6 Players Ready to Break out Under New Head Coaches

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 23, 2022

6 Players Ready to Break out Under New Head Coaches

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    Failure often proceeds change in the NFL, particularly with coaching changes. Although, change alone could prove to be quite beneficial to certain individuals. 

    Players know they go back to square one whenever a new regime takes over.

    "It's a complete reset," Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson told reporters about his team's new coaching staff. "Everything I've done in the past with the other coaches, with the other staff, I mean, it really doesn't mean anything too much. I mean, the film is not going to lie to you. But at the end of the day, they want me to show them what I can do in person moving forward."

    More on Johnson here in a bit. Otherwise, his final statement is vital. A new staff, new systems and new situations provide opportunities, as long as on-field performers prove what they can do. In some cases, those individuals will be better positioned to succeed. 

    With that in mind, the following six players have a great chance to emerge as outstanding contributors based on their respective teams' recent changes. Quick note: None of the teams with new coaches, who previously served on the staff only to be elevated into said position, are included.

TE Albert Okwuegbunam, Denver Broncos

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    As part of the Russell Wilson trade, Albert Okwuegbunam takes over as the Denver Broncos' TE1. Added opportunity is only part of the equation, though. 

    In his first two seasons, the 2020 fourth-round pick caught 44 passes for 451 yards, though injuries played their part. 

    Okwuegbunam is now a full 18 months removed from the torn ACL he suffered during his rookie campaign. Athletes tend to come back in eight to nine months, but they're not always at full strength when they do. The healing process takes time. The tight end, meanwhile, also dealt with a hamstring issue last season. Time to recover this offseason should go a long way in Okwuegbunam becoming a weapon among the new-look Broncos offense. 

    Wilson's addition to the lineup certainly helps. The Broncos haven't had a quality starter since Peyton Manning retired. Now, the team has a future Hall of Famer behind center, and he's already helping his teammates. 

    "He has done a really good job of always having a pointer to anything we're installing," Okwuegbunam told reporters. "He always has something to add onto it to just kind of help." 

    Of note, new Broncos offensive coordinator Justin Outten previously served as the Green Bay Packers' tight ends coach. Though head coach Nathaniel Hackett will probably call plays, the duo coaxed a Pro Bowl-caliber season out of Robert Tonyan in 2020. His 11 touchdown receptions tied for the most among tight ends that year. 

    The Broncos did select UCLA's Greg Dulcich in this year's third round, but Okwuegbunam should have an early advantage to be a primary target. 

RB Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Travis Etienne Jr.'s inclusion is a bit of a workaround since the 2021 25th overall draft pick never technically played for the Jacksonville Jaguars after suffering a foot injury that required surgery during the preseason. 

    Let's be honest: things probably wouldn't have gone well for Etienne during his rookie season considering how much of a circus the franchise became during Urban Meyer's tenure. 

    "If there was any year to miss, I missed a great one," the running back joked with reporters. 

    Now, the Jaguars are led by an established NFL head coach with a Super Bowl pedigree. The entire team, particularly the offense and quarterback Trevor Lawrence, should benefit from Doug Pederson's hire. An argument for Lawrence's improvement in year two can easily be made. In this particular case, the weapons around the quarterback need to help, and Etienne is key. 

    According to Pederson, Etienne should be fully healthy by the start of training camp. 

    "Travis [Etienne Jr.] is doing extremely well," Pederson told reporters last week. "He's been in our offseason program and working every day and feeling good. Again, it's a process and we're going to continue to monitor that and keep it slow." 

    Etienne is an explosive runner and capable receiver. Pederson likes a deep backfield, but he also uses the position quite a bit in the passing game, which will create opportunities for Etienne to be a difference-maker. During Pederson's last two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Miles Sanders averaged 843 rushing yards and 58 targets. Etienne is a better all-around talent.

OT Alex Leatherwood, Las Vegas Raiders

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    The Jon Gruden-Mike Mayock era of Raiders football turned out to be a complete disaster. Gruden's ouster, a middling football team and poor drafting kept the franchise in flux. 

    Enter new head coach Josh McDaniels, general manager Dave Ziegler and the New England Patriots' way of doing things. 

    A tinge of irony exists in the fact that the Raiders' first-round pick last year, Alex Leatherwood, and this year's Patriots selection of Cole Strange were viewed as big-time reaches. The Raiders had a bad habit of not reading the rest of the league well enough, falling in love with a specific prospect and drafting him too early. The Patriots simply don't care, because they have decades of an established system. 

    McDaniels and Co. aren't afraid to take on a project after Leatherwood looked like a complete flop at right tackle and then quickly moved to right guard during his rookie campaign.  

    "We know what he was drafted for, and we're going to give him an opportunity to do such," McDaniels told reporters

    The Outland Trophy winner looked out of place in a position he never played at the collegiate level. He's now had a complete offseason to work out at right tackle and establish a certain amount of comfortability. Plus, he should benefit from Carmen Bricillo serving as his offensive line coach. Bricillo cut his teeth in the NFL as Dante Scarnecchia's coaching assistant and spent the last three seasons with the Patriots, where he helped develop Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu.

CB Jaylon Johnson, Chicago Bears

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    Jaylon Johnson is already one of the better young cornerbacks in the NFL, but new Chicago Bears head coach Matt Eberflus sees room for improvement.

    "Jaylon, you know a young player, is still a work in progress," Eberflus told reporters. "He's got some things he's got to work on just like all the rest of those guys that are second- and third-year players. They've all got to work on stuff. Just keep working and we'll see where he goes."

    Instead of building around second-year quarterback Justin Fields, the Bears' brass placed a greater emphasis on their secondary based on how the board fell during the draft. 

    New general manager Ryan Poles drafted Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker with the franchise's top two draft picks. An early defensive bent reflects on the team's head coach and his defensive pedigree. 

    Eberflus spent the last four seasons as the Indianapolis Colts' defensive play-caller. He built some of the league's most fundamentally sound units, and his groups always flew to the football. The former defensive coordinator got the most out of castoffs such as Pierre Desir, Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie. He also helped developed Kenny Moore.

    Imagine what Eberflus and his system can do with a talent the caliber of Johnson, who already looks like a star in the making. As a rookie, the 2020 second-round pick led all rookies in forced incompletions, per Pro Football Focus. The sophomore defensive back was counted among the league's best last season in passer rating allowed and in single coverage. 

    The Bears are young and talented in their secondary, and the group should be built around Johnson's coverage skills. He should be well on his way to Pro Bowl and possibly even All-Pro status. 

QB Daniel Jones, New York Giants

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    The New York Giants' decision to not pick up Daniel Jones' fifth-year rookie option speaks volumes as the quarterback enters his fourth season. 

    "That was out of my control, out of my hands," Jones told reporters last week. " ... It is what it is."

    The decision reflects on the previous regime and where it failed Jones. Granted, the 2019 sixth overall pick hasn't played particularly well and committed far too many turnovers. The organization's decision was warranted based on what it has seen to date. 

    But a significant change had been made this offseason with former Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll taking over as the Giants' head coach and former NFL quarterback/Kansas City Chiefs passing game coordinator Mike Kafka slotting in as New York's offensive coordinator. 

    Furthermore, the Giants rebuilt their porous offensive line with the acquisitions of guard Mark Glowinski, center Jon Feliciano and this year's seven overall draft pick, Evan Neal. 

    Jones' biggest growth under the new leadership should be found in his mindset. The Giants quarterback committed more turnovers, 49, than any other player since he entered the league. But he should be more comfortable in the pocket with expectations of being more aggressive in his approach.

    Daboll liked to spread the field for Josh Allen to take full advantage of his quarterback's skill set. In fact, the Bills had at least three wide receivers on the field for 80 percent of last year's offensive snaps, per Sharp Football. Obviously, Kafka learned under one of football's most creative minds during the last five seasons. 

    "I really enjoy working with him right now," Kafka said of Jones. "He's a smart kid. He works hard. Those are all things that I had heard about him, but being able to see it in person has been great."

    An extension could still materialize because of this pairing. 

QB Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

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    Tua Tagovailoa has reached the "no excuses" portion of his career, and the Miami Dolphins have done everything possible to help the third-year quarterback succeed this fall. 

    The franchise hired one of the best young offensive minds as its head coach. Mike McDaniel brings a quarterback-friendly system that helps with its reliance on a strong run game, heavy usage of play action and significant pocket movement. 

    General manager Chris Grier then traded for star wide receiver Tyreek Hill, retained tight end Mike Gesicki and added fellow wide receiver Cedrick Wilson Jr., left tackle Terron Armstead, left guard Connor Williams, fullback Alec Ingold and running backs Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert and Sony Michel. 

    On paper, the Dolphins offense appears to be loaded. The biggest question mark remains at quarterback. 

    Fairly or not, Tagovailoa is viewed through the success of his draft classmates. Joe Burrow already helped lead the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl appearance. Justin Herbert is arguably a top-three talent at the position already. The Dolphins sandwiched Tagovailoa's selection between those two signal-callers, and he hasn't experienced nearly the same level of success. 

    Maybe the Dolphins quarterback had been held back by a defensive-minded head coach, the league's worst offensive line and a lack of weapons. Even so, Tagovailoa still showed signs of excellent play.

    According to Pro Football Focus, he held the highest red-zone completion percentage last season, finished second (just behind Herbert) with a 48.3 completion percentage on throws of 20 or more yards and ranked fourth with a 73.9 completion percentage when kept clean in the pocket. His 66 completion percentage when facing the blitz is sixth-best since the start of the 2020 campaign. Most importantly for the incoming system, he was top five in completions (121) and completion rate (71.6 percent) last season on play-action passes. 

    Tagovailoa may never emerge as an elite quarterback like Burrow and Herbert, but the 2020 fifth overall pick drastically improves with his new setup.