The NFL head coach carousel is in full swing, as multiple vacancies around the league have been filled in advance of the 2021 season.
While it’s too early to know who will prove to be the best hires, there’s enough information on every new coach and their resumes to forecast who will wind up being the premier leaders for their respective franchises.
Let’s power rank all the 2021 coaching hires, and break down how each candidate fits with their new organization.
Which 2021 NFL head coach hiring was the best?
1. Robert Saleh, New York Jets
There’s a difference between being humble and being overwhelmed.
Freddie Kitchens was a little too modest with his infamous, “Am I ready or not? I don’t know.” quote, and was completely in over his head when he was hired by Cleveland in 2019. Even before getting hired by the Jets, Saleh said something last year that stood out: “Your coaching staff completes you.”
Saleh went on to explain that when describing a great coach, anyone will eventually wind up describing themselves. He realizes there are things he can’t do, and is focused on hiring a staff around him to delegate the appropriate responsibilities he can’t fulfill.
Based on his time as defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers, Saleh presents himself as a fiery motivator who has the schematic acumen in addition to the extroverted, positively reinforcing leadership qualities to lead the Jets into a new era.
How could one draw such conclusions? Well, for the X’s and O’s bit of it, consider that the Niners ranked fifth in total defense during the 2020 campaign despite numerous injuries to key players. When you watch Saleh patrol the sidelines, he has a commanding presence, and is extremely vocal in firing up his players. When San Francisco was at full strength in 2019, it had arguably the NFL’s best defense, which was a quarter away from a Super Bowl victory.
It seems like Saleh will retain Sam Darnold as quarterback, and as long as the Niners can get the most out of him, New York’s new head coach should be able to transform the maligned defense and get the Jets soaring at some point in the very near future.
2. Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers
It says a lot that Staley was able to stand out to such a degree, given that he was a first-year defensive coordinator underneath the most celebrated young head coach in the NFL, Sean McVay.
Now, Staley won’t travel for his next gig, remaining in Los Angeles to go from the Rams to the Chargers as he prepares to take on perhaps the most attractive head coach opening on the market.
In just one season of work with the Rams, Staley transformed that defense into the NFL’s No. 1 unit, leading the way in points and total yards allowed. But he’s not without expertise on the offensive side of the ball, having played quarterback in college at Dayton. That should allow him to connect with young Chargers phenom Justin Herbert and lure an attractive offensive coaching staff.
Crazy to think that during the 2016 campaign, the 38-year-old Staley was the defensive coordinator at John Carroll, a Division III college. Now, he’s got a franchise QB in Herbert and plenty of talent on defense to take the Chargers to contention in the AFC, perhaps even challenge the Kansas City Chiefs for AFC West supremacy.
Staley is a schematic genius, and considering Los Angeles had the pick of the litter when it came to the best coaching candidates during this cycle, he obviously made an impression too strong to ignore on Chargers GM Tom Telesco and the rest of the franchise’s leadership.
Imagine what Staley will be able to do with a defense headlined by edge-rusher Joey Bosa and All-Pro safety Derwin James. As long as Herbert stays on track, look for the Bolts to return to the postseason in 2021 as Staley catalyzes an immediate resurgence.
3. Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars
How about that? The Jaguars actually did it. They went there. Urban Meyer coaching in the NFL. It was long speculated and bandied about. Now it’s happening in Jacksonville.
Duval will welcome Meyer with open arms. The legendary college football boss built two national championship winners at the University of Florida, won another title at Ohio State and boasts a 187-32 record. Although he may take it hard if he even loses a quarter of that amount in 2021, even an 8-8 record would be massive improvement for the 1-15 Jaguars.
There’s plenty of reason to believe Meyer will work in the NFL, though. He’s more of a CEO than an X’s and O’s genius, but his role in bringing the spread offense to major college football can’t be discounted. He’s a wise enough leader to know that he’ll need help in acclimating to the professional game. His renowned leadership ability and competitive fire needs adapting to grown men in the NFL, and Meyer is fully capable of executing that.
Oh, but here’s the biggest kicker — and by kicker, we’re talking quarterback: Trevor Lawrence is coming to town. That’s right. The Clemson quarterback who went 34-2 in college, made the playoffs every year and led the Tigers to a championship as a true freshman is the best quarterback prospect maybe ever.
Meyer knew he’d have a crack at coaching Lawrence. That was a big motivation to taking the job, along with the Jags having the most salary cap space of any team in 2021.
Jumping from college to the pros isn’t as daunting as it once was. NFL offenses borrow more from the NCAA game than ever. Meyer is an extraordinary success story who wins immediately every single place he goes. Why would it be any different with a franchise quarterback in waiting and plenty of financial means to rapidly improve Jacksonville’s roster?
Getting players to buy in immediately is an obvious strength Meyer has flexed in four different head coaching stops. The Jaguars are starved for a winning football team. You’d better believe they’ll listen up as the organization goes all-in on Meyer.
4. David Culley, Houston Texans
Well, after the lengthiest search for a new head coach in the entire NFL, Houston actually landed a respectable candidate who’s paid his dues and then some. The 65-year-old Culley is finally getting his first crack at a head coaching job with the Texans.
Culley knows what winning in the NFL looks like. He spent more than a decade on Andy Reid’s coaching staff with the Philadelphia Eagles as wide receivers coach, and eventually followed Big Red to Kansas City where he served from 2013 to 2016. After that stint, Culley went on to be quarterbacks coach in Buffalo for two seasons before landing with the Ravens for the past two years.
The cultures in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Buffalo and Baltimore were all great, and Culley’s experience with those franchises bodes well for his ability to put a plan in place to turn around the Texans.
Reid’s coaching tree consists of Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, Bills boss Sean McDermott and recently fired Eagles coach Doug Pederson. Harbaugh and Pederson won Super Bowls, and McDermott nearly qualified for the big game this year if Reid weren’t in his way.
Many have been outraged that Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy wasn’t the one to fill a head coaching vacancy. Nevertheless, credit Houston for sticking with the Reid tree and getting an even more experienced candidate in Culley who wasn’t really on anyone’s radar until it was reported he was the new coach.
5. Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions
It’s honestly closer than you’d think between Smith and Campbell in these NFL head coach power rankings. Despite the former’s far more exciting resume of late, Campbell is deserving of the opportunity with the Lions and has shown he can at least be competent in a leading role before.
But Campbell was a former NFL player who did respectably well in going 5-7 on an interim basis with a 2015 Miami Dolphins team that was going on its seventh consecutive losing season. Obviously, the talent wasn’t there to really compete, yet Miami’s players bought in to what Campbell was selling at the time.
In his introductory press conference to the Detroit media, Campbell seized the moment to very clearly spell out his fascinating, imaginative vision for the team:
With multiple seasons under his belt as part of Sean Payton’s staff with the New Orleans Saints, Campbell has seen firsthand what it takes to lead at the highest level of pro football. That he was a former tight end should have Lions fans excited about high draft pick T.J. Hockenson, who could unlock a whole new level to his game under Campbell’s guidance.
Now that Brad Holmes is in place as the new GM, Detroit can officially reboot and potentially trade quarterback Matthew Stafford to save cap space and bring in a new wave of talent to the Lions organization.
In a tough NFC North division featuring Green Bay, Minnesota and a Chicago team that’s only a quarterback away from really making some noise, Campbell probably has the toughest job aside from Sirianni among the new coaching hires to date. If he can even get the Lions near .500 in 2021, that should be considered a success and a sign Campbell is definitely the right man for the job.
6. Arthur Smith, Atlanta Falcons
It’s almost by default that Smith ranks here, and it’s not really any fault of his own as much as it is the extraordinary resumes that Saleh and Meyer boast, along with Staley’s incredibly rapid rise through the coaching ranks, Culley’s immense experience and, frankly, Campbell’s paradigm-altering, mind-bending maiden presser.
Smith could well prove to be the best hire of the seven NFL head coach vacancies. Anything can happen from here. Let’s take a closer look at the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator.
Prior to dialing up plays for Tennessee’s exceptional offense over the past two seasons, Smith worked his way up despite a ton of turnover and multiple Titans coaching staffs. He initially signed on as a defensive quality control coach in 2011 as part of Mike Munchak’s staff. Between then and now, Tennessee went through Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey before settling on Mike Vrabel before the 2018 campaign.
So, that’s four different head coaches, and Smith remaining as not only a constant, but as someone who kept earning promotions through the coaching ranks. Once he got to call the shots on offense, all Smith did was completely revitalize the career of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and coach Derrick Henry to back-to-back NFL rushing titles.
Now for the devil’s advocate to this: Is Tannehill’s resurgence more a reflection of how incompetent Adam Gase was developing him in Miami, and is Henry’s extraordinary talent the reason Smith was so successful?
Check out this stat from Pro Football Focus, which highlights how much Henry’s power running played into his 2,027-yard 2020 season:
To go back to Tannehill for a second, too: Gase just got fired as Jets coach and failed to grow Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft. It’s telling that Saleh is seemingly on board with the idea of keeping Darnold, despite New York holding the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
But let’s pump the breaks on the potential Smith slander. It obviously bodes well that he stayed on with the Titans through so much organizational change. A similar narrative followed current Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, who stuck with the Minnesota Vikings through multiple coaching shake-ups and looks like a brilliant hire in Cleveland.
Stefanski isn’t a fiery personality like Saleh. He’s a cool, calm and collected presence who also leans on a run-first offense. That’s really a similar vibe to what Smith seems to be, yet it’s unrealistic to expect him to be a Coach of the Year candidate in 2021 like Stefanski is now.
Also to consider: If the Jets don’t draft a QB, Atlanta has the fourth pick, and could well select either BYU’s Zach Wilson or Ohio State’s Justin Fields. With Matt Ryan still under contract, Smith has tons of flexibility at the most important position on the field, and seems to have the play design chops to make it work with any of the three players mentioned.
The biggest key for Smith will be doing all he can in his power to repair a Falcons defense that ranked in the bottom five in total yards allowed and yielded 26.4 points per game this season.
7. Nick Sirianni, Philadelphia Eagles
Well, the Indianapolis Colts lost one of their top assistants from head coach Frank Reich’s staff, and the fit here is really why Sirianni skipped to the front of the line of candidates despite being among the least-recognized names among the new hires.
ESPN NFL insider Field Yates can personally vouch for Sirianni, and his assessment of the 39-year-old coach matches up with his reputed work ethic and energetic, impassioned leadership style:
Sirianni obviously conferred with Reich before making the leap to Philly, because the latter served as the team’s offensive play-caller for two seasons, including when the Eagles won Super Bowl LII 41-33 against New England. For much of that magical year, Carson Wentz was the quarterback and played at an MVP level.
It’s been widely reported how Wentz’s confidence tanked in 2020, how he ignored coaching from Doug Pederson and eventually got benched for rookie second-round pick Jalen Hurts.
The Eagles are in cap hell right now, projected to be more than $58 million in the red for the 2021 campaign as the roster currently stands. Wentz is a big part of the mess, and Philadelphia would have to pull a personnel miracle seldom seen in NFL history to move off him before next season without incurring steep costs.
All this points to Sirianni being the catalyzing force to revitalize Wentz’s career — or at least that’s the hope. It seems like the front office and ownership are enamored of Wentz. There’s no question the signal-caller has the talent, and perhaps the Eagles are wise not to bail on him after one down year, and instead, chose to bring in a coach in Sirianni who must have a strong belief in his future.
For all the turmoil and power struggle that’s engulfed the Eagles at basically every level of the organization of late, it appears they’re moving forward with a united front. The danger here is, it’s becoming an echo chamber within the organization, and while Sirianni doesn’t seem like someone who’ll be pushed around by upper management, this has the makings of blowing up in Philly’s face.