NFLTR Review: Ranking Coaches On The Hot Seat In 2020

     

Salutations! Thank you for checking out another week of NFLTR Review as the countdown to the season continues. Next weekend we’ll have roster cuts and the weekend after that…Actual. Football. 

Until then, there’s another loaded issued to dig into, including: 

  • Gauging the coaches on the hottest seats going into 2020
  • Which destination for Earl Thomas makes the most sense?
  • A Bengals breakout that could win your fantasy league this year
  • Like the rest of us, Ron Rivera‘s had a rough 2020, too

Temperature Check: Who’s On The Hot Seat?

Before this past year, the rate of change in the NFL coaching cycle was moving at a torrid pace. While just five teams elected to make changes for 2020, there were eight, seven, six, seven and seven new hires in the five years before that. Looking at the landscape around the league, it looks like it could be another slower cycle, especially if the pandemic complicates some evaluations. However, patience isn’t a common virtue in the NFL, so it’s entirely possible team owners catch the trigger finger itch again for 2021. 

Here’s a look at the coaches on the hottest seats:

Volcano: About To Blow

Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons

It was a little bit of a surprise that Lions HC Matt Patricia survived last season given how Detroit has gone backward since he took over in 2018. In fairness to Patricia, not many teams can absorb the loss of a starting quarterback, let alone one playing at an MVP-level like Matthew Stafford was for half of 2019. 

At the end of the season, Lions ownership was clear. They expect the team to be in contention for a playoff spot this season. Stafford is healthy, in his prime and should have no shortage of help on offense from the receiving corps to the offensive line and the running game. Patricia has had two years to build the defense the way he wants and that side of the ball is supposed to be his calling card — either that or the New England-style culture he shares with former Patriots colleague and Lions GM Bob Quinn. There’s an opening in the NFC North and it’s now or never for the Patricia/Quinn regime to take it. 

Meanwhile, Atlanta is in a similar place. The immensely talented Falcons catastrophically underperformed with a 1-7 start to the year. It seemed inevitable both HC Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff would be fired before the end of the season. But somehow the two righted the ship and finished the year 6-2, building enough momentum to carry them into 2020. 

Dimitroff has already made it clear he and Quinn won’t be afforded the same level of patience again. An offense with 11 former first-round picks can’t underperform, the defense finally needs to put it together and the Falcons need to push hard for the playoffs despite competing in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. That’s the potential the team has and what Quinn needs to make sure it lives up to. 

Simmering: Heating Up & About To Boil Over

Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets

Like the Lions and Falcons, the Jaguars were one of the teams expected to fire their head coach this offseason. In fact, it was actually reported Jacksonville was canning Doug Marrone before it was revealed to be a premature assessment. Instead, the Jaguars pinned the blame for their struggles since making the AFC Championship Game in 2017 on former EVP Tom Coughlin and sent him packing. The hope is removing Coughlin helps remove a lot of the drama surrounding the franchise recently. 

The early returns on that haven’t been positive. Star DE Yannick Ngakoue still wants out and most oddsmakers have the Jaguars as the odds-on favorite to pick No. 1 overall in 2021 and presumptively win the Trevor Lawrence lottery. If that happens, Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell likely won’t stick around and the organization will start with a clean slate. 

But if the Jaguars surprise — and it’s not entirely out of the question QB Gardner Minshew takes another step forward with an underrated Jacksonville offense and lifts the team out of the top 5-10 picks — then Marrone could stick around. He’s appeared to build up some legitimate equity with the players and ownership, which sometimes seems more worried about flirting with the London market than finding better options than Marrone for a team that has the lowest profile in the NFL. 

On the other side of the spotlight are the Jets and few members of the organization are as controversial as HC Adam Gase. He landed the job just 11 days after being fired following three seasons as the Dolphins head coach and right from the opening presser he didn’t make a good impression. His tenure has been defined more by off-field drama than what’s happened on the field, and while some of that is endemic to the New York media market, the Jets haven’t put out much of an inspiring product. 

What Gase was able to sell CEO Christopher Johnson on was his offensive chops, rubber-stamped by Peyton Manning, and ability to mold Jets quarterback of the future Sam Darnold. Injuries played a factor, but Darnold’s game didn’t appear to take any kind of step forward under Gase in Year 1. Meanwhile, players who were seen as chronic underperformers under Gase’s watch in Miami like QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Kenyan Drake and WR DeVante Parker blossomed in 2019. 

If Darnold doesn’t take a step forward, Jets ownership will have a hard time selling the fanbase on Gase. Even if the team loses a bunch of games in 2020, which looks pretty likely, Gase could salvage another year if the former No. 3 overall pick in 2018 shows signs of promise. Injuries could also provide him with another out. The Jets will legitimately look for reasons to keep Gase but there are reasons to be doubtful Gase will build a compelling enough case in 2020. 

Room Temperature: Can Heat Up In A Hurry

Chicago Bears

The Bears may have had the biggest gap between perception and reality of any team last year. Chicago still finished the year 8-8 but the precipitous dropoff from 2018’s 12-4 record plus the struggles of former No. 2 overall QB Mitchell Trubisky left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans who were expecting to compete for a Super Bowl. 

Bears HC Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace both earned awards for being among the best in their profession in 2018, so there’s still some margin for error. But it doesn’t help that both have bet so hard on first a trade up for Trubisky and now a trade for QB Nick Foles. You can make a lot of good decisions but if you mess up quarterback, it’s hard to survive in the NFL. 

Chicago’s defense has shouldered a lot of the load the past few seasons but it might be too much to do it again in 2020 without springing a few leaks. Without an answer at quarterback, Chicago could be poised to take another step back in 2020. And that would start to heat up Nagy and Pace’s seat, fast. 

Ticking Time Bombs

Outside of the five teams mentioned, there aren’t a lot of other coaches necessarily teetering on the brink going into this season. There were some murmurs about Chargers HC Anthony Lynn and Vikings HC Mike Zimmer but both ended up signing extensions. Minnesota did fire Brad Childress a year after he went 12-4 and signed an extension. But it’s hard to imagine Zimmer or the Vikings having a bad enough year for history to repeat itself. As for Lynn, a year with a rookie quarterback likely buys him some time. 

The only other situation that might be worth noting is the Broncos with HC Vic Fangio. Denver was 7-9 in Fangio’s first year but he clashed with the offensive coaching staff. It led to Rich Scangarello’s departure after just a year and the hire of Pat Shurmur. Instability on the coaching staff like that is noteworthy, but Denver would have to be really bad without an injury to QB Drew Lock for Fangio to lose GM John Elway’s patience. 

Bonus: Top Coaching Candidates

  • 49ers DC Robert Saleh — Energetic, passionate and has strong roots in the Pete Carroll coaching tree. Has turned around San Francisco’s defense. 
  • Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy — Long overdue for a head coaching position, Bieniemy has played a vital role in Kansas City’s offensive explosion. 
  • Ravens OC Greg Roman — His work with Lamar Jackson finally put the spotlight on Roman, who had a lot of past success building offenses around mobile passers like Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor.
  • Ravens DC Don Martindale — Innovative defensive mind who’s spent the past eight years with the Ravens, including the past two as defensive coordinator. 
  • Patriots OC Josh McDaniels — A yearly top candidate whose position in New England has given him the luxury of being picky. Always in demand as teams seek to grab a piece of the Patriots pie. 

This Week In Football

  • The Ravens cut S Earl Thomas after more than a year of frustration boiled over in a fight with fellow S Chuck Clark. Thomas is still a good player but this is the nightmare scenario NFL general managers worry about when bringing in a free agent from outside the building. Thomas clashed so much with team chemistry it was worth up to $10 million in dead money and a gamble on former sixth-round S DeShon Elliott as a replacement. 
  • As for what’s next for Thomas, there’s been little word. He’s lobbied for years to land in Dallas but the interest doesn’t seem mutual. The Browns seem to make sense given the Achilles injury to second-round S Grant Delpit, their load of cap space and the chance for revenge against Baltimore twice this year. Cleveland made a run at Thomas when he was a free agent last year. Then again, that was a different regime and the current one will likely be warier about locker room fit. The Giants, Eagles, Jaguars, Chiefs, Buccaneers and Cardinals could also use a free safety if they’re comfortable with Thomas’ character. 
  • Aided by a hip injury to Jarrett Stidham, Cam Newton has appeared to pull ahead in the competition for the Patriots’ starting quarterback. Newton is still working to pick up the intricacies of the playbook but he’s more equipped than others to make things happen once the lights go on and the games start being played. 
  • As Newton works to revitalize his career at the age of 31, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is at the peak of his prime and not looking to slow down anytime soon. Wilson revealed he thinks he can play another 15 years, which would have him tapping out at the age of 46. Tom Brady is eyeing 45 and who knows how far the bar will be pushed beyond that, but it still seems like an ambitious goal for Wilson. 
  • The Cardinals moved the safety market forward by giving S Budda Baker a four-year, $59 million extension. Baker is now the NFL’s highest-paid safety despite having zero interceptions since entering the league. Baker is a good player, but teams like the Vikings, Broncos and Seahawks are likely peeved at Arizona for not making their upcoming negotiations with Anthony Harris, Justin Simmons or Jamal Adams any easier. 
  • As training camp draws to a close, we’re closer to finding out where DE Jadeveon Clowney will play in 2020. The Ravens appear to have entered the fray after releasing Thomas created a little bit more cap flexibility. However, it still appears unlikely Clowney will get anything close to the money he was seeking in March. 
  • The Eagles offensive line took another serious blow when LT Andre Dillard was diagnosed with a torn biceps that’s feared to be season-ending. (Dr. David Chao notably disagrees, saying Dillard could return from IR)  In terms of left tackle, the Eagles might not take much of a short term hit by moving Jason Peters back to his old haunt. But Philadelphia brought Peters back in part so it wouldn’t have to start Matt Pryor at guard in place of stud RG Brandon Brooks. And it means Dillard will enter his third year still needing to prove he can be the Eagles left tackle of the future.  
  • Ordinarily, a team flipping a conditional seventh like the Jets did to acquire RB Kalen Ballage from the Dolphins wouldn’t make much of a ripple. But given it came a day after RB Le’Veon Bell’s Twitter outburst after he was pulled from practice for a hamstring injury that supposedly wasn’t an injury, it’s enough to raise an eyebrow. 
  • Gase was Miami’s head coach when the Dolphins drafted Ballage in 2018 and is a noted proponent of committee backfields. He was reportedly against signing Bell for that reason. This offseason, Gase lobbied to bring in Frank Gore and the team drafted La’Mical Perine in the fourth round. New York would lose cap space by cutting Bell and finding a trade partner to take on nearly $9 million in cap wouldn’t be easy, but it’s something to keep an eye on given Bell is widely believed to be on the chopping block in 2021. 

Fantasy Football Corner

One of the best ways to ensure a winning fantasy football season is to jump on the bandwagon of an ascending offense before everyone else can. If you were early to the Rams in 2017 or the Chiefs in 2018 or the Ravens in 2019, you likely did well in your league. Not many saw those teams having the offensive success they did. 

So which team will it be this year? If we look back at what those teams had in common — second-year quarterbacks who took a leap, an influx of talent to the skill positions, innovative play-callers and solid offensive lines — the Arizona Cardinals jump out as checking off all the boxes between Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins and Kliff Kingsbury, with the exception of maybe offensive line. 

The problem is the fantasy community is on to the Cardinals. Hopkins is a borderline top-five receiver and a first or second-round pick in most leagues. Kenyan Drake is right in that range, too, as a top-ten back. Murray’s generally coming off the board around the top five at his position as well. Guys like Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald are pretty reasonably priced if you want a piece of the offense but the other guys are already being valued like premium players in anticipation of that offensive leap. 

That’s why I’ve found myself gravitating toward betting on the Bengals offense recently. They don’t neatly fit the prototype we’ve seen but they’re close enough to be intriguing. Let’s start at quarterback. No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow may just be a rookie but we’ve seen top quarterbacks lead big jumps in production. Murray led Arizona to a 8.5 jump in points per game as a rookie last year and in 2018 Baker Mayfield helped the Browns improve by 7.8 PPG. Neither had to deal with a shortened offseason but by all accounts that hasn’t stopped Burrow from mastering Cincinnati’s’ playbook

It’s hard to put too much confidence in a staff that finished 30th with 17.4 PPG, but when he was hired Bengals HC Zac Taylor fit the young offensive whiz kid template that was in vogue. A 2-14 season has deservedly taken some of that shine off, but a rebound is within the realm of possibilities. Cincinnati has mentioned borrowing some of LSU’s playbook to help ease Burrow’s transition this year. 

It’s also hard to say the Bengals offensive line compares to any of these other breakout teams when it was arguably one of the worst units in the NFL last season. But it also should be better in 2020 with a healthy Jonah Williams at left tackle. And with Trey Hopkins locking down center on the other side of 2019 fourth-round G Michael Jordan, the left side of the line should be solid. The right side is admittedly a much bigger question mark with Xavier Su’a-Filo and Bobby Hart

But outside of Burrow, who has the mobility to mitigate some leaks in the protection, the biggest reason to be optimistic about the Bengals offense is the talent at the skill positions. There’s Joe Mixon, who is one of the most talented backs in the league and managed an impossible 1,137 yards rushing despite Cincinnati’s line struggles. Tyler Boyd has quietly put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and is a carbon copy of Burrow’s prolific slot receiver last year, Vikings first-round WR Justin Jefferson. Second-round rookie Tee Higgins, John Ross, Auden Tate and even Alex Erickson all have facets of their game that can be mismatches in the passing game as receivers. 

And then there’s A.J. Green. I can’t blame you if you want nothing to do with Green this year. I took the plunge on him in the sixth round last year and he was a waste of a roster spot most of the season. He hasn’t played since 2018 and already picked up a hamstring injury in camp this year.

But for what it’s worth — and it might not be much given how this same story played out last year — both Green and Taylor have downplayed the severity of his injury and suggested they’re just being careful to get Green to Week 1. If healthy, Green is still one of the NFL’s elite talents at receiver. He was sixth and 15th in PPG in the years cut short due to injury and finished as the WR 10 in 2017. 

Aside from Mixon who’s going near the turn in the first round, investing in the Bengals won’t cost much this year. Boyd and Green are both going around the eighth round after the top 30 receivers are off the board. Burrow’s usually around the 20th quarterback taken. Ross and Higgins are basically free. All could dramatically outperform their current ADP. 

There might be more questions about the Bengals offense compared to some. But at the price right now, it’s hard to argue they’re not worth the gamble. 

Nickels & Dimes

Some quick thoughts from the first few weeks of camp…

It’s been a hell of a start to Ron Rivera’s tenure with Washington. Quick recap:

  • Eight and a half months helping oversee the business side until owner Dan Snyder hired team president Jason Wright
  • Overseeing team response to momentous societal change, including the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake by police
  • Name change
  • Washington Post bombshell piece detailing a rampant culture of sexual harassment
  • Numerous domestic violence allegations against RB Derrius Guice leading to an arrest and his release
  • Cancer diagnosis
  • Second Washington Post bombshell detailing the rampant culture of sexual harassment
  • No general manager

Rivera’s been adamant he has no regrets, but this probably wasn’t what Snyder pitched him on…

The Lions are a good illustration of some of the current diversity issues in the NFL’s coaching ranks. Who you know is often more important than your resume. Lions GM Bob Quinn fired Jim Caldwell after two straight 9-7 seasons and Caldwell thinks Quinn would have fired him sooner if he could have. 

Quinn’s target was his old Patriots colleague Patricia, who hasn’t cracked double-digit wins yet in his two seasons. Meanwhile, Caldwell is currently out of coaching with a career .554 winning percentage and just two losing seasons out of seven as a head coach…

Speaking of the Patriots coaching tree, new Giants HC Joe Judge has caught some flak for his methods so far which have a decided old-school flavor. The New York media market has had a hand, but Judge has made literal mountains out of molehills like not referring to players by name for months and sending them on laps for mistakes in practice. If they win, it won’t matter. If they don’t…

As a Panthers fan since 2005, I can’t help but notice the similarities between Stidham and Newton’s backup last year, Kyle Allen. Both were highly-touted high school recruits just a year apart, both ended up transferring from their original schools and declaring for the draft early. Both players have earned praise for their arm talent, mobility and ability to run an offense efficiently. And both are prone to bouts with interceptions, as Stidham’s recent performance in camp and Allen’s 2019 season attest to…

I find Raiders HC Jon Gruden’s approach to the virus incredibly refreshing. 

And judging by this so does the rest of the NFL. 

Let’s hope the NFL doesn’t let up. 

Check This Out

  • USA Today does record predictions every year and they’re always fun to look at. I think the NFC is actually pretty spot on and if the AFC shakes out like that, it’s going to be a tight race for the final wildcard berths. 
  • 2020 will be a weird season in a lot of ways but it should offer a fun test for some questions, like what is the quantifiable impact of home field advantage? Ben Baldwin of the Athletic recaps what we know on the subject now. 
  • It’s been impossible to cover the NFL in recent years without coming across a superb piece by Tyler Dunne, who has a gift for putting NFL athletes at ease to open up to him. A recent piece on Minkah Fitzpatrick explaining his trade from Miami to Pittsburgh is just one example. Dunne was one of several people laid off by Bleacher Report this week when they shuttered their longform vertical B/R Mag. 
  • Work like that isn’t cheap to make and often doesn’t do as well in terms of traffic compared to other content. It might not seem like much, but checking out work from folks like B/R’s Mirin Fader, who recently did a deep dive on what prompted athletes to opt out including Chiefs RB Damien Williams, helps make sure talented writers like her, Dunne and many other can keep jobs that are quickly vanishing.
  • With everything going on in the world this week, there’s a decent chance this flies under the radar. It shouldn’t. The New York Times reports on how the NFL uses an algorithm that assumes Black people’s brains function more poorly to deny claims disproportionately under the concussion settlement.
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