Tue. Sep 22nd, 2020

Ranking the best and worst potential NFL…

28 min read
Ranking the best and worst potential NFL...


With just three weeks of games in the NFL regular season left to go, we’re now 18 days away from the Monday when teams traditionally fire their head coaches and officially enter the market for new leaders. Two teams have already beaten their colleagues to the punch in this regard, with Washington firing Jay Gruden and Carolina sacking Ron Rivera.

More will follow. Last year, eight teams appointed new coaches during the offseason. A similar number would hardly be surprising this time around. With that in mind, if you’re a coach who might be in line to take over an NFL team, I’ve prepared a cheat sheet. As I do every year, I’m going to rank the various NFL jobs that might come available this offseason from least desirable to most compelling. I don’t expect all of these coaches to get fired, and I’m not rooting for anyone to lose their job, but I wouldn’t be shocked if any of these organizations decided to change coaches.

Of the nine teams I found as potential candidates, one was an easy choice as the least desirable opportunity. Let’s start with the most depressing team in the league:

Jump to a team:
ATL | CAR | CLE
DAL | DET | JAX
NYG | NYJ | WSH

Biggest strength: The checks clear
Biggest weakness: Ownership

The Knicks of the NFL similarly seem to set up their own coaches for failure. Jay Gruden’s six-year tenure with the club ended in October after an 0-5 start amid reports that Gruden didn’t want to use a first-round pick on quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The organization has shed talent both on the field (Kirk Cousins) and off (Sean McVay, Scot McCloughan) in recent years in embarrassing fashion and spent much of 2019 playing its home games in front of a half-empty stadium.

Please don’t take that as criticism of Washington fans. They deserve better after 20 disastrous years under Daniel Snyder’s ownership, which has included more head coaches (nine) than winning seasons (five). Snyder’s charges haven’t won a playoff game since 2005. If the organization can’t convince fans to show up, how is it going to attract any coach who has the option to pursue other opportunities?

Sadly, there is little on the roster to be excited about. The team’s best player, left tackle Trent Williams, hasn’t played all season after demanding a trade. Star guard Brandon Scherff is a free agent. Scherff and All-Underrated team member Matt Ioannidis are the only players who remain on the roster from the 2015 and 2016 drafts, as picks such as Josh Doctson and Su’a Cravens failed to make an impact and are out of football.

Washington’s largest cap hit in 2020 belongs to veteran quarterback Alex Smith, whose $16 million base salary is guaranteed for injury. The organization can’t be blamed for what happened to Smith, whose NFL future remains uncertain after he suffered a broken leg in 2018, but there’s nothing it can do to push Smith’s salary off its cap. Washington will owe $10.8 million in dead money when it moves on from Smith after the 2020 campaign.

The organization is likely to move on from several other highly paid veterans, including cornerback Josh Norman and tight end Jordan Reed, whose departures would free up a combined $21 million in cap space. Ryan Kerrigan will be in the final year of his deal, and while he’s still a valuable edge rusher, the team isn’t anywhere close to contending with the 31-year-old on its roster. The prudent thing would be to explore the trade market for Williams and Kerrigan, bring back Scherff and try to start a youth movement. You can guess what I think Washington will do.

There is some young talent here, although it’s not comparable to most of the other franchises on this list. The 2019 rookie class has been promising, with third-round wideout Terry McLaurin looking like a superstar in the making. Edge rusher Montez Sweat has flashed potential at times. Defensive linemen Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen and defensive backs Quinton Dunbar and Fabian Moreau are worthwhile contributors on rookie deals. Landon Collins might be overpaid, but he’s a talented safety and a leader on defense.

The big question is what potential coaches think of Haskins, who has unsurprisingly struggled as a rookie. There was little reason to expect him to succeed this early given the issues along the offensive line and his inexperience at the position. This season shouldn’t realistically mean much in terms of evaluating him; if you liked him coming out of school, you’re going to be able to make excuses for why he didn’t succeed, and if you didn’t like him as a prospect, well, you can point to the 2019 film. Coaching candidates who want a blank slate or an established option at quarterback will look elsewhere.

If there’s any way Snyder can attract a desirable candidate, it would be by offering the sort of personnel control other teams aren’t willing to give to the vast majority of coaches in 2019, even if that means moving on from team president Bruce Allen, the public face of the franchise. Of course, coaches don’t typically get personnel control for a reason. Coaching is hard enough, and for every Bill Belichick who can succeed while juggling both jobs, you’ll run into a Bill O’Brien in Houston or a Mike Holmgren in Cleveland. Mike Shanahan reportedly had personnel control during his time in Washington, although it’s fair to wonder how much Snyder influenced the day-to-day decision-making in football operations.

The dream candidate in some ways, of course, would be Urban Meyer. The former Ohio State coach had glowing things to say about his former quarterback this summer after Washington drafted Haskins, though that’s hardly a surprise. Meyer retired from coaching last December for health reasons, although he gave the same reason for moving on from Florida in December 2010 and was named Ohio State coach less than a year later.

Meyer has never coached at the NFL level, but the 55-year-old expressed interest in the Cowboys job in October. We’ll get to them in a bit. Unless he is desperate to work with Haskins, it’s more likely that Washington will turn over the job to someone who doesn’t have head-coaching options elsewhere. One plausible candidate is 34-year-old offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, who has been in the building since 2017. Years after letting McVay leave, Snyder could try to avoid making the same mistake again.


Biggest strength: Market
Biggest weakness: Lack of talent

The NFC East is a fun place, huh? I’d rank the 2-11 Giants narrowly ahead of their 3-10 divisional rivals in Washington, if only because ownership hasn’t directly undercut or sold out the coaching staff as frequently as Snyder has over the past 20 years. The Giants have generally been a patient organization to a fault, although those days might have ended once Tom Coughlin left town. If Pat Shurmur is fired after two seasons in charge, the Giants will search for their third non-interim head coach in five years. Before Shurmur and Ben McAdoo, the only Giants coach since 1931 to be fired after just two seasons in charge was Ray Handley.

The bigger question might be whether general manager Dave Gettleman follows Shurmur out the door. Gettleman’s two-year run in charge of the Giants has been disastrous, and while the former Panthers GM inherited a roster bereft of young talent, his moves have done little to shore things up. His controversial decision to draft running back Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick has not aged well; as talented as Barkley clearly is, he hasn’t been able to single-handedly build a running game, which is what he needed to do to justify being selected over the likes of quarterback Sam Darnold and guard Quenton Nelson, let alone the best runner in his class, Lamar Jackson. Other 2018 picks such as guard Will Hernandez and outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter don’t appear to be difference-makers after two seasons.

The jury is still out Gettleman’s two draft classes, but 2019 first-rounder DeAndre Baker has been one of the worst corners — and starters — in football so far. Gettleman’s best selection so far, adjusting for draft position, has likely been fifth-round pick Darius Slayton. The problem, of course, is that Slayton has taken the spot in the lineup that previously belonged to franchise icon Odell Beckham Jr. While Beckham has had an underwhelming season in Cleveland, retaining him would have given rookie quarterback Daniel Jones a legitimate No. 1 receiver.

Jones’ first season has been inconsistent. After leading the Giants to a comeback victory over the Bucs and a win over Washington, he lost eight straight before going down with a high ankle sprain. He hasn’t had much help up front, but he has shown virtually no pocket awareness. Jones has fumbled 15 times in 11 games, and while his stat line is several grades above that of Haskins, a lot of it has been thanks to friendly matchups. He threw 10 touchdown passes without an interception against the Bucs (who rank 19th in pass defense DVOA), Lions (25th) and Jets (22nd). He has otherwise thrown eight touchdown passes against 11 picks in his other matchups.

Even if you think it’s too early to evaluate the draft picks, Gettleman’s decisions with veterans have gone horribly. He made former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history in the spring of 2018, but Solder has allowed 17.5 sacks, per Stats LCC data, over the ensuing two seasons. Gettleman followed by signing guard Patrick Omameh to a three-year, $15.5 million deal, only to cut Omameh after seven games. Adding 31-year-old receiver Golden Tate made little sense for a rebuilding team, as did bizarre trades for the likes of linebacker Alec Ogletree and defensive lineman Leonard Williams. Gettleman’s plan to build around running the football and “hog mollies” seemed antiquated, but the Ravens have built their offensive philosophy around that model and have the league’s best offense. The problem is that the players Gettleman has acquired to fill out his plan aren’t good enough to pull it off.

As a result, I’m not sure who the Giants should even consider targeting to rebuild their rebuild. If they don’t fire Gettleman, they’ll end up with a mismatched general manager and coach who are incentivized to do different things by their relative job security, the same issue that plagued the Jets for years. Most teams would target a quarterback guru to try to work with Jones as he enters Year 2, but the Giants would be firing an offense-minded coach in Shurmur and have one of the league’s worst defenses.

When I asked ESPN Giants reporter Jordan Raanan whom he would hire, the name he brought up was Baylor coach Matt Rhule. The 44-year-old was once the Giants’ assistant offensive line coach and turned down an opportunity to take the Jets job last year when he wasn’t allowed to pick his own offensive coordinator. Rhule understandably wants to build an organization in his own image. Can he — or anybody with his level of credibility — do that with Gettleman in the building?


Biggest strength: Promising quarterback
Biggest weakness: Lack of talent

Speaking of those crosstown rivals, Jets ownership has insisted it won’t fire Adam Gase after one season in charge. Given that this is the same organization that let general manager Mike Maccagnan spend millions in free agency and run the 2019 draft before firing him in May, you’ll forgive me if I take what they say publicly with a grain of salt.

With that being said, the Jets’ late-season ascension to mediocrity against a breathtakingly easy schedule makes it more likely that Gase will get another year in charge. The team has won four of five after starting 1-7, although those wins have come against the teams ranked 23rd (Raiders), 29th (Giants), 31st (Washington) and 32nd (Dolphins) in DVOA. Their one loss came against a hurdle that was apparently too high to top, as they were blown out by the 30th-ranked Bengals in Week 13.

This job is less enticing than it was a year ago, when quarterback Sam Darnold was coming off a hot stretch in December and the Jets had more than $100 million in cap space. Cap room won’t be hard to come by, given that they are projected with more than $66 million, but after making big signings in each of the past two offseasons, is ownership likely to endorse another spending spree in 2020?

Many of those moves have turned out disastrously. Trumaine Johnson was one of the league’s worst cornerbacks in 2018 and was benched in September before going on injured reserve. The Jets will eat $12 million in dead money when they release him after the season. Running back Le’Veon Bell has averaged 3.2 yards per carry in his first season in New York and gotten crossed up in a bowling scandal. Free-agent signee C.J. Mosley injured his groin in the season opener, came back too early, aggravated the injury and then went on injured reserve. Fellow inside linebacker Avery Williamson tore his ACL in the preseason because Gase decided to play him with the backups. Center Ryan Kalil, too, was benched before hitting IR.

The Jets have needed to spend in free agency because their roster has been bereft of young talent. There hasn’t been much growth. The only players left on the roster who were drafted before 2016 are running back Bilal Powell, guard Brian Winters and receiver Quincy Enunwa, the latter of whom was most recently seen angrily tweeting about the organization fining him for missing a rehab day. The one clear star the team has drafted is safety Jamal Adams, who was the subject of trade rumors at the deadline and responded with his own angry tweets before making up with the organization.

I haven’t even covered all the scandals and bizarre things that have happened to the Jets in 2019. Darnold was sidelined by mono. Guard Kelechi Osemele publicly argued with the team when he wanted to get surgery on an ailing shoulder, with the Jets eventually releasing the former All-Pro. With all that being said, winning — even over similarly terrible teams — can be a cure-all. Unless the Jets are catastrophically bad in their season-ending run against the Ravens, Steelers and Bills, I would expect Gase to be back in 2019.


Biggest strength: Draft capital
Biggest weakness: Missing quarterback

It’s staggering to think that the Jaguars are less than two years removed from leading the Patriots by 10 points in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game. They beat the Patriots 31-20 in Week 2 of 2018, with Blake Bortles throwing for 376 yards and four touchdowns. Since then, they’ve gone 7-20. Bortles and star cornerback Jalen Ramsey are both gone. Soon, coach Doug Marrone could follow them.

I’m not fond of the idea that a team has quit on a coach. Too often, it’s a term fans or media members use to explain away a bad day or a rough patch. That might be the case here, but the Jaguars have been totally noncompetitive over the past five weeks. Since beating the Jets to get to 4-4, Jacksonville has gone 0-5 and been outscored by 117 points. It’s the first team to lose five consecutive games in a single season by 17 or more points since 1986. This stretch has come against teams that are a combined 27-31 in games not involving the Jags, so the run hasn’t been a result of a difficult schedule.

Occam’s razor would suggest that the Jaguars are struggling because they aren’t talented enough to win games. While the 2017 season made it seem like they were on the verge of breaking through, what has happened since has been telling. Dave Caldwell is now in his seventh year as general manager. Just three players remain on the roster from his first three drafts: wide receiver Marqise Lee (who will likely be released after the season), center Brandon Linder and guard A.J. Cann. Star linebacker Telvin Smith was among that group before unexpectedly leaving football this offseason.

Likewise, despite picking at the top of the draft for most of his tenure, Caldwell’s top selections haven’t formed a core. First overall pick Luke Joeckel is out of football. Bortles, foolishly propped up for years and signed to an ill-advised extension, is now a backup with the Rams. Edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. and Ramsey have joined him via trade. Running back Leonard Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, has had his best season as a pro, but he hasn’t been consistently effective. Defensive tackle Taven Bryan was drafted at the bottom of the first round in 2018, and rookie Josh Allen looks to be a special edge rusher, but that group includes five players taken with one of the first five picks of their respective drafts. Ramsey is the only one who lived up to pre-draft expectations.

The good news for the Jags is that there’s still some talent left on the roster. In addition to Allen, 2018 second-rounder DJ Chark broke through as a star wideout this season. The strength of the team has been along the defensive line, but Calais Campbell is entering the final year of his deal, while Yannick Ngakoue is a free agent. The Jags can keep around Ngakoue on the franchise tag, but they are penciled to have only about $6 million in cap space in 2020 before addressing the Ngakoue issue. It’s inevitable that the Jaguars will have to cut guys such as Lee and linebacker Jake Ryan to create cap space.

What the Jags can’t do, though, is move on from Nick Foles. As I mentioned last week, the Jaguars still have more than $20 million in guarantees due to their benched quarterback. Jacksonville will either have to eat that money over the next two years or trade a draft pick to convince some friendly team to take on his deal.

Fortunately, after trading away Ramsey, the Jags have a few draft picks to use. Jacksonville has an extra first-round pick in the 2020 and 2021 drafts courtesy of the Rams, and while those picks are likely to fall somewhere in the 20s, four first-round picks over the next two years could make this job appealing on their own. Jacksonville should be able to move up for one of the non-Joe Burrow quarterbacks in the 2020 class if it wants to move ahead of the Dolphins at No. 4.

It’s unclear who will be making those picks. Caldwell has ceded power in recent years to executive Tom Coughlin. Caldwell, Coughlin and Marrone were given one-year extensions on their current deals by owner Shahid Khan after the Jags nearly advanced to the Super Bowl in 2017. It’s not crazy to imagine a scenario in which the Jaguars move on from all three after this season, though it’s possible Coughlin could simply take over as coach.

Khan has generally been willing to spend money in free agency and has been patient with his football people, with Mike Mularkey’s one-and-done as an exception. The ownership situation, draft capital and the presence of young talent are appealing here. The Jags aren’t that far off from winning. With an expensive roster and no clear solution at quarterback, though, other jobs are more exciting.


Biggest strength: Young talent
Biggest weakness: Ownership

When I wrote this column last year, I ranked the Browns as the league’s fifth-most desirable opening. This didn’t go over well. Baker Mayfield was playing like a superstar. The Browns had an army of young talent after years of amassing draft picks. Cleveland finished the season 5-2 and looked to be gathering momentum in advance of breaking through in 2019. Who wouldn’t want the Browns job?

You’ve seen what happened this season. Preseason concerns about discipline, Freddie Kitchens’ inexperience as a coach, and the offensive line issues all came true. Mayfield regressed and ranks 33rd in the league in passer rating. The Browns were the preseason favorites to win the AFC North, but in a season in which the Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger for one full game and a wild-card spot is going to go to a team quarterbacked by Ryan Tannehill or Devlin Hodges, the Browns will miss the playoffs for the 17th consecutive season. After Cleveland spent the better part of a decade conspicuously rebuilding, the Ravens lapped the Browns and relaunched under the aegis of the Lamar Jackson show in a little over a year.

play

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Stephen A. Smith blames Freddie Kitchens for the lack of discipline in the Browns organization.

There’s still a lot to like here. The Browns have promising young talent on both sides of the football, even if guys such as Mayfield and cornerback Denzel Ward haven’t been quite as impressive in Year 2. Pass-rusher Myles Garrett, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, should be back from suspension at some point in 2020. Cleveland’s problems are concentrated along the offensive line, and it’s easier to fix an offensive line than it is to fix holes at four or five different positions across the roster. After trading away picks in the OBJ deal, general manager John Dorsey has an extra third-rounder in 2020 from the Texans thanks to the Duke Johnson swap.

If the Browns do fire Kitchens, the Haslams will be hiring a permanent coach for the fifth time since taking over the organization in 2012. That alone will discourage the most promising candidates. The most common rumor as a replacement is former Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who worked with Dorsey in Green Bay. McCarthy might not be a sexy pick given the way the Packers seemed to come up short for most of Aaron Rodgers‘ peak, but he helped develop Rodgers into a superstar and won a Super Bowl. After the year the Browns have had, going for the stable, experienced option seems more appealing than it did a year ago.


Biggest strength: Quarterback
Biggest weakness: Ownership

The Ford family has generally been very patient with head coaches, which is the biggest reason Matt Patricia is likely to get a third year in Detroit. The Lions hired him after a season in which Jim Caldwell went 9-7 and had the league’s 19th-ranked defense by DVOA. Patricia’s Patriots defense when he was coordinator ranked 31st in DVOA that same season. Since then, the Lions have gone 9-19-1. Patricia’s defenses have ranked 28th and now 24th in DVOA despite trading for defensive tackle Damon Harrison and signing pass-rusher Trey Flowers to a big-money deal in free agency. The Patriots’ defense hasn’t exactly suffered since Patricia left town, either.

The only coach the Ford family has fired after two seasons since 1980 is Marty Mornhinweg, who went 5-27 in 2001-02. (Even then, the Lions suggested Mornhinweg would be back before changing their mind and hiring Steve Mariucci.) The patience ownership typically affords coaches here is a huge positive for new coaches, and the Fords might look at the 3-4-1 record the Lions posted before Matthew Stafford went down injured and write off what happened afterward as the product of middling quarterback play.

Of course, the Lions probably should have had a better Plan B behind Stafford than Jeff Driskel and David Blough, and the defense wasn’t very good when Stafford was around either. The Lions were 14th in points scored per drive on offense with Stafford in the lineup. Their defense was 28th in the same category. Patricia inherited a competent-to-good team and has dragged it down in the area in which he was expected to offer specific expertise.

The defense doesn’t look closer to being fixed than it was when Patricia arrived. General manager Bob Quinn has curiously continued to invest first-round picks on offense, having used three of his four since taking over the job on players surrounding Stafford. The one player Quinn has drafted to achieve a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro nod is return man Jamal Agnew, although both center Frank Ragnow and wideout Kenny Golladay have had breakout 2019 seasons.

The draw for most coaches here will be Stafford, who provides a built-in floor as one of the league’s most consistently competent quarterbacks. He was in the middle of one of the best stretches of his career before getting injured, and given that he hadn’t missed a game since 2010, it seems fair to call his 2019 back injury an aberration until we see more evidence to the contrary. Stafford isn’t cheap — he has the league’s highest cap hit at $29.5 million this year and is penciled in for the fifth-highest hit in 2020 at $31.5 million — but this version of the quarterback and a solid defense would be a playoff team. If they could just fix that defense.


Biggest strength: Ownership
Biggest weakness: Salary cap

There are few owners in the NFL who are more coach-friendly than Arthur Blank. Since taking over the Falcons in 2002, he has hired four coaches in 17 seasons: Jim Mora Jr., Bobby Petrino (who quit after one year), Mike Smith and Dan Quinn. He has hired Rich McKay and then Thomas Dimitroff to run football operations. This is one of the most stable, patient organizations in all of sports, let alone football. Any coach coming to work for the Falcons should expect to have four years before seriously worrying about losing his job.

Four years would bring us to 2023, which is the final year in the deals of both quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. Whoever takes over this team if Quinn does get fired will inherit a potentially lethal offense. While things haven’t clicked under coordinator Dirk Koetter this season, and Falcons fans might always hold up Ryan & Co. to the unrealistic standard of the Kyle Shanahan-led Super Bowl offense of 2016, there are six first-round picks on this side of the ball and a couple of borderline Hall of Famers.

The defense? This is the part of the house tour in which they keep trying to lead you back to the beautiful outdoor pool so you don’t notice the crater in the roof. Atlanta’s defense has improved slightly after the bye as Quinn has handed his last remaining share of the playcalling duties on defense to Raheem Morris, but let’s be realistic. This is a terrible unit, and outside of the playoffs, it has been a terrible defense for a while. The Falcons haven’t ranked any higher than 22nd in defensive DVOA since 2012. Over the past seven seasons, their average rank by defensive DVOA is 27th.

This defense has been horrible for the entirety of Quinn’s tenure with the team. The good news is that he is likely leaving. The bad news is that the Falcons have what is likely the league’s worst cap situation. They have $205.5 million committed to their 2020 cap, which is almost surely going to be over whatever the cap comes out at for 2020, even after you account for a little over $5 million in rollover funds for Atlanta.

Most teams in this situation can clear out cap space by releasing expensive players. The Falcons don’t have many deals in which they can create significant room by moving on from a player. Cap managers can typically choose to designate a player as a post-June 1 release to spread the remaining dead money on their deal across two seasons, which creates more short-term cap room, but organizations aren’t allowed to do that in the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement. Would you believe that’s in 2020, too?

The Falcons subsequently have some tough choices ahead. They can release running back Devonta Freeman and save $3.5 million. Moving on from offensive tackle Ty Sambrailo and tight end Luke Stocker creates $6.4 million more. Cutting star center Alex Mack would be difficult, but it would create $8 million in room. All of this is before signing a single free agent, which means they will likely have to let breakout tight end Austin Hooper leave without compensation if they want to be even moderately active in the free-agent market on defense.

The Falcons should hire the sort of coach who has a track record of drafting and developing young talent on the defensive side of the ball. One logical candidate should be quite familiar to Falcons fans: former Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose defenses were routinely excellent before dropping off the past couple of seasons.

On the other hand, maybe the Falcons should just go after an offensive genius and try to score 40 points every week, defense be damned. With the Patriots struggling mightily and Tom Brady potentially leaving after the season, could this be the time Josh McDaniels actually does leave New England? Is this the sort of job that could lure away Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma? Blank has gone for defensive coaches with each of his past two hires, so given the Falcons’ utter ineptitude on the side of that ball, he could go in that direction again.


Biggest strength: Talent
Biggest weakness: Quarterback uncertainty

The Panthers were one of my picks as the five teams most likely to improve in 2019. They almost surely aren’t going to beat their 7-9 mark from last season, but there’s a better team here than their 5-8 record seems to indicate. In addition to starting the combination of a compromised Cam Newton and an overmatched Kyle Allen at quarterback, the Panthers had four games in which they could have either won or tied things up late in the fourth quarter and were stopped inside the opposition’s 3-yard line.


http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/28276535/ranking-best-worst-potential-nfl-head-coaching-openings-2019

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