Coaching Changes That Will Heavily Impact Teams' 2014 Free-Agent, Draft Strategy
NFL coaches, coordinators and assistants frequently find themselves in the spotlight, perhaps more so than coaches of any other sport.
This is because an NFL team typically carries the fingerprints of its coaching staff into each and every game. From personnel grouping and play packages to offensive and defensive scheming, the way a team approaches its time on the field is heavily influenced by the coaches on the sideline.
However, a coach often has his fingerprints on the team long before it comes time for X's and O's. While general managers and personnel executives are largely responsible for assembling a team's roster, a coach's vision will usually influence the process.
So when there is a change among a team's coaching makeup—large or small—it is often accompanied by a shift in strategy when it comes to assembling the product on the field.
Over the next few pages, we will examine some of the recent coaching changes that are likely to alter offseason strategies this year, in some cases for a team you might not expect.
Mike Pettine Becomes Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns
It may have taken a little while to develop, but the Cleveland Browns have finally made another regime change.
Replacing fired head coach Rob Chudzinski is former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. While the biggest offseason-strategy shift is likely to come from the firing of CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi, Pettine's arrival could have a significant impact on the way the franchise views some of its own.
As a defensive-minded coach, Pettine may place more value on guys like linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and pending free-agent safety T.J. Ward than his predecessor.
New #Browns GM Ray Farmer said decision will be made on ILB D'Qwell Jackson in advance of his $4 million bonus being due.— Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) February 11, 2014
Jackson, a 30-year-old veteran is soon due a $4 million roster bonus and could be a potential cap casualty. Ward is set to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11, barring a new deal.
Hue Jackson Promoted to Offensive Coordinator for Cincinnati Bengals
With Jay Gruden taking over as the head guy in Washington, the Cincinnati Bengals decided to simply promote running backs coach Hue Jackson to the offensive coordinator position.
Jackson has been an offensive coordinator (and a head coach) at previous stops, so he brings plenty of experience to the position. He also brings a potential shift in offensive attitude. Jackson, it seems, is a big proponent of running the football.
"The running game defeats teams," Jackson recently said, per Paul Daugherty of Cincinnati.com. "Offensive teams become really good when they're physical."
While Gruden preferred players who complemented an open passing attack, Jackson will likely be looking to add players who will strengthen his team's ground game.
This could mean picking up some offensive line depth in free agency or the draft or adding complementary receivers who excel in downfield blocking.
It could also prompt the Bengals to consider drafting another young, physical runner to partner with veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis and emerging star Giovani Bernard.
Lovie Smith Becomes Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
By bringing in former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith as their new man, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought instant playoff and Super Bowl experience (Smith's Bears made an appearance in Super Bowl XLI).
The Buccaneers also brought in a man with intimate knowledge of the importance of solid defense and explosive special teams.
Smith's Bears were rarely known as an offensive juggernaut (sorry, Rex Grossman), but they were known as a team that could win games in other phases of the game.
Smith's background as a defensive coach will likely put some priority on that side of the football this offseason. His experience working with return specialist Devin Hester early in Hester's career could also prompt the Buccaneers target draft prospects who can contribute to the special teams unit, especially late in the draft.
Ray Horton in as Titans Defensive Coordinator
It didn't take long for departed Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton to find a new job. Within a month, he was reunited with head coach Ken Whisenhunt as the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator.
Horton and Whisenhunt worked together with the Arizona Cardinals, where Horton developed a reputation as an aggressive play-caller that was continued in Cleveland.
"I want big men that can run and little men that can hit ... aggressive, attacking multi-front defense," Horton said last season, via NFL.com.
If Horton is to field that aggressive, attacking defense in Tennessee, it will require the Titans to target defenders who fit his 3-4 hybrid schemes and possibly a top-flight cornerback.
According to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, the Titans are not expected to use the franchise tag on Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner and could have trouble re-signing him.
Horton has benefited from having a Pro Bowl corner in each of his past two stops with Patrick Peterson in Arizona and Joe Haden in Cleveland.
Bill O'Brien in as Head Coach of the Houston Texans
With former Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien now in charge of the Houston Texans, we can likely expect him to quickly put his own stamp on the team's makeup.
The obvious change will be at quarterback, where veteran Matt Schaub is likely out, and O'Brien will probably target his own guy early in May's draft. The Texans hold the draft's first overall pick, so O'Brien will have his pick of this year's crop of young signal-callers.
Whether the choice is Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles or Derek Carr, the choice will largely be O'Brien's.
As far as free agency goes, we may start to see the Texans take a page out of Bill Belichick's book (O'Brien served on Belichick's staff from 2007-2011) and target guys who provide value regardless of reputation or name recognition.