2014 NFL Coaching Changes
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Once we review the lessons learned from the previous season, our first order of business each year, as we begin our coverage on another NFL season (our 20th in business), is to break down the league’s coaching changes and the fantasy ramifications thereof.
As we learned in 2013, change at the top (or near the top) of the coaching ladder can be a good thing, yet it doesn’t appear that the NFL will have someone like Chip Kelly this season. Kelly was a totally unknown asset who came into the league and took it by storm in his first year as an NFL head coach. Still, we can assume that most of the coaches fired in 2013 were canned because they didn’t get the job done, and we like coaches who get the job done.
All seven of the new head coaches in the league have some form of NFL experience, and three of the seven have NFL head-coaching experience (four, if you count Mike Zimmer’s run as the Falcons’ interim coach). Some of these guys have well-defined philosophies, and it’s not difficult to project what their new teams will look like under them. But in addition to the head-coaching hires, there are some very interesting coordinator hires, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
In this article, we analyze every new head coach and coordinator hire in the NFL, as we try to get a grasp on what these teams may look like in 2014, especially for fantasy purposes. In all, 15 teams made at least one head coach or coordinator change, so as always there is plenty of turnover in the league.
Note: After the draft and the bulk of the 2014 free agency activity, we’ll revisit this article and update it to include more insight on overall offenses and defenses and specific players.
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (holdover)
Offensive Coordinator: Gary Kubiak
Defensive Coordinator: Dean Pees (holdover)
Overview: A year after making a surprising run to a Super Bowl title, the Ravens were unable to even return to the playoffs, despite being in the race for the final spot in the AFC all the way to the last week of the season. While they remained in contention, it was hard to truly believe in the Ravens as serious challengers with the team struggling on the ground and through the air, along with a defense that was merely average. They ranked 29th in total offense in 2013 after finishing 16th in 2012. Baltimore’s passing game was 15th in their championship season, but fell to 18th this past year. The bigger concern was the struggles of their rushing attack. After ranking 11th in rushing back in 2012, the Ravens fell all the way to 30th in 2013. We know the loss of TE Dennis Pitta for much of the season didn’t help, especially with WR Anquan Boldin traded to the 49ers, but when RBs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce can’t get anything going on the ground, there’s not much to hang your hat on for a team with a lack of talent in their receiving corps. After giving QB Joe Flacco a monster contract heading into the 2013 season, the team must focus on putting better pieces around him. They’ll start with the hiring of new OC Gary Kubiak, who takes over for Jim Caldwell after he became the new HC of the Lions. Kubiak will be the team’s third OC in less than two years after Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron toward the end of the 2012 season.
About Kubiak: Kubiak takes over the Raven offense after serving as the HC of the Texans from 2006 until early December of last year. He was 61-64 during that time and led the team to division titles in 2011-2012, but went no further than the Divisional Round in each of those seasons. Houston took a major step backwards in 2013, and Kubiak was let go with the team sitting at 2-11. Under Kubiak, the Texan offense ranked among the top 10 four times over the last six seasons. Before his time with the Texans, Kubiak was part of the Bronco staff from 1995-2005, serving first as QB coach and then OC under Mike Shanahan. In addition to Kubiak, the Ravens also hired Rick Dennison to serve as QB coach. Dennison was the OC in Houston under Kubiak for the last four years. According to Kubiak, he’ll be making changes to his playbook to fit the personnel and the philosophy of the Ravens. Of course, the Ravens need to add some pieces to help improve the offense, as GM Ozzie Newsome alluded to when he discussed the need to fix the OL. With Kubiak using a zone-blocking scheme, the Ravens should be looking to bring in athletic OLs with size not being a priority. That could take some time, but the hope is that Ray Rice will be able to get back on track after a disastrous 2013, and with Kubiak producing plenty of 1000-yard backs in Denver and Houston, he should be able to get the ground game going again. Of course, we might see more of Pierce or someone else, since Rice may have hit something of a wall in 2013. Kubiak has typically been very hands-on with his QBs, and Joe Flacco may need that after a disappointing season following the massive deal he signed early in 2013. Kubiak likes to use play-action to take shots down the field, as we saw with Matt Schaub, and Flacco fits that well, especially since he can move as well or better than Schaub and has one of the best arms in the league. The Kubiak hire looks like good news for TE Dennis Pitta, who has already been getting praise from Kubiak, which indicates the team considers Pitta a priority to re-sign. Kubiak expects Pitta to “be a big part of the offense.”
Head Coach: Doug Marrone (holdover)
Offensive Coordinator: Nathaniel Hackett (holdover)
Defensive Coordinator: Jim Schwartz
Overview: The new regime in Buffalo didn’t get off to the start they were hoping for, but that’s what happens when your rookie QB deals with knee issue before, during, and at the middle of the season. QB E.J. Manuel was installed as the starter, but had his development stifled by the knee problems, causing the team to turn to QBs like Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel to pick up the slack. While the offense was tough to judge, the first season under DC Mike Pettine ended up being a solid one. The Bills went from 11th-worst in total defense in 2012 to 10th-best in 2013. While you could make the argument that the struggles of the offense put too much pressure on the defense, Pettine was considered to be one of the better defensive minds in the league after having success with the Jets under Rex Ryan, and that carried over to his short time with the Bills. They were the 5th-worst team against the run, but 4th-best against the pass, so there’s a clear area where they need to improve. They’ll look to do that under new DC Jim Schwartz, who goes back to a coordinator job after losing his HC spot with the Lions.
About Schwartz: Schwartz joins the Bills’ staff after five years as the HC in Detroit. He had just one winning season, a 10-6 record in 2011 that led to a playoff berth, but a loss in the Wild Card round. The Lions were 6-3 in 2013 but completely fell apart in the second half of the season and ended up 7-9. While Schwartz has always been a defensive coach, none of his units in Detroit were among the top half of the league. He was with the Titans from 1999-2008, serving as the DC starting in 2001 until the Lions hired him in 2009. The particulars about Schwartz’s defense are still being figured out, according to LB coach Fred Pagac. Pagac said they are working to tie the terminology together, and while the team ran a hybrid defense under former DC Mike Pettine, the transition may not be as drastic as once expected with the thought originally being the team would be married to a 4-3 scheme. Schwartz said of his defense, “You can’t put it in a box. It’ll be opponent-specific and multi-dimensional. We are an attack scheme.” Schwartz’ defenses in Detroit almost always had issues on the back-end, yet the Bills are strong there, and Detroit was downright nasty against the run in 2013, which could good news for Buffalo’s sieve-like run defense in ’13.
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (holdover)
Offensive Coordinator: Hue Jackson
Defensive Coordinator: Paul Guenther
Overview: Have the Bengals plateaued? It certainly feels like that after another quick exit in the playoffs. In 2013, the Bengals won their first division title since 2009 and third under HC Marvin Lewis. However, for the third straight season, they made the playoffs but couldn’t get out of the Wild Card round. Lewis, who’s been the HC since 2003, will be back for another season, but with a pair of new coordinators. RB coach Hue Jackson takes over for former OC Jay Gruden, who took the HC job with the Redskins. Paul Guenther was promoted from LB coach to DC after Mike Zimmer was hired as the new HC of the Vikings. Jackson takes over the 10th-ranked offense in 2013. The passing attack was 8th-best (17th in 2012), while the rushing offense was 18th, just as it was in 2012. The defense ranked 3rd in total yards, 3rd against the pass, and 5th against the run. There are certainly enough pieces here to succeed, but it’ll be up to Jackson and Guenther to keep up the success of their predecessors.
About Jackson: Jackson’s promotion to OC will be the fourth time he’s held that position after stints running the offenses in Washington, Atlanta, and Oakland. He served as a WR coach, QB coach, Secondary/Assistant Special Teams coach, and RB coach. He was also the HC of the Raiders in 2011, but returned for the Bengals in 2012 and was the RB coach last season. According to RB Giovani Bernard, Jackson is “going to create the craziest playbook ever.” The belief is that that the Bengals will rely on running the ball more, which sounds like great news for Bernard, as his role should increase, depending on if the team brings in another back via free agency. Putting more reliance on the run is probably smart, considering QB Andy Dalton is coming off a season with 21 INTs and too many bad decisions. With Dalton not having a lot of arm strength, Jackson may have Dalton get away from the throws outside the numbers that he was asked to make under former OC Jay Gruden. According to HC Marvin Lewis, the playbook and terminology won’t change much, but Jackson’s play-calling will be tweaked to be different than Gruden’s. In the two years he ran the offense in Oakland as OC and then HC, Jackson’s rushing attacks ranked 2nd and 7th, respectively. He wants to “unleash” his backfield with physicality leading the way. Jackson was Bernard’s RB coach last year, and he loves the kid, so get ready to see Gio settle in as a top-25 overall fantasy pick in 2014 – and rightfully so.
About Guenther: Guenther gets his first chance as a DC with Mike Zimmer taking the HC job in Minnesota. Since 2005, Guenther has been with the Bengals in a variety of coaching roles, most recently as the LB coach, where he was considered the top defensive assistant, hence the promotion. According to HC Marvin Lewis, Guenther was Zimmer’s “right-hand man,” and not much will change because of the success the team has had, which Guenther had a hand in creating. Guenther’s relationship with Lewis goes back to their time together on the Redskin staff in 2002. Continuity seems to be a big factor in keeping Guenther around, especially since other teams coveted him. In fact, the Bengals were fortunate not to lose him to Zimmer’s Vikings, among other teams. This will be the first time Guenther calls plays on the professional level.
Head Coach: Mike Pettine
Offensive Coordinator: Kyle Shanahan
Defensive Coordinator: Jim O’Neil
Overview: For the second straight season, the Browns are undergoing a major overhaul, although the changes have come at odd times with executives being shifted around as late as February. In a bit of a surprise move, HC Rob Chudzinski was fired after just one season and a 4-12 record. The move was somewhat odd, considering he was hired by the (then) current regime at the top, CEO Joe Banner and GM/VP of Player Personnel Mike Lombardi. We thought Norv Turner did a great job with the offense in 2013, for what it’s worth, but he’s gone. Alrighty then. While he was clearly not the top choice, the Browns ended up hiring Mike Pettine as their new HC after he spent just one season in Buffalo as the DC. Pettine brought along Jim O’Neil from Buffalo to be his DC and the team eventually hired Kyle Shanahan, former Redskin OC, to run their offense. The Browns ranked 18th in total offense, 11th in passing (with three QBs), and 27th in rushing. With the only sure things in the offense being WR Josh Gordon and TE Jordan Cameron, Shanahan has his work cut out for him. The Browns were 9th-worst in total defense, 8th-best against the pass, and 15th-worst against the run. There are some pieces here to work with for O’Neil, but we’d expect Pettine to play a big role in how the defense will operate. You would think the major hirings and firings would be done once the team settled on a new HC and coordinators, but that was far from the case. In early February, it was announced that the team would move on from Banner and Lombardi with Ray Farmer taking over as GM after serving as Assistant GM in 2013. Considering Banner and Lombardi had been with the team for less than two years, the move came as a shock, although owner Jimmy Haslam believes that the shift will streamline the decision-making process. Maybe it will, and this could all work out. But on the surface, things look to be a mess here.
About Pettine: The Browns may not have had your typical off-season, but they still may have found a quality HC in Pettine. He spent last year as the DC in Buffalo after four seasons holding that same position under Rex Ryan with the Jets. Pettine didn’t even get into the NFL coaching ranks until 2002, when he started his professional career as a coaching assistant with the Ravens, where he would remain through the 2008 season. The Bills went from 11th-worst in total defense in 2012 to 10th-best in 2013. They were the 5th-worst team against the run, but 4th-best against the pass. Pettine brings a hybrid defense of sorts that uses a lot of exotic blitzes and movement to confuse opponents. It can be a tough system to learn for a new team, but he say he’ll be using a form of the 3-4 scheme that the team had last season, so that should ease in the adjustment. Much like he did with the Jets and Bills, Pettine will call the plays, although we’ll see if the added responsibilities of being a HC make that a challenge. Pettine’s defenses have finished in the top 10 in each of his five years as a DC with last year’s Bills setting a franchise record with 57 sacks, second-most in the league. In addition to hiring Jim O’Neil as his DC, Pettine brings along Chuck Driesbach (LB coach), Brian Fleury (assistant LB coach), and Jeff Haney (secondary coach), so that should help with the transition and give him some continuity. The best news of all is Cleveland has a ton of talent on the front-seven – and a shutdown corner in Joe Haden.
About Shanahan: While Shanahan is just 34, he’s been coaching at the NFL level for the last ten years and with a fair amount of success. Shanahan spent the last four seasons as the OC in Washington under his father, Mike Shanahan. Before that, he spent four seasons with the Texans under Gary Kubiak, initially as WRs coach then QB coach before his promotion to OC for 2008-2009. The 2013 season was a disaster for Shanahan and the Redskins, as expectations were high coming off an NFC East title with rookie QB Robert Griffin doing a great job using the read-option. Unfortunately, Griffin struggled to come back from a torn ACL and never seemed to get in any rhythm before being benched in December. However, the Redskins still finished 9th in total offense after finishing 5th in 2012. The passing game actually improved from 20th to 16th, and the rushing attack dropped from 1st to 5th, so despite the issues and the 3-13 record, the numbers weren’t bad. Shanahan has adjusted his offensive philosophy and schemes in the past and will be doing the same in Cleveland. He used the pistol with Griffin in Washington as a way to integrate the zone read, but as he noted, the rest of the offense could be run from that formation, so he didn’t have to change things up too much. The Shanahans have used zone-blocking schemes in the past, which has translated into 1000-yard rushers, the latest being Alfred Morris, who has run for 1606 and 1275 yards in his first two seasons. While Shanahan would like to just feed a single player to keep a consistent ground game going, we’ve seen the use of multiple backs throughout a season to make sure that gets done, or as it’s know in the fantasy world, “Shanahanigans.” While Shanahan said he’d continue to tailor his offense to the personnel, it’s not like the Browns have many pieces in place besides WR Josh Gordon and TE Jordan Cameron, although both of those players should be featured. Between the Redskins and Texans, Shanahan’s offenses have been in the top 10 four times in six years he’s been an OC. The team will likely use a form of the West Coast Offense, but as we saw in Washington, alterations will be made based on personnel, most important, the QB, who could likely come with one of the team’s two first-round picks. Other than QB, the team will be looking for a new lead back, since they are very thin at the position right now. It will be interesting to see if Edwin Baker can remain in the mix here, but they’ll probably bring in someone “of note,” since a strong running game is usually the foundation of a Shanahan offense.
About O’Neil: O’Neil has worked with Pettine for the last five seasons, both in Buffalo and New York. O’Neil coached the secondary with the Jets and was the LB coach with the Bills last season. The two have connections dating back to high school, where they both played for Pettine’s father. The hiring of O’Neil and some other Bill assistants should make the transition easier, and while it will be the first time O’Neil holds the title of DC, Pettine will be the one calling the plays. Pettine compared the situation to his with Rex Ryan in New York. Ryan called the plays the first year and then let Pettine handle the duties after that, which could eventually be the case with O’Neil once Pettine feels comfortable taking the “training wheels” off.
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (holdover)
Offensive Coordinator: Bill Callahan (holdover)/Scott Linehan (new Passing Game Coordinator/Playcaller)
Defensive Coordinator: Rod Marinelli
Overview: Another disappointing season for the Cowboys has come and gone, but HC Jason Garrett is still with the team. Under Garrett, the Cowboys have finished 8-8 for the last three seasons and have yet to make the playoffs during his regime. They’ll try to shuffle the deck once again with the hiring of Scott Linehan to be the new playcaller/Passing Game Coordinator. Bill Callahan, who was promoted to OC last season, will retain the title, but lose his duties as a playcaller and remains on the staff for now. A year after taking over the defense, Monte Kiffin took a demotion of sorts from DC to Assistant Head Coach/Defense, with DL coach Rod Marinelli getting the promotion to DC. The Cowboys had the worst defense in the league and the worst in team history. They gave up the most total yards, 3rd-most passing yards, and 6th-most rushing yards. The offense ranked 16th in total yards, 14th in passing, and 24th in rushing. Improvements need to be made across the board, but the team decided to makes some changes to Garrett’s staff instead of letting him go, so we’ll see if the latest moves make any difference in 2014.
About Linehan: The latest change the Cowboys have made to spare HC Jason Garrett for another season is the hiring of Linehan to call plays and act as the Passing Game Coordinator with OC Bill Shanahan retaining his title and remaining the OL coach. Linehan was the OC in Detroit since 2009 and spent three years as the HC in St. Louis before that (and the Viking OC before that). The Lions were one of the most pass-happy teams in the league under Linehan, throwing it more than anyone else in 2011 and 2012 and finishing in the top 5 of attempts in the last four seasons with the team. While the Lions were a top-5 team in passing yardage over the last three years, they were never in the top half of the league in rushing, although RB Reggie Bush had the team’s first 1000-yard rushing season since 2004. For those hoping the Cowboys would run it more, that likely won’t be the case, but it doesn’t mean the RBs will be ignored. In fact, we could see more than just DeMarco Murray involved, as Linehan used multiple backs often during his time with the Lions, specifically Bush and Bell last season. They were active in the passing game, usually on screen plays, so Linehan may bring that with him as an extension of the rushing attack. Not only did Linehan’s Lion teams throw it a lot, but they also threw it downfield quite often. According to the team’s site, Tony Romo threw just 42 passes of 21+ yards last season. During stints in Minnesota, St. Louis, and Detroit, Linehan regularly had his QBs throwing 20+ yards 70-85 times in a season, so the Cowboys may be a little more vertical as opposed to a somewhat conservative attack under Callahan. Titles aside, this should be Linehan’s offense, and if that’s the case, they’ll likely be more aggressive in 2014.
About Marinelli: Marinelli served as the Cowboy DL coach last season, but he will be moving up the ladder with a promotion to DC after Monte Kiffin was demoted following the worst defensive season in team history. Before joining the Cowboys, Marinelli spent four years with the Bears, three of which came as the DC. In his three years running the defense, the Bears ranked in the top-10 twice. During that span, the Bears were among the top 5 in fumbles, INTs, TDs, and points allowed. Marinelli has been a defensive coach in the NFL since 1996, but he has been coaching since 1973. According to HC Jason Garrett, Marinelli (a “Tampa-2” guy from way back) and Kiffin work well together, but Marinelli will be handling all the responsibilities of his new title of defensive coordinator. Garrett praised Kiffin for helping the team transition to the 4-3 defense last season after running the 3-4 with Rob Ryan. Not much is expected to change in terms of scheme, but based on his history of calling defenses, Marinelli doesn’t like to blitz that often, as he relies on his DL to get pressure. Other than that, not much will look different, but the team has to hope they stay healthier and get better play up front if they want things to work under the respected Marinelli.
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell
Offensive Coordinator: Joe Lombardi
Defensive Coordinator: Teryl Austin
Overview: While the Lions’ roster is flawed, for sure, it has plenty of talent to make noise, and certainly enough to make the playoffs. So when the 6-3 Lions ended the 2013 season losing six of their final seven games, one year after going an abysmal 4-12, it was absolutely no surprise that coach Jim Schwartz and most of his staff were summarily canned. But after making overtures for Ken Whisenhunt, many Lion fans were underwhelmed with the hiring of former Colt coach and Raven offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell as the top man. Can Caldwell’s offensive acumen curb their concerns?
About Caldwell: Giving more than a cursory look at Caldwell’s track record, it’s pretty evident why Lions’ fans were underwhelmed with his hiring as their head coach. While Caldwell has been a head coach in a Super Bowl (XLIV, a Colt loss to the Saints) and the offensive coordinator in another (XLVII, a Raven win over the 49ers), his overall head-coaching resume is less than impressive. In the NFL, Caldwell is 26-22 as a head coach. But without Peyton Manning as his QB, that mark falls to 2-14. It’s certainly not fair to completely hold the Colts’ disastrous 2011 without Peyton against Caldwell, but coupled with his 26-63 tenure at Wake Forest University (immediately followed by the successful run of Jim Grobe), the resume takes a huge hit. In fact, Caldwell’s most staggering success as an NFL head coach took place over seven games. When Raven coach John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in December of 2012, Caldwell was promoted from QB coach to the OC job. Caldwell called the plays for the Ravens’ final seven games of the season, which included a four-game run to Super Bowl XLVII. Over that postseason span, QB Joe Flacco played the best football of his life, and the Ravens averaged 410.2 yards of offense per game en route to a championship. But this season, Caldwell’s only full season as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, the Raven offense seriously regressed. Baltimore finished last in the NFL in yards per play (4.5), 29th in yards per game (307.4), and 25th in scoring per game (20.0). Again, it wasn’t a particularly talented offense, but Caldwell’s success in the NFL is marked by one month of an insanely hot Flacco and two years of perhaps the greatest QB of all time. All this said, Caldwell had significant endorsements from both Manning and former Colt coach Tony Dungy, endorsements that held a lot of weight with the Ford family. And it’s not like the Lions lack talent – Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Reggie Bush alone provide Caldwell with much more than he had at his disposal in Baltimore this past season, and the offensive line was excellent in Detroit in 2013, at least blocking for the pass. But if Caldwell can’t fix Stafford’s inconsistencies in his first season, expect to hear a lot about his shaky track record. He has a lot of incentive to get the job done in Year One.
About Lombardi: A quick riser in the NFL, Lombardi has coached in the league for only seven seasons, the last five of which were spent as the QB coach for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Lombardi has never been a playcaller at the NFL, but said this month that he expects to be the trigger man for the Lion offense in 2014. Lombardi told reporters in a February news conference that he anticipates bringing the Saints’ playbook to Detroit, which should continue to mean big numbers for Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Reggie Bush (especially as a receiver out of the backfield, as he was with the Saints). Lombardi’s declaration also made talented but raw TE Joseph Fauria excited, as he tweeted this month. It’s also worth noting that the Saints rotate their players as aggressively as any team in the NFL, so it would be wise for the Lions to make a point of retaining RFA RB Joique Bell, and adding some help for Calvin at the WR position (they’ve released veteran Nate Burleson this month). But the true issue Lombardi will have to tackle is Stafford’s consistency. In that regard, we have a positive outlook. Lombardi just spent five years working closely with Brees, perhaps the NFL’s most mechanically sound passer. Lombardi, like head coach Jim Caldwell, has spent the last few weeks watching and analyzing all of Stafford’s throws, especially his interceptions. Lombardi told reporters exactly what we’ve seen from Stafford; his arm talent is so evident that it sometimes hides mechanical woes, but that the mechanical woes also result in poor throws at times. Lombardi has identified multiple footwork issues that Stafford needs to work on, and you might remember Stafford’s last coaching staff (including former OC Scott Linehan) insisting that his mechanics were not an issue. Regardless of Stafford’s willingness to revamp his lower body, he’s going to have to under Lombardi and new QB coach Jim Bob Cooter, who worked with Peyton Manning in Denver this past season. But things go look promising on paper, since we’re talking about three coaches (Caldwell included) who have spent a ton of time with two future Hall-of-famers in Brees and Manning.
About Austin: Like with the hiring of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Austin’s background makes a lot of sense, given the things the Lions have struggled with the last few seasons. Austin arrived in Baltimore in 2011 after spending 2010 as the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida. Over the last three seasons, he’s been Baltimore’s secondary coach. This is noteworthy, given the Lions’ declining play on the back end. The Lions gave up the 10th-most passing yards in the NFL in 2013, a year after giving up the 14th-most (2012), down from the 11th-fewest in 2011. Meanwhile, Austin’s Ravens have been in the better half in the NFL in passing yards allowed in each season of his tenure, 12th-best this past year and topping at 4th-best in 2011. Austin’s work should primarily focus on the secondary, then. The Lions have a gifted front seven, led by DTs Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. But Austin specifically noted that he needs to help shape the talent in the Lions’ secondary, especially young CB Darius Slay, whom Austin compared to young but improving Raven CB Jimmy Smith in a press conference. They have released talented but injury-prone S Louis Delmas as well. Expect the Lions to stick with their 4-3 looks, including the “Wide-9” alignment on the defensive line at times (the Lions are keeping around DL coach Jim Washburn). If Austin can develop talent on the back end, the Lion defense could be a nice surprise in 2014.
Head Coach: Bill O’Brien
Offensive Coordinator: None (O’Brien will call the plays)
Defensive Coordinator: Romeo Crennel
Overview: Heading into 2014, the Texans have several similarities to the 2013 Chiefs if you squint hard enough. It’s a talented roster with a great fanbase coming off a disastrous 2-14 season, with the #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft on deck. Finding a QB is the utmost priority. And even Romeo Crennel is here. Of course, they also have similarities to the Eagles of last season – perhaps the Texans’ struggles were due to head coach Gary Kubiak hanging on for just too long, and Houston went to the college ranks to pluck their new coach in Bill O’Brien. While last season ended on a horrific 14-game losing streak, there are reasons to be optimistic heading into 2014.
About O’Brien: After firing Gary Kubiak and replacing him with interim coach Wade Phillips in December, the Texans were able to get a head start on finding their new coach. They identified and moved quickly on O’Brien, a still-young coach who thrived under Bill Belichick in New England and steadily led Penn State University through an impossible situation. So if there’s one word to describe O’Brien, it’s “adaptable.” In New England, he helped orchestrate the “Tight End Revolution” with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. At Penn State, he won 15 games in two years with a fraction of the scholarship athletes as the rest of his Big Ten competition and turned walk-on Matt McGloin into an NFL quarterback. Heck, compared to what he inherited at Penn State, inheriting an underachieving Texans team with the #1 overall draft pick in May seems like a piece of cake. Of course, O’Brien understands his success will be directly tied to what he does with that pick. The assumption is he’ll use it on a QB, as the Texans are almost certainly moving on from Matt Schaub. But is there a passer the Texans like enough at #1 to pass on a guy like defensive stud Jadeveon Clowney? Or can they trade down and still get their man? Those questions will be answered over the next few months. But we know this: O’Brien typically likes his passers to be tall and strong in the pocket (see Tom Brady and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg). But knowing what we know about O’Brien’s history as a coach, is even that a sure thing? With both the Patriots and Penn State, O’Brien built his gameplans around the talent he had, and he generally had a lot of success doing that. To us, that’s fantastic news for Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, and (if he’s healthy) Arian Foster. It’ll also be interesting to see what O’Brien does at the TE position, with Owen Daniels owed a ton of money and Garrett Graham a free agent. But we’re certain O’Brien’s confident in his abilities (he isn’t hiring an offensive coordinator), and he also understands his entire NFL future will be shaped by what he does at the QB position. Whoever that may be, O’Brien will design the offense to his strengths.
About Crennel: Crennel and Bill O’Brien have similar connections with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the two have never worked together before Crennel signed three-year deal to join the Texans as defensive coordinator. Crennel comes to the Texans after two failed stints as a head coach, with Cleveland and Kansas City. But his reputation for being a player’s coach with an exceptional defensive acumen provides a necessary contrast to O’Brien’s vocal style and offensive expertise. As defensive coordinator, Crennel’s teams have consistently outperformed his defenses when he was a head coach. Crennel posted top-10 defenses in New England in 2003 and 2004 (including top-two scoring defenses in each of those seasons), his final two years before taking the Browns’ head coaching job. In his four years with the Browns, Crennel’s defenses finished in the bottom 7 of the league three times. Then, in two seasons as defensive coordinator in Kansas City, Crennel’s Chiefs ranked 14th (2010) and 11th (2011) in total defense. As the permanent head coach in 2012, the Chiefs fell to 20th. The track record suggests that Crennel is much more successful focusing all his attention on his defense, which he’ll be able to do with the Texans. The good news for the Texans is Crennel typically runs a 3-4 or hybrid system, for which Houston has the personnel. Crennel himself has told reporters that we should expect multiple fronts and disguised looks from the get-go. And star DE J.J. Watt knows the key for the Texans – they must create more turnovers. At his best, Crennel’s defenses were among the NFL leaders in that department (including two top-3 finishes in his seven years as an NFL defensive coordinator). With Watt anchoring the defense, Crennel at least has a good place to start. The question is if he can get LB Brian Cushing back from another serious injury, and young CB Kareem Jackson can continue to develop.
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (holdover)
Offensive Coordinator: Bill Lazor
Defensive Coordinator: Kevin Coyle (holdover)
Overview: The Dolphins had a playoff appearance on a platter for them in 2013. All it would have taken was one win over either the Bills or Jets in their last two games to lock it up. Instead, the Dolphins scored a combined 7 points in those two games, while gaining a total of 399 yards over those two weeks. The utter failure of the offense to sustain anything led to the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who struggled to get consistency out of his players, especially in the run game. The Dolphins also replaced GM Jeff Ireland with Dennis Hickey, the former director of player personnel with Tampa Bay. The hope for Miami is that new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who has a reputation in developing young QBs after his work in Philadelphia last year, can help the Dolphin offense take the next step.
About Lazor: Lazor has three key responsibilities with Miami in 2014. Number one, of course, is to develop Ryan Tannehill. While we like Tannehill a lot, he had the ups-and-downs you’d expect from a young QB in 2013. Lazor’s other two responsibilities had more of a key role in the Dolphins’ 2013 collapse. He needs to fix the running game, and he needs to fix the offensive line. Lazor, 42, has already expressed his excitement to work with Tannehill, one of the brighter young stars at the QB position in the NFL. He spent last year working with Nick Foles in Philadelphia, after serving as the University of Virginia’s OC and QB coach for three years. In all, he has five years of NFL QB-coaching experience in addition to his college experience. And while Tannehill is the priority, it’s arguable if not obvious that fixing the line can help everything come into place. In 2013, the Dolphins surrendered 58 sacks, the most in the NFL. As a result, Tannehill had some of his shakier moments, and the Dolphin run game was anemic for most of the season (they were 7th-worst in the NFL with 92.0 YPG, and neither Lamar Miller nor Daniel Thomas was much of a fantasy option). So the real question is if Lazor can supplement Tannehill’s talent with a run game. The Dolphins knew what they were looking for, and they hired the QB coach from Chip Kelly’s Eagles, the NFL’s top rushing team last season. If Lazor takes cues from Kelly, the idea will be to create explosive plays with the passing game and the running game. In Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, he has a solid foundation at WR, and he has a versatile TE in Charles Clay. The real question is if Miller and/or Thomas is the answer in the backfield, or if Lazor is going to try to convince Miami to move on in that department. The general consensus in Miami is that Miller might not be the answer in terms of being a lead back. Expect Lazor to tell the Dolphins they need to get more athletic up front, as well, as the Eagles had one of the most athletic (and best) offensive lines in the NFL.
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer
Offensive Coordinator: Norv Turner
Defensive Coordinator: George Edwards
Overview: A year after Adrian Peterson almost literally carried the Vikings into the playoffs, Minnesota’s struggles at the QB position held the club back, and it couldn’t overcome a dinged-up year for the reigning NFL MVP. So Minnesota had a philosophy change at the top. In firing popular “players’ coach” Leslie Frazier (even Peterson lobbied for Frazier to stay) and bringing in Bengal DC Mike Zimmer, the Vikings are clearly showing they want their leadership to be more vocal and in-your-face. It’s hard to argue the club didn’t need change, and it’s hard to argue Zimmer didn’t deserve this shot.
About Zimmer: In his introductory press conference with the Vikings, Zimmer admitted to reporters that he has “a chip on [his] shoulder.” Long one of the NFL’s best and most respected defensive coordinators, Zimmer has been passed over multiple times in the last few years for head jobs. Zimmer acknowledged that, making comments similar to those Randy Moss made after the 1998 NFL Draft, when he was passed over by multiple teams. But Zimmer’s in-your-face demeanor likely meant the Vikings needed to be looking specifically for that heading into their interview with him. Knowing Zimmer’s personality well (and if you’ve seen Hard Knocks, you certainly do), it should come as no surprise that he wants his Vikings to play a physical brand of football. For Zimmer, that will start on the defensive side. He comes with an incredible track record as a defensive coordinator. His Bengals have posted four top-10 defenses in the last five seasons, and that includes finishing #3 in total defense in 2013, despite losing their best player, DT Geno Atkins, to injury. Zimmer has been a defensive coordinator for 14 consecutive seasons. Only once (2007, a disastrous Falcon season under Bobby Petrino before Zimmer took over as interim coach) has Zimmer had a defense outside of the top 20 in the NFL. That means, at worst, Zimmer’s defenses are average, and usually, they’re excellent (seven top-10 defenses in 14 seasons). Zimmer will certainly help oversee a Viking defense that plummeted to 31st in the NFL in total defense in 2013. Of course, as head coach, he’ll also oversee the offense. Playing physically is taken care of with Adrian Peterson in the backfield, and at least an interesting offensive line in front of him. But Zimmer’s Vikings aren’t going anywhere unless they can find and develop a QB. That’s where his veteran offensive coordinator comes in.
About Turner: When you really think about it, it’s pretty damn impressive that Turner managed to coach the NFL’s #15 offense in Cleveland last year, considering the revolving door of suck he had to deal with at QB (when Brian Hoyer is easily the best of a three-headed attack, you know something’s going wrong). Having WR Josh Gordon and TE Jordan Cameron helped things out, but the Browns had little else. In a way, he’s already in good position with the Vikings. He has talent at WR in Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings. He has a TE in Kyle Rudolph, who has a lot of talent, even if he isn’t as dynamic as Cameron. And in Adrian Peterson, he has a far better run game than he had with the Browns last season. The problem remains the same, though: The Vikings need a quarterback. And ideally, Turner’s QB will be able to deliver the ball down the field. The last two years, with Philip Rivers before his resurgence in 2012 and the Browns’ rotation in 2013, have been the antithesis of what Turner likes to do. In those two seasons, Turner’s offenses posted bottom-10 rankings in yards per attempt. Prior to 2012, Turner’s Chargers had four straight years of top-five finishes in that category, including three consecutive #1 finishes from 2008 through 2010. While Turner loves having a true star back to go to (he’s coached NFL rushing leaders in Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams, and LaDainian Tomlinson), his offenses have ranked higher in the passing game than the running game in each of the last six seasons. Turner is, more than anything, a “QB Guru.” So it stands to reason that Turner will want to add a young QB to this roster. As of publishing time, the only QB on the Viking roster under contract for 2014 is Christian Ponder. While Turner has publicly said he’ll give Ponder a fair chance at earning a job, it’s highly unlikely we’ll know the Vikings’ plans for the QB spot until May’s draft. Anything else would just be a patch job (Matt Cassel has opted out of his 2014 contract, although a return isn’t out of the question). With a talented young QB, some intriguing talent at receiver, and Peterson, Turner’s Viking offense should be balanced, at least ideally. There’s no reason to think a healthy Peterson shouldn’t pile up numbers in this offense. One question we do have: What are Turner’s plans for Patterson? Does he view him as a “#1” X receiver, a la Gordon, or does he view him as more of a bit player, like Darren Sproles was with the Chargers? We know Patterson can fly, but can he make big plays down the field with the ball in the air like Gordon has done? If he doesn’t view Patterson as his next Gordon, we should remember that Sproles’ production under Turner was far less than it has been under Sean Payton with the Saints. That’s like comparing apples and oranges, but it’s worth noting that Turner did not take advantage of a dynamic player in Sproles.
About Edwards: Although he’s only 47, 2014 will mark Edwards’ third defensive coordinator gig in the NFL. He served in the same position with the Redskins in 2003 and with the Bills in 2010 and 2011. He gets to start fresh with the Vikings after having served as the Dolphins’ LB coach over the last two seasons. Statistically, Edwards’ defenses won’t get Viking fans too excited. In his three seasons as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, Edwards’ defenses have finished in the bottom 10 in both yardage and scoring defense. Of course, Edwards is likely to be more of a caretaker who runs Mike Zimmer’s defense. We would expect Zimmer’s Vikings to play predominantly 4-3 fronts with a lot of man coverage on the back end, or at least more than Leslie Frazier used. As for Edwards, his focus will be on using sub-packages and deception to generate pressure. In his introductory press conference with the Vikings, he specifically cited the Seahawks and their DC Dan Quinn as the blueprint he needs to use to get to the QB in the QB-dominated NFC North. It’s a good place to start.
New York Giants
Head Coach: Tom Coughlin (holdover)
Offensive Coordinator: Ben McAdoo
Defensive Coordinator: Perry Fewell (holdover)
Overview: Coming off of two incredibly disappointing seasons, especially for QB Eli Manning, Giant OC Kevin Gilbride “retired,” opening the door for the Giants to get much younger at the offensive coordinator spot. They did just that with the hiring of Ben McAdoo, who will turn 37 in July. McAdoo inherits a team trending in the wrong direction. After four straight top-10 offenses from 2008 to 2011, the Giants fell to 14th in total offense in 2012 and a miserable 28th in 2013 (fantasy owners can certainly sympathize). The struggles of Manning, in particular, led to the Giants’ hiring of a coach with a QB background.
About McAdoo: The Giants need to get their anemic offense back on track, and they’re trying to do so with a fresh perspective. They move on from the retired Kevin Gilbride – who had over 20 years’ experience in the NFL as a QB coach, offensive coordinator, and head coach – to McAdoo, a 37-year-old who has only eight years of NFL coaching experience, and only two as a QB coach with the Packers. McAdoo enters his first coordinator job with a clear plan. He told the New York Post last month that he wants to run “an up-tempo” offense, no surprise considering he has spent all of his NFL career with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers under center. McAdoo’s biggest task will be to fix Eli Manning, who led the NFL with 27 INTs this past season and hasn’t played well overall since 2011. If McAdoo wants to start somewhere, perhaps he can take advice from his predecessor, who blamed the Giants’ offensive line on Eli’s struggles the last two seasons. Old and ineffective, the Giant line’s bets player in 2013 was first-round rookie Justin Pugh, and big-money LT Will Beatty took a big step back. McAdoo should be familiar with dealing with offensive line struggles, given the injuries and ineffective play the Packers have had to deal with the last few seasons. Note also that McAdoo spent six seasons as the Packers’ TE coach, so while the Giants have to replace the departed Mike Pope, one of the better TE coaches in the league for decades, McAdoo comes to the Giants with experience in coaching a “new breed” of TE in Jermichael Finley. He also understands the importance of consistency in the run game, because the Packer offense finally added that dimension to the roster this year in Eddie Lacy. The Giants have a lot to fix, but if Eli doesn’t improve, they’re going nowhere. McAdoo understands that.
San Diego Chargers
Head Coach: Mike McCoy (holdover)
Offensive Coordinator: Frank Reich
Defensive Coordinator: John Pagano (holdover)
Overview: The Chargers reversed course in their first season under HC Mike McCoy and OC Ken Whisenhunt, winning nine games and capturing a playoff victory for the first time since 2008. The two coaches helped to revitalize Philip Rivers’ career after it looked like the QB had fallen from the upper echelon of the position. The success of the Chargers and Rivers helped Whisenhunt to land another head coaching job in Tennessee, just a year after being fired by Cardinals following the 2012 season. The Chargers quickly promoted QB coach Frank Reich to offensive coordinator to maintain continuity with the offense and reward the former Bill QB for his work with Rivers. This is Reich’s first stint as an offensive coordinator, so McCoy will be much more hands on with the offense than he was with Whisenhunt in charge.
About Reich: The new Charger OC is obviously most remembered for coming off the bench and engineering the biggest playoff comeback victory (often referred to as “The Comeback”) in NFL history while with the Bills in 1993. Reich now hopes to start a new legacy as an offensive playcaller after a 14-year NFL playing career. The Chargers didn’t take long to name Reich as the replacement for former OC Ken Whisenhunt, promoting Reich from Chargers’ quarterback coach. HC Mike McCoy obviously will have a huge hand in the offense, but he promoted Reich quickly to keep the continuity with the offense. McCoy is expected to lend more assistance than he did with Whisenhunt as Reich is a first-time playcaller, but this Charger offense should look pretty similar to the 2013 version. Reich obviously deserves some credit for helping to revive QB Philip Rivers in 2013, as Rivers completed a stellar 69.5% of his passes (379/545) for 4478/32/11. Reich previously worked a season under Whisenhunt in Arizona as a wide receivers coach, and he spent four seasons under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell. That means that Reich got to work with and learn from QB Peyton Manning from 2009-10. Reich spent 10 years with the Bills in the “K-Gun” offense, a no-huddle scheme where quarterbacks called their own plays at the line, so he’s well qualified to coach up Rivers. We wouldn’t expect this Charger offense to look too different from last season, which is why the Chargers quickly promoted Reich after Whisenhunt left for Tennessee. Reich doesn’t need to engineer “The Comeback” in his first season as Charger OC; he just needs to keep the ship moving in the right direction after a successful 2013.
St. Louis Rams
Head Coach: Jeff Fisher (holdover)
Offensive Coordinator: Brian Schottenheimer (holdover)
Defensive Coordinator: Gregg Williams
Overview: Ram HC Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams have been buddies for a longtime, and Fisher finally got his original defensive coordinator from back in 2012. Fisher had picked Williams to coach his Ram defense before the Saint bounty scandal came down, which forced Williams to sit out an entire season. The Rams already had one of the best defenses in the league last season, especially when it came to getting after the quarterback, led by DEs Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Williams will bring his aggressive mentality to St. Louis this year, and this defense could be just as fearsome as fellow NFC West defenses in Seattle, San Francisco, and Arizona.
About Williams: The Rams already had one of the fiercest pass rushes in 2013, but they could be even more aggressive at getting to opposing quarterbacks next season with Williams calling defenses. He has a reputation for being one of the more aggressive, blitz-happy coordinators in the league, so the Rams should continue to rack up a ton of sacks next season. The Rams finished third in sacks last season with 53, behind only the Panthers (60) and the Bills (57). DE Robert Quinn finished second in the league with 19 sacks and DE Chris Long racked up 8.5 sacks. The Rams tied for third among fantasy D/STs with 9.4 FPG last season, so they were already a top-flight fantasy unit. Williams had originally accepted the same position two years ago before the NFL suspended him a season because of the bounty scandal with the Saints. After being reinstated, Williams technically served as a “defensive consultant” with the Titans, but he called the plays for the Tennessee defense. Williams is known for being creative enough to tailor his defenses around the strengths and weaknesses of his individual players, like turning Saint safety Roman Harper basically into a linebacker. Williams likes to blitz a lot, and he used quite a bit of man-to-man coverage while with the Saints. Williams will definitely bring a lot of passion to this defense, but the Rams did lack some discipline last season, which isn’t a strength of Williams’ defenses. Still, this is an excellent hire for an already aggressive defense, and this is a defensive unit to target next summer in fantasy drafts.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Head Coach: Lovie Smith
Offensive Coordinator: Jeff Tedford
Defensive Coordinator: Leslie Frazier
Overview: The Buccaneer franchise turned a little toxic the last two seasons under former HC Greg Schiano, so the Glazer family put the franchise into the steady and reliable hands of Lovie Smith, who had great success in nine seasons with the Bears. Schiano finished with an 11-21 record in two seasons, including a 4-12 mark last season, so the Bucs clearly needed a change of direction. Lovie had previously coached Buccaneer linebackers from 1996-2000 under the watch of Tony Dungy, and Lovie will use that Tampa-2 defense that brought the Buccaneers to prominence. He also added former Viking HC Leslie Frazier to run the defense, and he also has a background with the Tampa-2 from working under Dungy with the Colts. Lovie’s biggest downfall in Chicago was the lack of a consistent offensive attack, as he went through four offensive coordinators in nine years. He took a bit of a risk bringing in QB guru Jeff Tedford to lead the offense, as he has no NFL coaching experience. He’ll be tasked with developing rookie QB Mike Glennon next season, but Lovie will still rely on a power-running game with Doug Martin and a physical defense to win games next season.
About Smith: Lovie spent one year out of football evaluating his tenure in Chicago and speaking with a number of coaches for fresh views. Smith racked up an 81-63 record in nine seasons with the Bears, which included a Super Bowl appearance, so he’s the most decorated off-season hire. Smith will still use his Tampa-2 zone defense that brought him plenty of success with the Bears. The system, if strictly used, can devalue a player like top CB Darrelle Revis, but Smith did adapt his defense in Chicago to a stud CB like Charles Tillman. Lovie allowed Tillman to follow #1 WRs on many occasions, so we’d expect Revis to do the same thing next season. The Bears perennially had one of the best defenses in the league under Smith, and this Buccaneer defense does have some talented pieces like Revis, DT Gerald McCoy, OLB Lavonte David, SS Mark Barron, and FS Dashon Goldson. This defense could quickly improve under Smith, especially if they could start getting to the quarterback, which is the most glaring weakness with just 35 sacks last season. On offense, Smith didn’t endorse rookie Mike Glennon as the starting quarterback and the Bucs are expected to bring in a veteran for some competition. Still, Glennon will likely be the favorite to win the job entering training camp. Smith wants to use a power-running game with Doug Martin and a big-play passing game with WR Vincent Jackson, similar to what the Bucs did under former HC Greg Schiano. Lovie comes from a defensive mindset, so he’s going to rely on Martin and his running game quite a bit.
About Tedford: HC Lovie Smith’s eventual downfall in Chicago came down to his stagnant and inconsistent offenses. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, as Lovie went through four offensive coordinators during his nine seasons with the Bears. When Lovie took the job in Tampa this off-season, he knew that he needed to make a splash with his offensive coordinator hire, and he certainly went bold by bringing in Tedford. The longtime college coach comes to the Buccaneers with absolutely no NFL coaching experience. Smith’s biggest downfall in Chicago was that his teams lacked passing games, so he went out of his way to get a quarterback expert. Tedford earned a reputation as a quarterback guru for helping to churn out future pros like Aaron Rodgers, Trent Dilfer, Kyle Boller, Akili Smith, A.J. Feeley, and Joey Harrington throughout his college coaching career. Tedford’s next project will be to turn rookie QB Mike Glennon into a productive NFL quarterback. Glennon impressed at times with his strong arm and his pocket presence, but he needs to play more consistently. Tedford took over a struggling Cal program and turned them into a consistent winner, producing winning seasons in nine of his first 10 seasons before the school fired him after a dreadful 2012 season. He produced 40 NFL players and eight 1st-round picks during his time at California. Tedford has rightfully gained a rep as a quarterback coach, but he’s actually developed some impressive running backs over the years. RBs Marshawn Lynch, Shane Vereen, Jahvid Best, Justin Forsett, and J.J. Arrington all played under Tedford. He said he plans on using multiple running backs next season, but Doug Martin should still see plenty of touches in what should be a run-heavy offense. It also means that Mike James and Bobby Rainey could be pretty involved next season (although neither is a particularly good changeup to Martin). He’s expected to run a pro-style system that could lean toward the running game because Glennon is a young and inexperienced quarterback.
About Frazier: HC Lovie Smith and Frazier both coached under Tony Dungy at different points during their careers, and they’ll bring similar approaches to defense with their Tampa-2 backgrounds. Frazier struggled as a head coach in Minnesota with a 21-32-1 record in three-plus seasons, but he led top-10 defenses in his final three seasons as a defensive coordinator with the Vikings. Frazier has already hinted that the team needs a new MLB, as Mason Foster is an aggressive linebacker who likes to play in the backfield. Middle linebackers in the Tampa-2 defense that Smith and Frazier will run need to play well in coverage. The Bucs will use a lot Cover-2 zone, but Lovie and Frazier have used more man-to-man coverage with their top corners in recent years, so they aren’t likely to waste a top cover guy like CB Darrelle Revis. He also has standouts at safety with Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, so Frazier could be more flexible with his play-calling with several standouts in the secondary. Frazier will need to significantly upgrade their pass rush as they racked up only 35 sacks last season, led by DT Gerald McCoy (9) and OLB Lavonte David (6). Frazier relied on strong defensive lines with the Vikings to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and to stop the run, so he could look to upgrade at defensive end to improve this unit.
Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt
Offensive Coordinator: Jason Michael
Defensive Coordinator: Ray Horton
Overview: The Titans had a messy start to the off-season after yet another mediocre season. Former HC Mike Munchak refused to make mass changes to his Titan coaching staff, so the franchise decided to pull the plug on him after a 22-26 record in three seasons. The Titans salvaged their off-season a bit by attracting Ken Whisenhunt to Nashville over a job with the Lions. Whiz has a pretty successful track record, including a Super Bowl appearance with the Cardinals. Whisenhunt’s top priority will be to develop QB Jake Locker into a consistent NFL quarterback or to find the team’s franchise quarterback. Whisenhunt will call the plays while he lets 35-year-old Jason Michael develop in his first OC job. Whisenhunt also lured Ray Horton to Nashville, and he’ll bring his aggressive 3-4 scheme with him. The Titans haven’t made the playoffs since 2008 or won a playoff game since 2003, so Tennessee fans are thirsty for a winner.
About Whisenhunt: Whisenhunt showed that he’s still one of the better offensive minds in the NFL, helping to revive QB Philip Rivers and the Charger offense in 2013. It didn’t take long for Whisenhunt to become a hot commodity as a head-coaching candidate after Arizona fired him after the 2012 season. Whisenhunt led the Cardinals to a Super Bowl and had some early success before failing to develop a quarterback late in his tenure, which earned him a pink slip after six seasons. Still, Whisenhunt has gotten superb quarterback play out of Philip Rivers, Kurt Warner, and Ben Roethlisberger in his last three stops. He also worked with Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Lindley during his time in Arizona, so all his projects weren’t successful. Which group will Titan QB Jake Locker fall into? It’s also not out of the question that Whisenhunt could look for some competition for Locker in the draft or through free agency. Whisenhunt has gained a reputation as a bit of a QB guru, but many of his offenses have been rooted in strong running games, including with the Chargers and RB Ryan Mathews at the end of last season. Whisenhunt has a reputation for adapting to his personnel over the years. Whisenhunt’s 2005 Steeler offense led the league in carries and finished last in passing attempts while winning the Super Bowl with a young Roethlisberger. Whisenhunt later took the head-coaching job in Arizona and led his team to a 2008 Super Bowl appearance while finishing last in carries and first in pass attempts with Warner. How can a coach be more flexible than that? Whisenhunt said that he’d like to get close to a 50-50 run-pass split this season. WR Kendall Wright posted 94 catches last season in former HC Mike Munchak’s run-heavy scheme, so he could be ready for a big season, especially after rookie WR Keenan Allen had a huge season (71/1046/8) under Whisenhunt.
About Michael: HC Ken Whisenhunt was impressed enough with young coach Michael that he brought him to Tennessee to run the Titan offense. Michael worked under Whisenhunt with the Chargers last season as a tight end coach, and Michael had worked with the Chargers since 2011. Whisenhunt will be calling the plays for the Titans this season, as they ease the 35-year-old Michael into his first coordinator job. Michael will be doing most of the work putting together the game plan during the week leading up to gamedays. Michael has 11 years of coaching experience, including eight years in the NFL with the Raiders, Jets, 49ers, and Chargers. Both Michael and Whisenhunt are former tight end coaches, and they like what they see with TE Delanie Walker, comparing him to Charger TE Antonio Gates. Michael and Whisenhunt are expected to use a lot of 2-TE sets next season. Gates had the 4th-most catches (190) among tight ends during Michael’s time in San Diego, and Michael also helped to bring along talented second-year TE Ladarius Green. We talked to Walker on the radio at the end of the 2013 season, and he feels as if he’s just now starting to scratch the surface of his potential as a #1 TE. The Titans ranked 22nd in offense last season, so this offense certainly has some room to improve, and Michael will look to get the most out of QB Jake Locker. Obviously, it would be interesting to see what happens with RB Chris Johnson, who is no lock to be a Titan in 2014.
About Horton: Horton has worked with Whisenhunt previously in Arizona and Pittsburgh, so the two are quite familiar with each other. Horton served as Whisenhunt’s defensive coordinator before Whiz got the axe after the 2012 season, and Horton became available after the Browns fired HC Rob Chudzinski after last season. Horton uses a 3-4 defensive scheme, which he learned from legendary Steeler DC Dick LeBeau while coaching under him from 2004-10. Horton led the Cardinal defense from 2011-12 before taking the Brown DC position last season. The Titans will have to make the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4, so they’ll have to adapt their personnel for a new scheme. However, Horton isn’t afraid to show a variety of different looks with his defensive fronts, so they won’t play strictly a 3-4. Horton’s defenses will play aggressively, and he’s not afraid to call a variety of different zone blitzes. The Browns ranked 9th in the NFL in total defense last season, allowing just 332.4 yards per game, after ranking 23rd in 2012. The Cardinal defenses also improved when Horton took over as the defensive coordinator, and the Browns didn’t have a ton of trouble transitioning to a 3-4 scheme, although they have more talent on defense than the Titans currently have. It will be interesting to see what Horton does with perhaps the team’s most talented defender Jurrell Casey, who is a little short (6’1”) to play DE and a little small (300 pounds) for NT.
Head Coach: Jay Gruden
Offensive Coordinator: Sean McVay
Defensive Coordinator: Jim Haslett (holdover)
Overview: After a dismal 2013 for QB Robert Griffin III and the Redskins, the franchise canned Mike Shanahan and brought in a Gruden to turn things around. However, it wasn’t that Gruden. The Redskins decided to bring in Bengal OC Jay Gruden to come in and rehabilitate RGIII and this flawed offense. Gruden has gained a reputation as a quarterback’s best friend, so we’ll see if can cater his offense to get the most out of RGIII. New OC Sean McVay is only 27 years old but he’s a rock star in the making, and guys like Jon Gruden and Chris Cooley are just a few of the people who think he’ll be running a team in the near future. With that said, Jay Gruden won’t throw him right into the fire and give him play-calling duties next season. McVay will be tasked with mixing the best elements of Shanahan’s old offense with Gruden’s new playbook with West Coast principles to get the most out of RGIII. That includes keeping around most of the zone-running concepts and the physical running style of Alfred Morris.
About Gruden: Gruden has gained a reputation as a quarterback’s coach throughout his career, and his most important job in Washington will be to get Robert Griffin III’s career back on track. RGIII and former HC Mike Shanahan clearly had a disconnect both on and off the field last season, so Gruden needs to quickly get on the same page as his franchise player. Gruden is known for connecting with his quarterbacks and for constantly getting his QB’s input on everything. Gruden already declared RGIII his starting quarterback, which is absolutely no shock, as backup Kirk Cousins clearly lacks the talent that RGIII possesses. Gruden once pushed the Bengals to pass on Colin Kaepernick in favor of Andy Dalton, so we’ll see how much Gruden can adapt to an athletic quarterback and if he can take advantage of RGIII’s skill set. We’ll also see if Griffin can become a better passer since it sounds like Gruden will keep around some of his West Coast offensive principles. However, Gruden did say the Redskins will use a diverse set of offensive philosophies, and that he plans to take advantage of RGIII’s athleticism next season. The Redskins are also expected to continue to run some read-option with RB Alfred Morris and RGIII. Say what you will about Dalton, but he did lead the Bengals to three playoff appearances and became the first player since Peyton Manning to throw for 3000+ yards in his first three NFL seasons, and Dalton did it under Gruden’s watch. Dalton attempted 586 passes last season (36.6 per game), so Griffin definitely has the potential to be much more active as a passer next season. Gruden didn’t always get the most out of his talented skill players in Cincinnati, but Dalton played at a pretty high level, and he isn’t nearly as talented as RGIII, so there’s some hope that Griffin can turn it around next season.
About McVay: The Redskins promoted their tight end coach McVay to offensive coordinator at the tender age of 27 years old, which means he’ll be in charge of at least 17 players (right now before free agency) that are older than him. His age could make for an interesting dynamic with his players, but for all intents and purposes, HC Gruden will be in charge of this offense. Gruden will call plays next season as they ease McVay into his new role as offensive coordinator, but the 27-year-old should help smooth the transition for the current Redskins and Gruden. McVay has already worked under Gruden in 2009 with the UFL’s Florida Tuskers, and McVay has coached Redskin tight ends the last three seasons. He also worked under Jon Gruden and with Jay in Tampa Bay in McVay’s first NFL job out of college. His former TE Chris Cooley had high praise for McVay’s knowledge of the game and believes that he’ll be a NFL head coach someday. McVay will be tasked with mixing the best elements of Mike Shanahan’s old offense with Gruden’s new playbook to get the most out of QB Robert Griffin III and the Redskin running game. The Redskins are expected to keep their running game pretty similar to last season, incorporating mostly zone-blocking schemes and RB Alfred Morris’ physical playing style. Morris ran for 2888 yards in his first two seasons, so they want to keep the running game pretty similar. Backup Roy Helu is expected to remain the third-down back, but he could catch more passes in this offense. McVay is pretty excited to work even more with Jordan Reed and to get him more involved in the offense. The rookie tight end is expected to be completely healthy for off-season workouts coming off his concussions.
FantasyGuru.com’s Joe Dolan, Tom Brolley, Matt Camp, and John Hansen contributed to this report
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