Happy Friday! Proud to present an absolute banger of an issue of NFLTR Review this week:
- Ranking all 32 head coaches and GMs
- Which ones are on or dangerously close to the hot seat?
- 10 years of preseason data and what it can tell us (not much)
Head Coach & GM Rankings
These days, it feels like there are way more armchair head coaches and general managers than there are armchair quarterbacks. Whether it’s in-depth video games, increasingly intricate fantasy football leagues or improving analytics discourse online, even casual fans today often have a wealth of knowledge on subjects like clock management, in-game decision-making and roster-building philosophies.
All of this accessibility should not distract us from the fact that it is hard to be a coach or GM in the NFL. Expectations are high and the competition is fierce.
Below is a ranking of all 32 head coaches and general managers but the biggest thing that stood out from the exercise is just how many are solid at the job. Solid just isn’t good enough, which is why around 10 of these names will probably be gone in six months.
Also, instead of a pure 1-32 ranking, I’ll be splitting the group into tiers. Coaches and GMs will be loosely organized within those tiers but I find tiers tend to be more insightful than just linear rankings.
Without further ado, here it is: my 2021 head coach and GM rankings.
Best of the Best: General Managers
- Eric DeCosta, Ravens
- Mickey Loomis, Saints
Most other GM rankings will have DeCosta and Loomis rated highly, but it’s rare to see them at the very top. DeCosta in fact has only been sitting in the general manager chair since 2019 after taking over for the great Ozzie Newsome. But he’s been with the organization since its inception in Baltimore in 1996 and was the general manager in waiting with a heavy hand in personnel long before Newsome stepped away.
So while DeCosta has just had two years in charge (two years that already include drafting an MVP quarterback and an award for NFL executive of the year) he has a long history of having a positive impact on one of the most successful franchises in the league outside of New England. The Ravens are one of the most analytically advanced franchises and were way ahead of the curve in areas like compensatory picks. They draft well, tend to do well in their forays into free agency and have an excellent team culture from top to bottom.
Perhaps most impressive is how year in and year out the Ravens field one of the NFL’s best defenses. It’s hard to consistently play good defense in the NFL, where the rules favor the offense and quarterbacks ruthlessly punish mismatches. But through multiple defensive coordinators and countless changes in personnel, the Ravens maintained excellence on defense. In the past 10 years, they’ve finished outside the top ten in scoring defense only three times, and two of those were just barely at 12th.
Like DeCosta, Loomis is often overlooked in the discussion of the NFL’s best general managers. He’s one of the longest-tenured GMs in the sport after taking his current position in 2002. But he made the most pivotal decision in franchise history in one of the biggest inflection points in NFL history — electing to sign QB Drew Brees coming off of shoulder surgery in 2006.
Brees was a huge part of the Saints’ success but Loomis deserves credit for overseeing one of the most forward-thinking front offices in the NFL. Along with VP of football administration Khai Harley — a rising star and future general manager — Loomis and the Saints pioneered multiple different stratagems for maximizing their competitive window with Brees, including creative contract structures like void years. For years, analysts derided this approach as kicking the can and it’s only recently been recognized as the innovation it was.
Loomis has also largely been an outstanding drafter, with a remarkable run in the 2016 and 2017 classes that’s powered a 49-15 record the past four seasons. From a talent perspective, the Saints have been Super Bowl-worthy, but a series of bad postseason breaks kept them from adding to the trophy case.
Loomis’ next challenge will be replacing Brees, and that’ll be no small feat. Still, Saints fans should feel some measure of reassurance based on his track record so far.
- Brandon Beane, Bills
- Chris Ballard, Colts
Beane and Ballard have both been brilliant, and just their overall lack of sustained excellence keeps them from the top tier for me. Both got their jobs in 2017 and have built strong teams with foundations on bedrock. They’ve drafted well; Ballard has added key pieces like G Quenton Nelson, LB Darius Leonard, RT Braden Smith and RB Jonathan Taylor, while Beane plucked CB Tre’Davious White, LT Dion Dawkins, LB Matt Milano, LB Tremaine Edmunds, DT Ed Oliver, and the crown jewel, QB Josh Allen.
Walking the line between being aggressive and not sacrificing too much in future flexibility is a crucial part of the job and Beane and Ballard have done well compared to their peers. Both are conservative when it comes to spending big in free agency, and it’s been difficult to find bad contracts on their rosters the past couple of seasons. Beane hit the jackpot trading up for Allen, though, and then putting in the infrastructure around him to facilitate what might be the biggest jump in development we’ve ever seen from a quarterback prospect. Ballard, meanwhile, pounced when the 49ers made DT DeForest Buckner available and he looks like the centerpiece of their defense.
The biggest difference, and why I would give Beane an edge, is at quarterback. Ballard has had to deal with the misfortune of Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement but he’s staked a lot on the Carson Wentz reclamation project, foregoing the kind of massive trade-up teams like the 49ers and Bears pursued. Time will tell if he’s right.
Good to Great
- Bill Belichick, Patriots
- Kevin Colbert, Steelers
- Brett Veach, Chiefs
- Jason Licht, Buccaneers
- Brian Gutekunst, Packers
- Andrew Berry, Browns
- John Schneider, Seahawks
- Howie Roseman, Eagles
- Les Snead, Rams
- Jon Robinson, Titans
Is Belichick too low? Maybe. No other general manager can match him when you start stacking up championships and win/loss records. But based on what we’ve seen the past few years, I’m not sure that Belichick the coach didn’t cover for some of Belichick the general manager’s blind spots.
Last year’s version of the Patriots was not a good team, with glaring deficiencies at tight end and wide receiver and a defense that was closer to average than it was to great. In 2019, Tom Brady and an elite defense masked similar, fatal flaws due to years of poor drafting. That necessitated Belichick’s out-of-character free-agent spending spree this past spring, as an influx of talent was desperately needed. They also needed a long-term successor to Brady, hence the pick of QB Mac Jones in the first round.
How those two developments pan out will go a long way toward whether Belichick’s legacy picks up a little bit of tarnish.
- Colbert is the longest-tenured general manager in the NFL and his track record in Pittsburgh is steel clad. While he’s been in charge, the Steelers have tied with the Giants and Seahawks for most Super Bowl appearances behind New England. He’s nearing retirement, with finding QB Ben Roethlisberger’s successor his final challenge before calling it a career.
- It’s been well-documented how head-over-heels Veach was for QB Patrick Mahomes early in the draft process. That alone earns him a place in NFL history but he’s also done a fantastic job overall of building a contending team around Mahomes, though that will continue to be tested year in and year out.
- No GM has had a positive turnaround quite like Licht, who assembled a collection of talented chronic underachieving teams for the first five years of his tenure. But he was crucial to landing first HC Bruce Arians and then Brady, and this past offseason has been masterful in keeping together a Super Bowl champion. He’s on a blazing hot streak.
- The situation with Aaron Rodgers has overshadowed the truly great job Gutekunst has done building this Packers team. He’s drafted well and changed Green Bay’s fortunes with aggressive moves in free agency that have also panned out. Back-to-back 13-3 seasons that ended in the NFC championship are proof of that. The Rodgers situation is impossible to overlook, though, and could be a blunder of epic proportions, though we won’t know how it all plays out for years.
- The NFL’s youngest GM ever had a great start in his first year with the Browns. Berry took over an already talented roster and fortified key weaknesses on the offensive and defensive lines. The future looks uncommonly bright in Cleveland, though there’s an interesting contract situation with QB Baker Mayfield to navigate.
- The head coach is the real boss in Seattle but Schneider’s scouting acumen has been monumental to Seattle’s success in the last decade, from Russell Wilson to the Legion of Boom. He hasn’t had quite that same run of success the past five or so years but there have still been gems like WR D.K. Metcalf, RB Chris Carson and CB Shaquill Griffin. Seattle has still been consistently a contender.
- Roseman deserves a lot of credit for building the Eagles’ first Super Bowl-winning team but he also deserves the blame for how things have rapidly deteriorated since then. He’s one of the best trading general managers in the NFL and his front office chases edges in contract structure and comp picks like the Saints and Ravens do. Culture remains a major question mark compared to other top GMs.
- Since taking over, Snead has consistently been the most aggressive GM in the entire league. The hallmark of the Rams strategy has become a relative disregard for first-round picks, at least in comparison to veterans the team deems elite and a massive upgrade. Their last first-round pick was Jared Goff in 2016 and their next one isn’t until 2024 currently. From a results perspective, the Rams have had four straight winning seasons and a Super Bowl appearance, but the questions about sustainability are valid.
- Most branches from the New England coaching and front office tree tend to wither outside of Massachusetts. Robinson has quietly been one of the most successful outshoots from New England, with five straight winning seasons managing a scrappy Titans team. He’s become a lot more aggressive the past two seasons with moves for Jadeveon Clowney and Julio Jones, though hopefully the latter works out better than the former.
- John Lynch, 49ers
- Jerry Jones/Stephen Jones/Will McClay, Cowboys
- Rick Spielman, Vikings
- Tom Telesco, Chargers
- Chris Grier, Dolphins
- Joe Douglas, Jets
- Duke Tobin, Bengals
On one hand, Lynch has built a pretty solid team on paper and has a 13-3 season with a Super Bowl appearance on his resume. On the other, San Francisco’s records in Lynch’s other three seasons are 6-10, 4-12 and 6-10. Few teams have been snakebit by injuries as much as the 49ers but Lynch has a healthy number of misses in free agency and the draft, like DE Dee Ford, LB Reuben Foster, DL Solomon Thomas and LB Kwon Alexander.
Overall, there’s more good than bad when it comes to Lynch’s tenure so far. The bold trade for QB Trey Lance will probably heavily dictate Lynch’s long-term fortunes. If Lance is as good as the team thinks he can be, the 49ers are set up to be contenders. Lynch’s emphasis on both lines has paid dividends, he just has to keep the defense stocked.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is the de facto general manager in Dallas and a popular punching bag. But his son and EVP Stephen Jones along with VP of player personnel Will McClay have done an underrated job in recent years of building a solid roster. There’s G Zack Martin, DE Demarcus Lawrence, DE Randy Gregory, CB Byron Jones, WR CeeDee Lamb, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Michael Gallup, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Leighton Vander Esch and of course QB Dak Prescott as some notable draft picks in the past several years. Plus snaring OT La’el Collins and trading for WR Amari Cooper.
Loyalty to fomer HC Jason Garrett may have sabotaged a true window to contend, and the jury is out on Mike McCarthy. Those are serious blunders. Prescott should keep a window of contention open for several more years, however, if Dallas can take advantage.
- Spielman has been in his post since 2006 but there are some rumblings that Vikings ownership is finally getting a little restless with the lack of back-to-back playoff appearances or consistent presence as a contender.
- Telesco is another executive who’s been in his post for a while (hired in 2013), but so far the results have been less than stellar. His record is 60-68 in eight seasons with two playoff appearances. Landing QB Justin Herbert could be the stroke that keeps him employed for a long, long time, though.
- If I had to pick one general manager who could rapidly rise this season, it probably would be Grier. He authored an audacious pseudo-tank rather than try to tread water, and he’s on the cusp of seeing that realized if Miami can take the next step this season.
- NFL people talk in glowing terms about Douglas’ ability as a talent scout. It’s still very early, but there are some promising prospects like LT Mekhi Becton, WR Elijah Moore and QB Zach Wilson. There are some concerning red flags when it comes to contract talks, though, as the last homegrown player the Jets extended was WR Quincy Enunwa.
- Tobin technically isn’t the general manager but he’s the top-ranking personnel executive in a, let’s say tight-knit Bengals front office. That probably won’t change as long as Mike Brown is in charge, though it’s worth noting he’s 86. For his part, Tobin is a quality scout and the Bengals have loosened the purse strings the past few seasons in free agency.
Something to Prove
- Martin Mayhew, Washington
- Trent Baalke, Jaguars
While Mayhew and Baalke are new general managers this year, both had previous stints in the GM chair — Mayhew with the Lions and Baalke with the 49ers. Both had bright points before ultimately crashing. Mayhew helped build the first Lions playoff team of the 21st century but ultimately couldn’t make Detroit a consistent winner. Baalke’s peak was three straight seasons in at least the NFC championship game sandwich around a Super Bowl loss before his partnership with Jim Harbaugh soured. The two will be looking to recreate the good and leave the bad in their second chances.
- Ryan Pace, Bears
- Steve Keim, Cardinals
- Dave Gettleman, Giants
- Mike Mayock, Raiders
No one’s seat is hotter in the NFL than Mayock’s. Gruden calls the shots in Las Vegas but if the Raiders miss the playoffs yet again in 2021, there will have to be scapegoats. Too many draft picks have underperformed for Mayock to be let off the hook, and too many free-agent signings have busted. Again, that probably comes back to Gruden, but with six years left on a ten-year deal, he’s not going anywhere quite yet.
It’s a pivotal year for Gettleman as well. The Giants have stopped and started a couple of times during their rebuild under Gettleman, and he made a major miscalculation of trying to stay competitive while rebuilding on the fly rather than just ripping the band-aid off. That led to some bad contracts the Giants are still dealing with, like OT Nate Solder.
Now, New York is in a position where they expect to take a step forward. They have the quarterback in Daniel Jones and they went all-in during free agency to remake the skill position group and add waves of talent to a defense that was scrappy but undermanned in 2020.
It all just has to come together. If it doesn’t, and the Giants fall on their face again, Gettleman might not get another chance. There have also been some hints that the 70-year-old Gettleman could retire, which is worth keeping an eye on.
The hot seat might be aggressive for Keim but the Cardinals failed to meet high expectations last season. Keim made a number of moves to try and take advantage of the window afforded by QB Kyler Murray’s rookie contract, bringing in veterans like DE J.J. Watt and WR A.J. Green, and the expectations are once again high.
Young quarterbacks often afford decision-makers an excuse as they develop, but Arizona is past that point with Murray. If Keim can’t build a team to take advantage of Murray’s rare talents, the normally patient Cardinals ownership might be pressed into making a change.
Pace does have the benefit of a rookie quarterback as an excuse for more time. Still, the rest of Chicago’s roster keeps springing leaks, whether it’s in the secondary, the offensive line and potentially the receiving corps. Pace is selling this team as ready to compete, hence the push for QB Andy Dalton in free agency. If they’re not, it might signal to Bears ownership that Pace isn’t the one to build the supporting cast Justin Fields needs to thrive.
- Brad Holmes, Lions
- George Paton, Broncos
- Scott Fitterer, Panthers
- Terry Fontenot, Falcons
- Nick Caserio, Texans
It’s hard to gauge rookie general managers, but they’re loosely organized in how I think they’ve done so far this year. Holmes has made inroads with turning around the culture in Detroit and appears to be taking a similar teardown strategy to what the Dolphins and Browns have done in recent seasons.
Paton and Fitterer have made interesting moves but both elected for potential stop-gap options at quarterback despite having a shot at Fields in the first round. It’s a clear statement of how they valued him and something both men could regret in the coming years.
In Atlanta, Fontenot would have had the most challenging situation of any team in any year where the Texans weren’t as bad of a dumpster fire as they are now. Teams complain about cap troubles all the time but in Atlanta they were legitimate this offseason. Fontenot is trying to walk the line between staying competitive and cleaning up the books. History shows it’s not easy.
As for Caserio, he’s spoken of highly in league circles as an evaluator of talent. The current situation in Houston, from Deshaun Watson to Jack Easterby to Cal McNair, will push Caserio to his limits.
Best of the Best: Head Coaches
- Bill Belichick, Patriots
- Andy Reid, Chiefs
Belichick the head coach is a much easier evaluation than Belichick the GM. His ability to adapt, the legendary culture he embodies and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game are still powerful trump cards. Reid has firmly put himself in the top tier of coaches the past few seasons. Having a talent like Mahomes helps but at the same time Reid pushes all the right buttons to empower and maximize his talents and those of others on offense.
- Sean Payton, Saints
- John Harbaugh, Ravens
- Bruce Arians, Buccaneers
- Mike Tomlin, Steelers
- Pete Carroll, Seahawks
Belichick proved last season that even great head coaches can have lulls and Payton might be about to experience that in 2021 as he transitions away from a Hall of Fame passer. The Saints’ situation on offense will provide plenty of opportunities for Payton to display his schematic chops, too, as between injuries and personnel losses the cupboard currently looks bare.
Harbaugh and Tomlin embody the CEO archetype for head coaches, as they enforce a consistent culture for two of the best-run organizations in the NFL. They’re not schematic slouches, you don’t get to the NFL without being adept with the X’s and O’s on a whiteboard. It’s just not their defining characteristic. The best thing you can hang your hat on with Harbaugh and Tomlin is that the floor will always be incredibly high and you’ll always have a chance to compete as long as they’re in charge, even with high amounts of adversity.
Arians didn’t get his first head-coaching job until he was 60 years old and what a missed opportunity that was for the NFL. He’s been outstanding as the lead man in charge with the Colts, Cardinals and now the Buccaneers. His blunt style is effective at pulling what he wants out of players and he’s the architect of an offense that is hard to stop when it gets rolling even if he’s not calling the plays anymore. Coming off a Super Bowl championship, Arians and the Bucs should be the prohibitive favorites to repeat and continue what’s been a marvelous late-life breakout.
Carroll’s signature continues to be his unique ability to motivate players and the intense, competitive culture he fosters. He’s one of the best player’s coaches in the league. While his defensive system isn’t as dominant as it was when it was fresh and he had elite talent, Carroll has consistently helped keep the Seahawks in contention even through transition.
The rub with Carroll is that there’s a legitimate argument his conservative tendencies have actually held the Seahawks back, for as good as they’ve been. He’s evolved some the past few seasons but not as quickly as a lot of fans would have liked. And after unleashing Wilson to start last year, he appeared to pull back as the season went on and sounded like he was reasserting some control this offseason. If that leads to the relationship between the two sides blowing up next year, it’ll be worth re-evaluating his status.
Still, the overall resume for Carroll puts him in rare company for coaches in the NFL. The list of guys I would take over him is small.
Good to Great
- Frank Reich, Colts
- Kyle Shanahan, 49ers
- Sean McVay, Rams
- Matt LaFleur, Packers
- Kevin Stefanski, Browns
Shanahan is the best play-caller and offensive designer in the NFL. In a league where the term offensive genius is applied liberally and undeservedly, it actually sells Shanahan short. Still, I think there’s a compelling case for Reich in what is a stacked tier of coaches, probably the next generation of top NFL coaches. Given what the Colts have had to overcome in terms of instability at the quarterback position the past few seasons, the job Reich has done keeping the team together and competitive is remarkable.
If Reich is a worse offensive play caller and designer than the others on this list, it’s not by much. He also is the only one on this list who has won a Super Bowl, albeit as the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia in 2017. He has a great command of clock management and fourth-down decision-making. And he’s one of the best people, period, in the league. It enhances his credibility as a leader and gives him, in my opinion, just a little nudge over the rest of the group.
- I was skeptical of LaFleur when he was hired but boy has he proven me wrong. He was one of the best play callers in the NFL last season and two straight 13-3 seasons is no fluke.
- Including Stefanski in this tier might be a little premature, but two things sell me on him. One, his demeanor and willingness to set aside ego in order to change and adapt is a rare quality in NFL head coaches and one I think will set him apart. Two, no one sets foot in Cleveland and has that much success right away.
- McVay is a great coach but if he thinks trading Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford will solve all his problems on offense, he’s overlooking some key personal failings, including a system that can get predictable at times and be slow to adjust when defenses have answers.
I am a lot lower on McDermott than the general consensus. There’s a strong argument that he belongs in the next tier up. There are a few things that give me pause with him, however. The results from his first four seasons in Buffalo are outstanding to be sure. He’s instilled a terrific culture and turned a regular loser into a franchise that’s on the cusp of perennial contention.
But McDermott suffers from a flaw endemic in coaches who have a background on the defensive side of the football. In big games and big situations, they turtle up and get conservative. That’s been on display in each of the Bills’ matchups with the Chiefs the past couple of seasons, including in the playoffs. McDermott has coached and game-planned not to lose rather than trying to win, whether it’s opting for field goals in certain situations or emphasizing the running game over unleashing Allen to avoid turnovers.
Unless McDermott has an epiphany like his former head coach and mentor Rivera did in Carolina, it’ll be that much more difficult for Buffalo to get past Kansas City in the AFC. So for now, I have McDermott in this tier with other defensive minded coaches in Rivera and Vrabel who are great program builders but haven’t quite hit on the formula to be consistent contenders, yet.
Something to Prove
- Mike Zimmer, Vikings
- Brian Flores, Dolphins
- Mike McCarthy, Cowboys
- Matt Rhule, Panthers
- Joe Judge, Giants
- Jon Gruden, Raiders
I alluded to this discussing Spielman earlier. But the Vikings haven’t been able to string together playoff appearances or make the jump into consistent contenders, which makes 2021 a little bit of an underrated inflection point for Zimmer, Spielman, QB Kirk Cousins and other key Vikings.
Make the playoffs, and everybody probably comes back in 2022. Zimmer has already been extended to avoid a lame-duck year and Cousins will probably be re-upped to lower a colossal cap hit. Miss the postseason, though, and it gets interesting.
The Vikings can’t cut Cousins but they could try to trade him. Zimmer and Spielman could be fired and the organization could wipe the slate completely clean, moving on from other veterans like S Harrison Smith and LB Anthony Barr. Or they could opt for some sort of lesser shakeup. Either way, monitor the Vikings in 2021.
- Flores has a great chance to be in at least the next tier up after this season at the head of a rising Dolphins team. The key will be how his young bunch handles success and expectations.
- McCarthy’s first year in Dallas didn’t lessen the pressure on him. While he probably won’t be fired if the Cowboys don’t meet expectations in 2021, it will ratchet things to a new level.
- There were some promising signs from Rhule’s first year. I just wonder if Rhule the general manager (he’s the one in Carolina with the final say, not Fitterer) is going to negate the positives from Rhule the coach.
- The Giants admittedly have responded much better to Judge’s disciplinarian approach than I and many others expected and appear to be buying in. A second losing season could test that resolve, however.
- Any other coach in any other market would be on the hot seat with Gruden’s resume so far. He hasn’t been awful on offense, though, and the team has managed to collect some talent despite itself. Getting DC Gus Bradley to fix the defense could be huge.
Having Fields as a rookie might buy Nagy some more time if things go south this season but if he and Pace are selling this team as viable contenders, he should be open to consequences if that materializes. That said, I think Nagy’s job is safer than Pace’s. His relentlessly positive approach seems to connect well with the players. He has the reputation as an offensive savant for what it’s worth, though I think he gets too cute with his playcalling.
A new general manager means Fangio is on thin ice, and a lot of their decisions this offseason have pointed in that direction, namely going with Teddy Bridgewater over Drew Lock. Fangio, who is truly an elite defensive coach, will hope that side of the ball carries them while Bridgewater manages the game and avoids turnovers. If they sneak into the playoffs and trade for Rodgers next year, all will be well.
When talented teams underperform, the head coach usually doesn’t last long. That’s the situation Kingsbury finds himself in with the Cardinals. Arizona can’t afford to wilt in 2021 like it did down the stretch in 2020. Kingsbury came to the team with a reputation as an innovative offensive mind but his offenses in the NFL have often been too stale.
Taylor’s record through two seasons is 6-25-1. As an NFL play-caller, his offenses have never ranked higher than 28th. His one season as the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati in college, the Bearcats were 123rd out of 128 teams. I just don’t see a lot of reason for optimism that he’s the guy for the Bengals based on what we’ve seen from him so far.
- Brandon Staley, Chargers
- Robert Saleh, Jets
- Arthur Smith, Falcons
- Dan Campbell, Lions
- Nick Sirianni, Eagles
- Urban Meyer, Jaguars
- David Culley, Texans
Head coaches are almost impossible to judge until the games kick off and the bullets start flying. That said, my general sense is still that Staley, Saleh and Smith are ahead of the pack, which makes sense given they were the most sought-after candidates. I’m buying what Campbell is selling in Detroit, while there are things that have me concerned about Sirianni, Meyer and Culley. I would not rule out Meyer and Culley being gone after this season. Let’s just say it’s a non-zero chance.
This Week In Football
- We’re on the cusp of the final week of the preseason and some teams — not all — have pretty much all of the information they need to settle their quarterback situations for Week 1.
- The Bears are sticking with their plan to start veteran QB Andy Dalton in Week 1 against the Rams, which Nagy had to reiterate after a rough outing in the second preseason game and more impressive flashes from first-round QB Justin Fields.
- Colts QB Carson Wentz is back at practice and looking surprisingly spry. Indianapolis will ramp him up into team drills next week, with the week after that prep for their first game against the Seahawks. It looks like they avoided catastrophe with his foot injury.
- Cowboys QB Dak Prescott is also trending toward being a full participant in practice in the very near future after Dallas took things easy with their $160 million man this preseason, the goal being to have him 100 percent for opening night against the Buccaneers. The team has been relentlessly positive but there are some reports this could be a lingering issue.
- The Broncos named steady veteran Teddy Bridgewater the starting quarterback ahead of Drew Lock. This always made a lot of sense but the competition did bring out some of the best we’ve seen in Lock so far in his career. It would not be shocking to see him at some point this season, even if not in Week 1 against the Giants.
- The Jaguars also named first-round QB Trevor Lawrence their starter officially, as was widely expected despite the team’s insistence Gardner Minshew was competing to start. Jacksonville plays the Texans in Week 1.
- The 49ers still haven’t officially named a starting quarterback for Week 1 on the road against the Lions, and Shanahan continues to stonewall questions about it in each presser. Reading between the lines a little, though, it appears there’s a good chance veteran QB Jimmy Garoppolo will start with first-round QB Trey Lance sprinkling in a la Taysom Hill with the Saints.
- Speaking of which, the Saints have not officially announced a starter. But Jameis Winston seemed to take a commanding lead with a brilliant performance on Monday night against the Jaguars, going 9-10 passing for 123 yards and two long touchdowns to the breakout star of camp in New Orleans, Marquez Callaway. At this point, it would be a surprise if Winston doesn’t start Week 1 vs the Packers. (UPDATE: Adam Schefter reported the Saints will make the obvious move and name Winston the starter)
- The last remaining quarterback situation that was unsettled was in New England. In a situation eerily like what derailed his 2020 season, Patriots QB Cam Newton followed up a strong preseason performance against the Eagles by again landing in the COVID-19 protocols. Newton fell out of the testing process due to a “misunderstanding” as termed by the team and had to sit out five days as he re-entered. That gave first-round QB Mac Jones two valuable days with all the first-team reps, including one joint practice against the Giants after which nearly the entire beat was ready to crown him the starter. Jones couldn’t keep up his momentum on Thursday but it’s undeniable that the gap between the two has been narrowed. Even if Newton starts Week 1 against the Dolphins, which I do still think will be the case, his margin for error is slim, and odds are he’ll give way to Jones at some point this season.
- Monday night was a debacle for the Jaguars, but the worst part proved to be losing first-round RB Travis Etienne to a foot injury that ended up being a dreaded Lisfranc. The rookie will have surgery and the timetable to return would have started at 12 weeks. But at that point, Etienne would have been so far behind from a mental and conditioning aspect that Jacksonville elected to just go ahead and shut him down for the year.
- The Panthers had an active week this past week, and they kicked things off by finalizing a two-year, $29.5 million extension for WR Robby Anderson. It’s a nice reward for Anderson, as he gets $20 million guaranteed a year after signing what amounted to a prove-it deal with Carolina. Two years also gives Anderson a chance to test free agency again when he’s 30, which could go reasonably well if he keeps his game-breaking speed. Panthers fans should not worry that this bodes ill for D.J. Moore, as the team clearly prioritizes having at least three quality starters at wide receiver.
- The rest of Carolina’s week involved making two trades, one sending out LB Denzel Perryman to the Raiders, and the other bringing in another option at kicker in Ryan Santoso, formerly with the Giants.
- It was a relatively busy week for trades and the Rams were the headliners, dealing a sixth this year and a fourth in 2023 for Patriots RB Sony Michel to bolster their ground game. Michel had been a popular trade candidate given how deep New England was at running back, and while a fourth is probably a slight overpay, it shores up one of the biggest weaknesses on a Rams team that has legit designs at a Super Bowl.
- The Ravens also made the rare move of trading a draft pick in their first year. Baltimore traded fifth-round CB Shaun Wade to the Patriots for a seventh in 2022 and a fifth in 2023, essentially flipping someone they would have had to keep but might not have been able to play for a small profit and avoiding cutting another corner they liked. Some folks are reading into this trade some concern for the Patriots’ secondary, as Stephon Gilmore has now officially missed all of training camp, but I think it could be as simple as the Patriots taking an opportunity to get a prospect they liked.
- Speaking of trades, one fascinating tidbit that emerged is that the Raiders inquired with the Bears about a potential trade for OLB Khalil Mack this offseason. Las Vegas has been desperate for pass rush help ironically since trading Mack and there had been some speculation Chicago would be open to moving Mack to free up cap space and after he failed to hit double-digit sacks in 2020. However, the Bears said no and the Raiders moved on.
- We have one more round of roster cuts to go before initial 53-man rosters are set. And the last one is the biggest one with teams needing to trim from 80 to 53 by Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern. In my unbiased opinion, we’re the best place on the web to keep track of all the action that’s going to be flying fast and furious, first on Monday and Tuesday, then again on Wednesday as teams start to set practice squads. Our 2021 Roster Cuts Tracker will have all the players released, with a practice squad tracker soon to follow, so keep an eye out for that link.
Stat Comparison: Does Preseason Have Any Impact On The Regular Season?
Not sure what the analytics say, but it always seems there is a positive correlation between losing in the preseason and winning in the real season.
And vice versa. #NFLPreseason
— Andrew Brandt (@AndrewBrandt) August 15, 2021
This question piqued my curiosity a couple of weeks ago and I set out to try and answer it. The first thing I discovered is that Pro Football Reference, an elite resource for all things football, does not readily track preseason results. I feared my quest would be short-lived.
Fortunately, after a little bit of light googling, I discovered that ESPN’s NFL standings track preseason results back to 2003, even if I had to manually copy them into a spreadsheet instead of copy-paste and clean. Regular season records were far easier and from there it was simple to calculate win-loss percentages. I added a few other bells and whistles, and I had a database.
Now I could start to answer Andrew’s question. Is there an inverse correlation between losing in the preseason and winning in the regular season? In the sample, 24 teams finished with a record of 0-4. Of those 24, just nine finished the season with a winning record. Three more were 8-8 and 12 had losing records. Pretty close to 50-50.
What about the other way around? 23 teams in the last 10 years finished the preseason undefeated. Of that group, 10 ultimately went on to have losing records, two finished 8-8, and the remaining 11 finished with winning records.
Again, basically 50-50.
If I zoom out and look at the entire sample of 320 seasons, not just the extreme edges, the same result generally holds true. Preseason winning percentage has an R² of 0.025, which is just a mathy way of saying that a good preseason record is just the slightest positive indicator toward having a good regular-season record.
Can we go deeper than just win-loss records, though? ESPN’s resource had point differential, which I thought could be a better indication of quality or deficiency than just record so I tracked it. If we do the same queries as above we get:
- 23 teams had a +/- of at least 40
- Of that group, 15 finished with a winning record. The other eight all had losing records
- 30 teams finished with a +/- of -40 or lower
- 12 finished with winning records
- Two were 8-8
- 16 finished with losing records
So it does appear that point differential tells us a little more than overall record. I picked 40 points in either direction as the cutoff because that would work out to a 10-point average margin over four preseason games, which seems fairly commanding. It’s still arbitrary though, so let’s look at the entire sample.
Our correlation does improve by nearly 60 percent more than when we were just looking at records. Still, the R² of 0.041 is still tiny, not enough to really mean anything. And even if we go back and plot the extreme samples, it only increases to .131 — still not necessarily statistically significant.
In the end, we’re left with where I figured we’d be at the beginning (which is not bad! Analytics is all about testing assumptions.). Preseason records have little to no correlation to regular-season records and might as well be random.