The Biggest Challenge Facing Every NFL Team with a New Head Coach in 2021
Seven NFL teams were left searching for new head coaches following the 2020 regular season. Four of them have already filled their jobs.
Last week, the Jacksonville Jaguars hired Urban Meyer, the New York Jets landed Robert Saleh and the Atlanta Falcons brought in Arthur Smith. On Monday, the Los Angeles Chargers hired Brandon Staley. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Dan Campbell will be named as the Detroit Lions head coach once the New Orleans Saints are done with the postseason.
While the first step of the rebuilding process has begun for these four teams, all seven face challenges in trying to regain relevance in 2021. Unsurprisingly, none of these teams made the playoffs this season, and the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles are the only teams to have made the postseason within the last two years.
Returning to the playoffs will be an obvious goal for each of these teams, but naturally, some other obstacles must be overcome first. Here, we'll examine the biggest challenge each team with a new head coach will face in the coming months.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Atlanta Falcons: Determining the Future of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones
Arthur Smith and new general manager Terry Fontenot inherit a Falcons roster that went just 4-12 in 2020. They also inherit a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan and a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver in Julio Jones. However, while Ryan and Jones are cornerstone players, both are in their 30s and may not be around for the long haul.
Team president Rich McKay admitted the next general manager will have the freedom to move either or both this offseason if it makes sense.
"Give us a plan," McKay said, per Jeff Schultz and Tori McElhaney of The Athletic. "Show us what you want to do and show us why. Show us how this gets us to W's and make sure you actually execute the plan."
The future of Ryan and Jones will be a tricky thing to navigate. Both are elite players when healthy and can help the Falcons return to relevance, but they may not be around to see the other side of a franchise rebuild.
Atlanta will have to weigh the immediate value of Ryan and Jones against their potential returns on the trade market. Tearing down a roster can be difficult—especially when faces of the franchise are involved—but it can be necessary for a team in Atlanta's situation.
Not only do the Falcons need to remake their four-win roster, but they'll also have to do so while being more than $32 million over the salary cap this offseason.
Detroit Lions: Rebuilding a Lackluster Defense
When the Lions hired former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in 2018, the hope was that he would build a playoff-caliber defense in the Motor City. He did not.
Despite bringing in familiar former Patriots like Jamie Collins Sr., Trey Flowers and Duron Harmon, Patricia never fielded a top-tier defense. Not even drafting Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah third overall last year could fix one of the league's worst pass defenses.
The Lions finished 2020 ranked 30th in passing yards allowed and dead last in yards per pass attempt allowed, total defense and scoring defense. In a division that features the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook, that's a problem.
Retooling the entire defense in one offseason may not be possible, but it's imperative that Detroit makes improvements on that side of the ball.
The offense has key pieces like quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back D'Andre Swift in place. However, the Lions showed in 2020 that they cannot dream of being playoff contenders with offense alone.
This challenge is all the more difficult since Detroit has just over $3 million in cap space with which to work.
Houston Texans: Mending the Relationship with Deshaun Watson
The Houston Texans have a few key building blocks on their roster, including offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, pass-rusher J.J. Watt and receiver Brandin Cooks. However, no player is more important than three-time Pro Bowler and starting quarterback Deshaun Watson. Unfortunately, Watson appears to want no part of remaining a Texan.
"He just wants out," a source close to him said, per Greg Bishop and Jenny Vrentas of SI.com
According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Watson is unhappy with the fact that he wasn't consulted during the hiring of general manager Nick Caserio. Therefore, it's unlikely Caserio will have any chance of mending Watson's relationship with the franchise.
This challenge will largely fall on Houston's next head coach. Houston finally agreed to interview Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, a coach Watson has pushed for, according to The MMQB's Albert Breer.
Whether it's Bieniemy or not, Houston's next head coach will have to try to get Watson back on board with the franchise. Otherwise, the Texans could enter 2021 sitting $20 million over the salary cap without first- and second-round draft picks and without one of the league's best young quarterbacks.
To be fair, if Watson is traded, the return trade package would likely put the Texans back into the early rounds of the draft.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Getting It Right with the No. 1 Pick
Hiring Urban Meyer may be a turning point for the Jaguars franchise. The team's choice with the No. 1 pick in this year's draft may be as well.
Unless a team is really trying to lose—as the Cleveland Browns did in 2016 and 2017—the top pick in the draft doesn't come around often. If Meyer is able to improve the team to some degree in 2021, Jacksonville isn't going to have the first choice in the draft again anytime soon.
Therefore, getting this pick right will be the most important move Meyer and the new front office can make this offseason.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Jacksonville will target Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the top selection. The Jaguars need a franchise quarterback, and Lawrence appears to be a generational talent.
However, no NFL prospect is a sure thing, and the Jaguars must be 100 percent sold on him before pulling the trigger. Jacksonville will have to consider all options, including trading the No. 1 pick for a veteran.
"I would strongly consider trading that pick and trying to get Deshaun Watson. Now I know it's within the division, but I would try and move and get a veteran," ESPN's Bart Scott recently said on Get Up.
Getting it wrong at No. 1 would be disastrous for the Jaguars.
Los Angeles Chargers: Managing Pending Free Agents
Brandon Staley is entering the best situation of any new head coach this offseason. He's inheriting a seven-win roster and a budding franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert. However, Staley and the front office will have to navigate free agency with care.
Los Angeles is projected to have more than $22 million in cap space, but it also has several key players slated to hit the open market.
Players scheduled for free agency include pass-rusher Melvin Ingram III, tight end Hunter Henry, center Mike Pouncey, guard Forrest Lamp, guard Dan Feeney, tackle Sam Tevi and linebacker Denzel Perryman. Even with an enviable amount of cap space, re-signing all of these players is unlikely.
The Chargers will have to pick and choose the veterans they want to keep while keeping an eye on external free-agent options and the upcoming draft. This will be particularly important on the offensive side of the ball, as building around Herbert and continuing to develop the Oregon product will be the No. 1 goal in 2021.
Los Angeles is in a position to build upon its 7-9 2020 campaign. Making the right decisions on pending free agents will go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.
New York Jets: Determining Sam Darnold's Future
Like the Jaguars, the Jets and new head coach Robert Saleh will have a tough choice to make at the top of the 2021 draft. New York owns the No. 2 pick and will have a prime opportunity to add a franchise-caliber player—perhaps a new quarterback.
Before entering draft weekend, though, the Jets need to figure out whether incumbent quarterback Sam Darnold still has franchise potential. They thought highly enough of the USC product to take him third overall in 2018, but he has not blossomed into a high-level passer.
If Darnold cannot become a franchise signal-caller, then using the No. 2 pick on a quarterback could be the play. However, it would be a mistake to roll the dice on an unproven prospect if Darnold can still be the guy.
Part of the challenge will be determining how much of his early inconsistencies are the result of Adam Gase's coaching.
"It's on me to get him to play better than what he's played," the former head coach told reporters in December. "And so far, I haven't done a good enough job."
The fact that former Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has blossomed away from Gase can't be ignored. New York must figure out if Darnold can make a similar jump before deciding what to do with that No. 2 pick.
Philadelphia Eagles: Figuring It Out with Carson Wentz
As is the case in Houston, whoever takes the Philadelphia Eagles job is going to face a challenge at quarterback. The Eagles are financially tied to Carson Wentz in a big way—he still has $59 million in dead money on his contract—and trading him could prove difficult.
The Eagles are scheduled to be more than $53 million over the cap. Eating a large chunk of dollars in a Wentz deal isn't a reasonable option.
However, Wentz did not perform like a franchise quarterback in 2020. He threw for just 2,620 yards with 16 touchdowns and a league-high 15 interceptions in 12 games. He was benched in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts, who arguably outplayed Wentz in a limited time frame. Hurts threw for 1,061 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for 354 yards and three more scores.
Determining whether Hurts is a better long-term option than Wentz will be step one of this challenging process. If Philadelphia is going to commit to Wentz for the time being, "fixing" Wentz will be the next stage.
Wentz's fall from an MVP candidate in 2017 to a bench-worthy quarterback in 2020 has been remarkable. Figuring out if his mistakes can be corrected and then going about actually correcting them could be one of the biggest challenges any NFL team faces this offseason.
Contract information via Spotrac.