Grading 2021 NFL head coaching hires: Jets get an ‘A’ for Robert Saleh, Chargers gamble on Brandon Staley


The NFL’s 2021 coaching cycle is in full swing. Seven different teams will enter the 2021 season with new head coaches, and a number of hot candidates are still on the market — either drawing interest, racking up interviews or preparing for post-playoffs negotiations. We’re here to sort through every single opening and offer instant assessments of the hires.

Like draft grades, we all know these are subject to change. In 2016, as you may recall, the Philadelphia Eagles ended up with Doug Pederson, who was reportedly not their first choice and did not receive much interest elsewhere, but went on to win the Super Bowl only two seasons into his tenure. It’s ironic, of course, that Pederson’s dismissal this January provided one of the seven vacancies.

But we digress. It’s time to grade this year’s official head coaching hires. Have at ’em:

Previous role: Ohio State head coach (2012-2018)

Our reaction: If you believe owner Shad Khan and the countless reports that surfaced before his official remarks, Meyer is the guy the Jags have wanted all along. From a marketing standpoint, the sell couldn’t be easier: Meyer became a household name in Florida, leading the Gators to a 65-15 record and two national titles from 2005-2010, and he’s got the program-building resume that’ll instantly revive a dampened fan base, not to mention a locker room that has repeatedly railed against management in recent years. The fact he’ll enter with a No. 1 pick (which, likely, will be a generational quarterback talent in Trevor Lawrence) immediately raises his floor. He’s not a slam dunk because the concerns are rather notable — zero NFL experience, several health-related retirements and controversies at both Florida and Ohio State, where he allegedly overlooked criminal behavior by players and staff. But the Jags needed a high-upside swing here, and he gives them that, bringing a winning track record to an organization in dire need of victories.

Grade: B

Los Angeles Chargers: Brandon Staley

Previous role: Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator (2020)

Our reaction: If you look up the phrase “meteoric rise,” you might find Staley’s name. Five years ago, this guy was coaching at Division III John Carroll University. At 38, he has just four total seasons of NFL coaching experience. Prior to succeeding Wade Phillips as the Rams’ DC in 2020, he had only been an outside linebackers coach. So you’ll have to excuse us if we’re not totally buying in on Staley as “the guy” just yet. To be fair, his Rams “D” was really good, ranking No. 6 despite the trusty Phillips’ departure, and he’s drawn rave reviews as an up-and-coming leader. But you have to consider the situation: L.A. arguably needed an offensive mind more than anything, with young Justin Herbert emerging at quarterback. If Staley can bring aboard a top-tier coordinator, that’s great, but what happens if/when that OC departs in a year or two? We’re supposed to believe Staley’s the key to unlocking Herbert’s upside because … he played QB in high school? He may prove us all wrong. But this feels like a bit of a stretch at a crucial transition period.

Grade: C

Previous role: San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator (2017-2020)

Our reaction: At first glance, this looks almost entirely like a reversal of course from the failed Adam Gase experiment. Whereas Gase was a quirky, supposed offensive mind coming off another subpar head coaching gig, Saleh is an intense, player-friendly defensive coach entering his first job atop a staff. If you’re a Jets fan, though, the 180 should be embraced with open arms. In today’s NFL, offensive head coaches are ideal, but what Saleh lacks on that side of the ball, he more than makes up for with widely lauded leadership, technically sound instruction and an astute upbringing under offensive minds like Pete Carroll and Kyle Shanahan. At the very least, the Jets should be both more engaged and disciplined in 2021. In partnership with general manager Joe Douglas, Saleh has the personality and staffing assistance (see: Mike LaFleur) to restore the organization’s reputation, if not play spoiler sooner rather than later. They may have growing pains, but it won’t be for a lack of buy-in.

Grade: A

Previous role: Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator (2019-2020)

Our reaction: If the Falcons were looking to make the most out of Matt Ryan and their explosive offense, the hire of Arthur Smith is a home run — literally. Smith was the architect of the revamped Tennessee offense since Ryan Tannehill, who became one of the league’s best quarterbacks in the two seasons under Smith’s tutelage. Since he became the Titans quarterback in Week 7 of the 2019 season, Tannehill is first in the league in yards per attempt (8.5), third in touchdowns (550) and third in passer rating (111.3) among NFL quarterbacks. Then there’s Derrick Henry, who has led the NFL with 3,567 yards rushing over the past two seasons (875 more than the second on the list, Dalvin Cook). The Titans offense was tied for second in total yards per game (396.4) and fourth in points per game (30.7) in 2020.

Ryan, who has led the NFL in completions in each of the past two seasons, will have same dinner taken off his plate with Smith running a balanced attack. The Titans ranked in the top four in run-play percentage in each of the last two seasons while the Falcons were last in 2019 and 25th in 2020. The balance of play calls will greatly benefit Ryan, who will be 36 this year, preserving his immediate future in Atlanta. Ryan still has plenty of very good football left in him, which is what Atlanta needs to compete in loaded NFC South. 

Grade: B+

— Jeff Kerr


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