I think they’ll be in the cellar in the NFC North again next season.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers had a unique season. The team started with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback ahead of first round pick Justin Herbert. That lasted a game before Taylor was injured and put out of commission thanks to a medical mistake. Herbert took over as starter and looked like a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, leading the Chargers to a 7-9 record. But the tough finishes in close games cost Lynn his job as Head Coach. The Chargers’ hold the No. 13 pick in the NFL Draft, have just under $24 million in cap space and look to have found their franchise quarterback. That made the Chargers one of the most appealing openings.
Enter Brandon Staley, who comes to the Chargers with just four seasons of NFL coaching experience. After a few years in the collegiate ranks, Staley spent the 2017 and 2018 season working with outside linebackers for the Chicago Bears, 2019 doing the same for the Denver Broncos and 2020 as the Defensive Coordinator for the Rams. He transformed the Rams into a defensive power, which helped propel them to the playoffs. And with the Chargers he has some great pieces on offense—with star receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler—and on defense—with Joey Bosa, Casey Hayward, Kenneth Murray and Derwin James, among others.
Prediction: This team wasn’t far off from being above .500 in 2020, and that should continue in 2021. The biggest challenge is a tough division led by the Chiefs that features plenty of potential in the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos, too. I think the Chargers will be in the nine to 10-win range in 2021 and challenge for a playoff spot.
And we finish with the toughest situation on this list in the Houston Texans. Former Head Coach and General Manager Bill O’Brien made a lot of moves the past two seasons, and watched his team implode on the field under a brutal schedule to start 2020. He was fired mid-season, with Romeo Crennel taking over in the Interim. Even with one of the leagues’ best quarterbacks in Deshuan Watson, it didn’t matter. The Texans finished with one of the worst records in the league, a mark that would have earned them the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Except they had traded the pick to the Dolphins. Worse yet, the Texans are projected at about $16.5 million over the Salary Cap, creating a steep hill to climb.
The first thing the team did was hire a General Manager in Nick Caserio, out of the Patriots’ organization. It was a hiring that seemed to rankle Watson, who has since formerly requested a trade. The bad news is potentially losing one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. The good news is moving Watson for a team with no draft capital and no cap space could be a boon to a rebuilding effort. Either way, that job will fall to new Head Coach David Culley, who comes with plenty of NFL coaching experience, albeit none as a coordinator. Culley began working in the NFL in 1994, predominately working with receivers. He served as Assistant Head Coach in Kansas City from 2013 to 2016, moved to the Buffalo Bills as Quarterbacks Coach for two seasons and spent the last two years as Assistant Head Coach/Passing Game Coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens.
The Texans must settle the situation with Watson, which looks to be a foregone conclusion right now. Then comes the work of rebuilding a team that has plenty of holes to fill and few resources to make splashy moves this off-season.
Prediction: I think the Texans will have to bottom out before they can come back up. O’Brien made big swings to compete for a title in the here-and-now, but it didn’t pan out. This is a multi-year re-build, and I suspect the Texans will be the worst team in the AFC South again in 2021.
Matthew Fox is a graduate of the Radio, Television and Film program at Biola University, and a giant nerd. He spends his free time watching movies, TV, and obsessing about football. He is a member of the FSWA. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.