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Grading the NFL Head Coach Hirings Before the 2021 Season

Urban Meyer

At this point all seven NFL head coaching vacancies have been filled. It is fair to say that this coaching cycle has been extremely interesting because some of the perceived top candidates like Eric Bieniemy, Brian Daboll, and Wink Martindale did not land a job. Some of the new head coaches seemingly came out of nowhere.

Some of the new coaches are more qualified than others some with 10+ years of coaching experience and other have much less. Certain coaches also fit what their team needs more than the others. There are a lot of factors that go into grading a head coaching hire before they coach Week 1 next season. Those factors are coaching experience, fit, scheme, and potential coaching staff. Here are the grades for the new NFL head coaches that were hired after the 2020-21 regular season.

Urban Meyer

New Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

Former Job: Fox Sports College Football Analyst

Previous Coaching Experience: Ohio State HC (2012-18), Florida HC (2005-10), Utah HC (2003-04)

Accomplishments: 3x Division National Champion Head Coach

Rather than hire a former NFL head coach or one of the leagues best assistant coaches/coordinators, the Jacksonville Jaguars decided to bring one of the greatest college football coaches out of retirement. Since his retirement Meyer has been rumored to be a candidate for some NFL head coaching jobs, but as time passed it seemed unrealistic to expect Meyer to come out of retirement and take a position unless it was the perfect scenario.

Last season there was a rumor linking Meyer to the Dallas Cowboys Head coaching vacancy which seemed like a near perfect option considering their offensive superstars stars, star studded offensive line, and their defense that had one star in every defensive position group. Dallas appeared to be a head coach away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender and still Meyer did not interview for the job.

Instead of signing with a Super Bowl contender, Meyer signed with the team with the worst record in the league this last season. But Jacksonville had enough to offer Meyer who had a comfortable job and a legacy that doesn’t need to be added to since he already has done enough to be a first ballot College Football Hall of Famer.

The Jaguars have the first overall pick which they could use to select Trevor Lawerence. For those who don’t know much about Lawerence, he is being called the best quarterback to come out of college since 2012. Lawerence is in the same class of college football quarterback as Andrew Luck and John Elway. An opportunity to coach a prospect like Lawerence is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Besides that pick they have another first round pick that they acquired from the Rams in the Jalen Ramsey deal which is 25th overall and a second round pick from the Vikings which is 45th overall. Jacksonville also has the most available salary cap space at about $74.6 Million. Their current roster has a few young players to build around including D.J. Chark, James Robinson, Josh Allen, and C.J. Henderson. The Jaguars also play in a division without any clear favorite. The AFC South is up in the air seemingly any season and with Lawerence they could have the most or second most talented quarterback in the division.

Meyer has achieved great levels of success at every destination and knows how to establish a winning culture. The Jaguars are in desperate need for the winning culture that Meyer can provide. They have been close to the bottom of the league for the better part of a decade and have only made the playoffs three times over the past 20 years. He has also recruited, scouted, and coached many of college and the NFL’s top stars. His talent evaluating skills are unmatched by many and he will be extremely useful when trying to recruit free agents (especially his former players) and drafting college players over the next couple of seasons.

There are two questions that come up with the Meyer to Jacksonville hire. First Meyer does not have a single season of NFL coaching experience, not even as an assistant. The NFL game is vastly different than college and Meyer may learn that early in his time in Jacksonville which could affect the team over his first few seasons in the league much like Nick Saban with the Dolphins. Also Meyer is used to having an influx of over the top elite players joining his teams every season. That will not be the case in the NFL since there are only so many extremely talented players in the draft and the salary cap prevents teams from signing elite players to massive contracts every season. It’ll be interesting to see how Meyer will be able to improve or retain the level of the play of his teams with those restrictions he hasn’t had in the past.

Grade: A-

Robert Saleh

New Team: New York Jets

Former Job: San Fransisco 49ers Defensive Coordinator (2017-20)

Previous Coaching Experience: Jacksonville Jaguars Linebackers Coach (2014-16), Seattle Seahawks Quality Control Coach (2011-13) Houston Texans Assistant Coach (2005-10)

Accomplishments: Super Bowl XLVIII Champion (Seattle Seahawks), Coached a top-5 defense in the league the past two seasons (San Fransisco 49ers)

Robert Saleh
Robert Saleh has been one of the hottest head coaching candidates for the past two seasons (newyorkjets.com)

It seems that out of all the most popular coordinators that seemed atop the list of head coaching candidates the past two seasons, Robert Saleh was the only one to get a job. Saleh was a final candidate for the Cleveland Browns job a season ago, but returned to San Fransisco for another season. Despite all the injuries the 49ers had this season especially on the defensive side of the ball, Saleh managed to keep them at an elite level.

The New York Jets job would have been more attractive if they were to have a chance at Trevor Lawerence. But despite not having that chance, the Jets have some qualities to offer a new head coach. Saleh will be working closely with Jets general manager Joe Douglas who has proven in his short time with the team that he is good at his job and committed to changing the team reputation.

Secondly the Jets have the second overall pick in this years draft. Though the Jets won’t land a prospect as regarded as Lawerence they could take the best player available, a new quarterback, or (their best option) trade down to a quarterback needy team to accelerate their rebuild. Besides the second overall pick the Jets have another first round pick that they acquired in the Jamal Adams trade which is at 23rd overall. They also have Seattles first round pick next year as well from the Adams trade. The Jets also have the third most cap space this season with about $65.1 Million.

Saleh and Douglas don’t have the pressure to select a quarterback in this years draft, because Sam Darnold is on the last year of his deal. They have the luxury of potentially giving Darnold weapons and resources that he never had under Adam Gase and giving him one more season to see if he could be their quarterback of the future. Saleh’s 5 year contract shows that the Jets are willing to wait and see how he can rebuild this team over time. At the end of this rebuild the Jets roster could look completely different with only Quinnen Williams and members of the Jets 2020 Draft class as the remaining players from their current roster.

The Jets have been in desperate need of a major culture overhaul. Under Todd Bowles the Jets had no culture and under Adam Gase, the Jets didn’t seem like they wanted to win at times. Saleh’s energy in the locker room and on the sidelines should give the Jets an identity and a culture to build around. Despite not likely having great success next season the Jets should try to win every game for their head coach and for the players around them because that is the mentality that Saleh brings. Saleh is a players coach, unlike Gase players want to play for Saleh and will want to come to the Jets to be a part of his team.

It was shocking to see Saleh get hired by the Jets because all signs pointed to them looking to hire an offensive coach for Sam Darnold. Saleh on the other hand seemed like a fit for a city in a smaller market that could patiently build a team up their defense and not feel major pressure to win right away. Despite not being the offensive coach Darnold needs to stop his regression, Saleh did bring Mike LaFleur from San Fransisco to be his offensive coordinator. LaFleur will be tasked with trying to fix Darnold over the next year before the Jets make a decision on him and his future with the team.

The biggest obstacle for Saleh and the Jets is expectations. Saleh has a reputation of being able to command a locker room and have great success from the defensive side of the ball now for two seasons now. Barring whatever happens this offseason, the Jets are not ready to win right away and have one of the worst overall rosters in the league. If Saleh, Douglas, and the New York media can remain patient and wait for the team to build the team the correct way without rushing things. They may be able to be a contending team in two to three seasons.

Grade: B+

Arthur Smith

New Team: Atlanta Falcons

Former Job: Tennessee Titans Offensive Coordinator (2019-20)

Previous Coaching Experience: Tennessee Titans Tight End Coach (2015-18) Tennessee Titans Assistant Tight End Coach (2014-15), Tennessee Titans Offensive Line/Tight Ends Assistant (2013), Tennessee Titans Offensive Quality Control Coach (2012), Tennessee Titans Defensive Quality Control Coach (2011), Washington Football Team Defensive Quality Control Coach (2007-08)

Accomplishments: Coached the 3rd best offense in the league last season (Tennessee Titans), Coached multiple offensive stars including Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, and Jonnu Smith to have career highs in statistics last season putting them in Pro Bowl & All-Pro conversations

The only head coaching candidate besides Eric Bieniemy to interview for all seven head coaching vacancies was Tennessee Titans Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith. During his time as offensive coordinator he has transformed Ryan Tannehill from a journeyman backup quarterback to a Pro Bowl player and made Derrick Henry the front runner for the best running back in football. Smith will be the first offensive head coach Matt Ryan has had in his career and it will be interesting to see how Ryan and the rest of the offense molds with Smith’s playbook.

Despite having a 28-36 record since the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, the Falcons are only four years removed from a Super Bowl appearances. The Falcons still have a lot of the star players from that run including Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Deion Jones, and Grady Jarrett. They also have a few stars who weren’t a part of that team like Calvin Ridley and Dante Fowler Jr. Smith and new general manager Terry Fontenot have the option to either tear this team down or try to add to this roster and hope that this team was just in need of new management and coaching. Adding to this current roster would be extremely difficult though because the team is $33.2 million over the salary cap.

The best way for the Falcons to build their team will be via the NFL Draft where the Falcons have the fourth overall pick and each of their original draft picks except for their seventh rounder. They could choose to either go after a quarterback or a defensive player who fills a need. At some point though Smith and Fontenot will have to start thinking about life post Matt Ryan.

It will be intriguing to see how many former Tennessee Titans get added to this roster because, Smith has spent so much time with the organization. Smith was with the Titans for nine seasons despite the team having four different head coaching during that time. It may help to bring in a few former Titans players since this is the first time Smith will be working with a completely different roster from the year prior since 2011.

On offense Smith will have two main goals right away.  He will have to see if he could do what he did for Ryan Tannehill for Matt Ryan and attempt to slow down his regression and possibly keep him at a Pro Bowl level and keep him in a top-10 quarterback conversation. Secondly he will have to find is ‘Derrick Henry’. Being the Falcons ‘Derrick Henry’ is a lot of pressure, but a young power back could be the teams answer at the position rather than rolling it back with Todd Gurley.

Overall Smith was brought in to keep this team afloat why they consider the long term future of the team. What he has done developing multiple star players in Tennessee is the impact Atlanta wants Smith to get out of their star players on the offense side of the ball. Hopefully he can achieve those results with a roster that he is not yet entirely familiar with.

Grade: A-

Brandon Staley

New Team: Los Angeles Chargers

Former Job: Los Angeles Rams Defensive Coordinator (2020)

Previous Coaching Experience: Denver Broncos Outside Linebackers Coach (2019), Chicago Bears Outside Linebackers Coach (2017-18)

Accomplishments: Coached the #1 defense in the League Last Season

Brandon Staley
The Chargers shocked the NFL world when they hired Brandon Staley instead of an offensive minded coach. (Courtesy of Mike Nowak / Los Angeles Chargers)

The first head coaching hire that shocked those who follow the NFL was when the Los Angeles Chargers hired Brandon Staley. He got the job after only one year of experience being a defensive coordinator. However during that year Staley coached the Rams defense to be the best in the league. Despite being the Rams defensive coordinator last season. Staley worked with  Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio for a couple of seasons.

The Los Angeles Chargers is arguably the most attractive team for a head coach because they have a roster loaded with talent and if they could erase their absurd single score losses that they’ve had over the past few seasons they could be a contender in the AFC. Besides the elite talent like Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Chris Harris, Casey Hayward, Austin Ekeler, and Keenan Allen they are going to have a second year quarterback in Justin Herbert who is going to try and top what he did his rookie season. In Herberts first year in the league he broke the record for most passing yards and touchdowns by a rookie.

The Chargers also have the opportunity to continue keep adding to their roster. On top of having the ninth most available cap space with $23 Million they also have the 13th overall pick in the draft. Overall theChargers have all their original drafts selections and an extra sixth round pick they acquired from the Desmond King trade.

Besides Staley’s inexperience, the most shocking part of the Chargers hiring him was the fact that he is a defensive head coach. Many believed that the Chargers would hire an offensive head coach like Brian Daboll who has experience developing young quarterbacks and coaching an explosive offense. The Chargers are hoping that Staley’s experience as a college quarterback will help in the development of Justin Herbert, but for the most part Staley will focus on the defensive side of the ball.

Staley has great upside as a coach, but may have been hired a year or two early. He does not have the amount of experience a talented team like this would need from their head coach to get their team to the next level. Also when the Chargers have a young talent on their roster like Herbert they have tried to bring in a coach who could develop Herbert into one of the leagues most dangerous quarterbacks. At times last season Herbert showed the potential to be just that. But the defensive stars on this Chargers roster will love having a coach like Staley and if they could stay healthy the Chargers have the potential to become one of the best defenses in the league next season.

Grade: B-

Dan Campbell

New Team: Detroit Lions

Former Job: New Orleans Saints Assistant Head Coach & Tight Ends Coach (2016-20)

Previous Coaching Experience: Miami Dolphins Interm Head Coach (2015), Miami Dolphins Tight Ends Coach (2011-15)

Accomplishments: Coached the Miami Dolphins to a 5-7 record after team fired Joe Philbin and team started the season 1-3

It has been a while since NFL media outside of New Orleans has talked about Dan Campbell. It’s been half a decade since he became the Dolphins interm coached the Dolphins into having a solid season. Now he will be discussed every week, especially in Detroit because the Lions has made him their new head coach. For the past five seasons Campbell has been the Assistant Head Coach and Tight Ends Coach to one of the leagues best offenses in New Orleans. Being the assistant head coach to Sean Payton, Detroit hopes that he has picked up on some of their magic and could bring it to their team.

The Lions have one of the weakest overall rosters in the league and have been mismanaged for a couple of seasons. This is why they hired a candidate like Campbell who was not an NFL coaching radars until he got this interview. They have a solid pieces in T.J. Hockenson, D’Andre Swift, Trey Flowers, Frank Ragnow, and last years third overall pick Jeff Okudah. But the rest of the roster is a giant question mark.

The roughest part about this job is that the Lions might have to face the reality that they are going to lose their franchise quarterback and their top two wide receivers this season. It has been confirmed that the Lions and Matthew Stafford will part ways this offseason (likely via trade). Also their number one and two receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. are free agents. Golladay missed eleven games this past season after leading the league in touchdowns the year prior. Jones Jr. is 30 years old and likely cannot afford to be a part of the rebuild in Detroit. He will likely sign with a contender in need of a complimentary receiver this offseason.

The Lions have the seventh overall pick in this years draft and only have their selections up until the fifth round. It is rumored that they will package what compensation they get back from a Stafford deal with their own draft picks to get their quarterback of the future. They also have only $3.4 Million available in cap space, but are likely to cut some veteran players to get some much needed cap space.

Despite how puzzling it is to see Campbell get this job, the Lions have surrounded him with great pieces. Former Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn will be the Lions offensive coordinator. Campbells former New Orleans colleague Aaron Glenn will be joining the team as their defensive coordinator. Glenn has been the Saints defensive backs coach for the past four seasons and has become one of the leagues most desirable defensive coordinator candidates.

Despite the solid coaching staff that is being assembled in Detroit, Campbell was a risky hire considering he has never been an offensive coordinator and wasn’t an elite position coach either. The Lions are banking on Campbells attitude to reflect on the team to establish a tough “bite your kneecap” culture.

Grade: C

Nick Sirianni

New Team: Philadelphia Eagles

Former Job: Indianapolis Colts Offensive Coordinator (2018-20)

Previous Coaching Experience: San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers Wide Receiver Coach (2016-17), San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers Quarterback Coach (2014-15), San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers Offensive Quality Control Coach (2013), Kansas City Chiefs Wide Receiver Coach (2012), Kansas City Chiefs Assistant Quarterback Coach (2010), Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Quality Control Coach (2009 & 2011)

Accomplishments: Coached a Top-10 Offense twice in the last three seasons (2018 & 2020), Has Coached Andrew Luck (2018), Eric Ebron (2018), Quenton Nelson (2018-20), Ryan Kelly (2019-20) to Pro Bowl appearances

Nick Sirianni <a rel=

The first impression of the Philadelphia Eagles hiring Nick Sirianni as their new head coach shows that Howie Roseman and the rest of the organization did not have a clear plan to replace Pederson when they fired him. Despite his solid work in Indianapolis no one viewed him to be a head coaching candidate. Many of the other coaches they interviewed did not receive consideration from other teams. Those included Saints defense coordinator Dennis Allen, Patriots inside linebacker coach Jerod Mayo, Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, the favorite to land the job Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and Sirianni himself.

At least the Eagles didn’t attempt to hire another Andy Reid offensive coach. It was rumored that the Eagles were interested in hiring Eric Bieniemy the Chiefs offensive coordinator. That would not have been shocking considering the Eagles hired Doug Pederson because they missed having Reid and tried to hire the closest thing to him. Pederson was Reids offensive coordinator in Kansas City before taking the Eagles job and was replaced by Bieniemy.

The Eagles finished 4-11-1 this season which landed them the sixth overall pick. They are missing their fourth round pick but have a fifth round pick from Dallas. Despite their record they have a few great players including Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Darius Slay, Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, Dallas Goedert, and Miles Sanders.

Philadelphia has a quarterback, but their problem is that they have two. Firing Pederson essentially means that the Eagles are going to continue to view Carson Wentz as their franchise quarterback. It also makes the Jalen Hurts draft pick that much more confusing. This whole situation is also confusing because it was very obvious that Hurts is a better quarterback than Wentz.

Despite Sirianni not being a great head coaching candidate the logic that went into him coming to Philadelphia makes sense. When Wentz was struggling it became clear that he played at his best when Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich was his offensive coordinator. Sirianni has been Reichs offensive coordinator in Indianapolis for the past three seasons. Instead of sending Wentz to Indianapolis the Eagles are attempting to bring Indianapolis to Wentz.

That idea could be great for Wentz, but hiring a head coach that could possibly fix their quarterback but may not be the best coaching candidate is irresponsible. The Eagles are potentially jeopardizing the future of the team in an attempt to fix their quarterback that a Super Bowl winning coach couldn’t fix. It would have been easier and probably better for the long term for the Eagles to move off Wentz and hire a head coach that would develop Jalen Hurts who played well down the stretch last season.

Late last season after he was benched Wentz was a terrible teammate telling the media his plans to get traded before Gamedays. The Eagles hired a coach to try and fix a player who publicly said he wanted to leave when he got benched instead of supporting his team.

Grade: C+

David Culley

New Team: Houston Texans

Former Job: Baltimore Ravens Assistant Head Coach, Wide Receivers Coach, and Passing Game Coordinator (2019-20)

Previous Coaching Experience: Buffalo Bills Quarterback Coach (2017-18), Kansas City Chiefs Assistant Head Coach & Wide Receivers Coach (2013-16), Philadelphia Eagles Senior Offensive Assistant & Wide Receivers Coach (2011-12), Philadelphia Eagles Wide Receiver Coach (1999-2010),  Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receivers Coach (1996-98), Tampa Bay Buccaneers Wide Receivers Coach (1994-95)

Accomplishments: Has Coached Two Pro Bowl Wide Receivers (Terrell Owens 2004 and DeSean Jackson 2009 & 2010)

Despite a majority of the top head coaching candidates being still available the Houston Texans they went with an unconventional route and hired David Culley. It is fair to say that up until last week 90% of NFL fans had no idea who Culley was. For the past two seasons he has been assistant coach and wide receiver coach in Baltimore.

The Houston Texans have been nothing but dysfunctional over the past calendar year. They traded away DeAndre Hopkins, fired head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien after four games, went 4-12, and now the centerpieces of their franchise J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson want to get traded.

At Watts age it makes sense to trade him since he likely will not be playing long enough to play meaningful football with the Texans. But Watson wants out after the team disregarded him when hiring new general manager Nick Casiero. On top of that they also refused to interview both of the coordinators Watson wanted the Texans to interview Robert Saleh and Eric Bieniemy. Now after hiring Culley, it would be shocking if Watson did not make the request for a trade.

Besides Watt and Watson there isn’t many star players on this team. Will Fuller is going to be a free agent. Despite not wanting to get traded again, Brandin Cooks wouldn’t mind being traded to a better situation. Laremy Tunsil is one of the best left tackles in football but acquiring him is the reason why they don’t have a first round pick this season. After Watt, Justin Reid is the Texans best defensive players he’s one of the leagues best young safeties. Thats pretty much it.

Houston can’t do much with their current assets to rebuild considering their first draft pick is in the third round. They also have two fourth round picks and two sixth round picks. The Texans are also just about $17.6 Million over the salary cap. That means major free agents are pretty much out of the question if they would even want to sign with Houston.

Culley is now officially the oldest first time head coach in NFL History. So it is uncertain how long they plan on him being around for. With the franchise in the state it is it is hard to imagine Culley being there long. It seems that the Texans may have hired the former 26 year assistant coach to be their scapegoat and or placeholder for the next couple of seasons. It is rumored that the Texans are going to retain offensive coordinator Tim Kelly whose offense played well last season despite the teams short comes. They are also rumored to bring in Marvin Lewis as a defensive coordinator and Josh McCown for a role on the teams offensive staff.

It might not be crazy for the Texans to keep Culley at the head coaching position until McCown is ready to become the teams head coach. They interview McCown for the position and really like him. But McCown is not nearly experienced enough for the position. Also potential defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis has sixteen years of head coaching experience. If Culley really isn”t qualified they could promote Lewis to the position as well.

Hiring Culley is unfortunately is another speed bump that the Texans are putting in front of themselves. It is unfortunate because according to some higher up people in the NFL community Culley is well respected and a good guy. Despite being the assistant head coach for one of the better ran teams in football he likely is not qualified to be the head coach of the Houston Texans. Its speaking much to Culley, the Texans are a mess right now.

Grade: D-

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