NFL Coaching Grades: Jets’ Robert Saleh, Falcons’ Arthur Smith Among Best Hires

Seven individuals enter 2021 as first-time head coaches

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The NFL coaching carousel seems to have come to an end.

We started the offseason with six initial openings — Jets, Jaguars, Lions, Texans, Falcons, Chargers — but that was before the Eagles cut the cord on Doug Pederson, which gave us a seventh vacancy.

All seven of said positions now have been filled with Texans general manager (and ex-Patriots executive) Nick Caserio making his first hire last week. Notably, all seven of those are first-time head coaches.

Anyway, let’s grade each of the hires:

New York Jets hire Robert Saleh
Saleh arrives in New York after working as the defensive coordinator for San Francisco 49ers from 2017-20. He previously was the linebackers coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars after working with the Seattle Seahawks and Legion of Boom. He got his NFL start with the Texans in 2009.

With hiring Saleh, the Jets brought in what they haven’t had for a long time — a competent motivator and vocal leader. Saleh obviously comes across more defensive-minded, and while some may question why not bring in an offensive-minded coach to try and save Sam Darnold or mold the No. 2 pick, that’s what he is bringing Mike LaFleur (brother of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur) to do.

Saleh has the respect of established players in the league like Richard Sherman, and while that’s not an end-all, his energy should permeate throughout the organization. This really could be the culture changed needed in New York.

Grade: A-

Jacksonville Jaguars hire Urban Meyer
Meyer is probably the most well-known of all the new hires due to his college coaching career. As you likely know, Meyer won three national championships and most notably served as the head coach at Ohio State (2012-18) and Florida (2005-10).

Admittedly, this is a bit of a tough call as most college coaches transitioning to the NFL hasn’t always gone too well.

Meyer, though, enters with arguably the most favorable situation for any of these first-time head coaches. The Jaguars likely will draft quarterback Trevor Lawrence No. 1 overall and Jacksonville has a player who appears to be an undrafted stud in running back in James Robinson. And on top of all that, Meyer, who never has had to work with a salary cap, has plenty of cap space and draft capital. While it won’t be the exact same, he can essentially build his own program in Jacksonville.

And, at the very least, the hire makes the Jaguars relevant. NFL fans undoubtedly will want to tune in to watch Meyer, Lawrence and Jacksonville over the next few years. That’s important for a team who was practically designated as the NFL’s London team.

Grade: B+

Atlanta Falcons hire Arthur Smith
Smith’s arrival comes after reviving the Tennessee Titans’ offense under head coach Mike Vrabel. He brought new life into Ryan Tannehill and the run-first mentality turned Derrick Henry into the league’s two-time rushing champion. He was an assistant in Tennessee prior to serving as OC and worked with the tight ends and offensive line.

The Falcons landed one of the hottest coaching candidates this offseason, despite the fact that the job was among the least attractive (lack of cap space, contract issues, etc.). Smith interviewed for more than half of the open positions.

Make no mistake that despite the Falcons’ recent underachieving years, they still have plenty of talent, headlined by the receiving duo of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Smith could turn that group around in short order.

Grade: B+

Los Angeles Chargers hire Brandon Staley
Staley ventures across town after serving as the defensive coordinator for Rams in 2020. That, despite what the season-finale against the Packers will tell you, was a good group. He also previously served as the Broncos’ linebackers coach in 2019 and the Bears’ outside linebackers coach for two seasons.

Nothing against Staley, he’s a good up-and-coming coach, but we just feel like the Chargers should’ve went more offensive-minded here. Their main objective should be catapulting quarterback Justin Herbert and someone like, first and foremost, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll or Kansas City Chiefs’ Eric Bienenemy could have helped in that regard.

The Chargers clearly are hoping to jump on an ascending young coach, who maybe would’ve had many more options in the next year or two, so we’ll see how it plays out.

Grade: B

Detroit Lions hire Dan Campbell
Initial reaction: Is it unfair to call Dan Campbell a maniac? I mean, the guy was talking about biting off opponents’ knee caps during his introductory press conference. That’s getting off to quite a fast start.

Campbell will replace the fired Matt Patricia after serving as the assistant to Sean Payton in New Orleans. He also served as the tight ends coach for the last five seasons, and did get a little bit of head-coaching experience as interim coach of the Miami Dolphins for the final 12 games in 2015.

Anyway, it wasn’t exactly a traditional hire for Detroit, but the Lions clearly were attracted to Campbell’s fiery personality. If he’s able to be a leader of men and let Anthony Lynn run the offense and Aaron Glenn run the defense, even with the expected departure of Matthew Stafford, it could work.

Grade: C+

Philadelphia Eagles hire Nick Sirianni
Sirianni was the offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts for the past three seasons, however, he did not call plays under head coach Frank Reich.

Reich, though, likely played a major role in Sirianni being offered the job. After all, quarterback Carson Wentz excelled when Reich was in Philadelphia (offensive coordinator in 2016-17). It almost feels like the Eagles couldn’t get the mentor so instead went for the mentee.

Sirianni has worked with quarterbacks like Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett and Andrew Luck, and according to reports, a major part of his interview was dedicated to his plan on Wentz. Still, this still seems like a big move for a guy who may not be ready for it — especially if the Eagles undergo a reconstruction in the short term.

Grade: C+

Houston Texans hire David Culley
Culley arrives to an organization filled with turmoil. He’s been put in a very difficult situation, and one which may end with franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson and cornerstone JJ Watt both being traded before his first game.

The 65-year-old Culley, who’s never been a head coach in the NFL, comes from the Baltimore Ravens where he served as passing game coordinator and receivers coach in a run-first offense.

Culley could very well be a good coach. There certainly was no short of praise from those around the league after his hiring was announced. It’s still fair to say it was a surprise, though. But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised with decisions the Texans make anymore?

Grade: C

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