The NFL's 2021 coaching cycle is in full swing. Seven different teams will enter the 2021 season with new head coaches, and a number of hot candidates were on the market -- either drawing interest, racking up interviews or preparing for post-playoffs negotiations. We're here to sort through every single opening and offer instant assessments of the hires.
Like draft grades, we all know these are subject to change. In 2016, as you may recall, the Philadelphia Eagles ended up with Doug Pederson, who was reportedly not their first choice and did not receive much interest elsewhere, but went on to win the Super Bowl only two seasons into his tenure. Of course, that Pederson's dismissal this January provided one of the seven vacancies.
But we digress. It's time to grade this year's official head coaching hires. Have at 'em:
Houston Texans: David Culley
Previous role: Baltimore Ravens assistant head coach/wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator
Let me begin by saying this grade isn't Culley's "fault." He is a man of high character and, by all accounts, a tremendous leader with resounding praise from all who've ever had the pleasure of meeting him. The problem here is the Texans as an organization, and how it's doubtful Culley is the man for the moment in Houston. With the team in utter turmoil and dealing with an NFL head coach -- in an offseason that saw the Texans pass on a more proven and exciting hire like Super Bowl-winning coordinator Eric Bieniemy (who's heading to his second Super Bowl in a row)., the locker room is in complete disarray and wildly disjointed from the front office at the moment, because Watson isn't the only disgruntled player on the depth chart. So is future Hall of Fame pass rusher J.J. Watt, who was very vocal about it during the season and is undoubtedly more so after seeing the latest goings ons. Culley will now be tasked with trying to repair the line between the field and the owner's suite while also being tasked with making the Texans a winning organization without Watson, and all in his first-ever year as an
Culley might buck the odds and get it done, but that doesn't change the fact the odds are wildly against him. A great man dropped in a terrible situation that should've been handled much differently by a dysfunctional organization is what makes this nearly a failing grade, with only Culley's reputation as a longtime assistant to save it from actually being one.
-- Patrik Walker
Jacksonville Jaguars: Urban Meyer
Previous role: Ohio State head coach (2012-2018)
Our reaction: If you believe owner Shad Khan and the countless reports that surfaced before his official remarks, Meyer is the guy the Jags have wanted all along. From a marketing standpoint, the sell couldn't be easier: Meyer became a household name in Florida, leading the Gators to a 65-15 record and two national titles from 2005-2010, and he's got the program-building resume that'll instantly revive a dampened fan base, not to mention a locker room that has repeatedly railed against management in recent years. The fact he'll enter with a No. 1 pick (which, likely, will be a generational quarterback talent in Trevor Lawrence) immediately raises his floor. He's not a slam dunk because the concerns are rather notable -- zero NFL experience, several health-related retirements and controversies at both Florida and Ohio State, where he allegedly overlooked criminal behavior by players and staff. But the Jags needed a high-upside swing here, and he gives them that, bringing a winning track record to an organization in dire need of victories.
Detroit Lions: Dan Campbell
Previous role: New Orleans Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach (2016-2020)
Our reaction: Campbell's hire is somewhat of a surprise considering the other candidates still available, but the Lions struck out on Robert Saleh and Jim Harbaugh signed an extension with Michigan -- so the less publicized hire came with Campbell. Make no mistake about it, Campbell got the most out of the Miami Dolphins in 2015 as an interim head coach -- leading them to a 5-7 record in 12 games after a 1-4 start.
Despite never having the title of "coordinator," Campbell has certainly earned the respect of his players over the years. Campbell even has familiarity with Detroit, catching 23 passes with the Lions in three seasons (he played 10 seasons in the NFL) -- so he understands the culture he has to change with the Lions franchise. Campbell uses the coaching philosophy of Bill Parcells (who he played for in Dallas), using the quarterback to make smart decisions with a dominant defense and a team that works as hard a she coaches.
This appears as the anti-Matt Patricia hire, a coach who will command the locker room and get his players to play hard week-in and week-out. Hard work will make up for talent deficiency, but will Campbell succeed in the long run? That will be determined as Campbell has one of the hardest jobs in the league -- making Detroit a consistent winner.
-- Jeff Kerr
Los Angeles Chargers: Brandon Staley
Previous role: Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator (2020)
Our reaction: If you look up the phrase "meteoric rise," you might find Staley's name. Five years ago, this guy was coaching at Division III John Carroll University. At 38, he has just four total seasons of NFL coaching experience. Prior to succeeding Wade Phillips as the Rams' DC in 2020, he had only been an outside linebackers coach. So you'll have to excuse us if we're not totally buying in on Staley as "the guy" just yet. To be fair, his Rams "D" was really good, ranking No. 6 despite the trusty Phillips' departure, and he's drawn rave reviews as an up-and-coming leader. But you have to consider the situation: L.A. arguably needed an offensive mind more than anything, with young Justin Herbert emerging at quarterback. If Staley can bring aboard a top-tier coordinator, that's great, but what happens if/when that OC departs in a year or two? We're supposed to believe Staley's the key to unlocking Herbert's upside because ... he played QB in high school? He may prove us all wrong. But this feels like a bit of a stretch at a crucial transition period.
New York Jets: Robert Saleh
Previous role: San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator (2017-2020)
Our reaction: At first glance, this looks almost entirely like a reversal of course from the failed Adam Gase experiment. Whereas Gase was a quirky, supposed offensive mind coming off another subpar head coaching gig, Saleh is an intense, player-friendly defensive coach entering his first job atop a staff. If you're a Jets fan, though, the 180 should be embraced with open arms. In today's NFL, offensive head coaches are ideal, but what Saleh lacks on that side of the ball, he more than makes up for with widely lauded leadership, technically sound instruction and an astute upbringing under offensive minds like Pete Carroll and Kyle Shanahan. At the very least, the Jets should be both more engaged and disciplined in 2021. In partnership with general manager Joe Douglas, Saleh has the personality and staffing assistance (see: Mike LaFleur) to restore the organization's reputation, if not play spoiler sooner rather than later. They may have growing pains, but it won't be for a lack of buy-in.
Atlanta Falcons: Arthur Smith
Previous role: Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator (2019-2020)
Our reaction: If the Falcons were looking to make the most out of Matt Ryan and their explosive offense, the hire of Arthur Smith is a home run -- literally. Smith was the architect of the revamped Tennessee offense since Ryan Tannehill, who became one of the league's best quarterbacks in the two seasons under Smith's tutelage. Since he became the Titans quarterback in Week 7 of the 2019 season, Tannehill is first in the league in yards per attempt (8.5), third in touchdowns (550) and third in passer rating (111.3) among NFL quarterbacks. Then there's Derrick Henry, who has led the NFL with 3,567 yards rushing over the past two seasons (875 more than the second on the list, Dalvin Cook). The Titans offense was tied for second in total yards per game (396.4) and fourth in points per game (30.7) in 2020.
Ryan, who has led the NFL in completions in each of the past two seasons, will have same dinner taken off his plate with Smith running a balanced attack. The Titans ranked in the top four in run-play percentage in each of the last two seasons while the Falcons were last in 2019 and 25th in 2020. The balance of play calls will greatly benefit Ryan, who will be 36 this year, preserving his immediate future in Atlanta. Ryan still has plenty of very good football left in him, which is what Atlanta needs to compete in loaded NFC South.
-- Jeff Kerr
Philadelphia Eagles: Nick Sirianni
Previous role: Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator (2018-2020)
Our reaction: Instead of pivoting to a hard-nosed big name in Josh McDaniels, the Eagles have gone down the well of affable, relatively anonymous offensive assistant once more. But that's not a bad thing. Sirianni's resume is lacking an "it" factor in that he's never called plays, never proven to be a quarterback "guru" and never been a head coach before, which almost assuredly means the Eagles' current leadership (e.g. Howie Roseman) will remain the captain of the ship (which, frankly, has sunk badly of late).
And yet there's too much promise in Sirianni's background to overlook. He's young and ascending. He was the hand-picked OC of Frank Reich, a respected leader with obvious Eagles ties (and, thus, a likely bridge to Carson Wentz for a QB restoration project). He oversaw career years from Chargers starters as a wide receivers coach. He's survived two different teams' head-coaching changes. And he hails from a strong football family. You could do a whole lot worse entering a period of major transition.