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Ranking first-year NFL head coaches in the best position to succeed

The NFL has five new head coaches for the 2023 season. Which one is in the best position to succeed, and which is positioned for failure in their first year at the helm?

With franchises in Arizona, Carolina, Denver, Houston, and Indianapolis all changing coaches this offseason, each leader will be faced with unique challenges as they look to prove themselves with their new teams. But let’s be honest, some coaches landed in a softer landing spot than others, and two of these first-year leaders have already been hired as a head coach in the past, with Sean Payton winning a Super Bowl and Frank Reich doing the same, albeit as an assistant.

But two others, in Jonathan Gannon and Shane Steichen, are coming off a Super Bowl appearance, and DeMeco Ryans reached the NFL’s final stage in 2019 with San Francisco. So it’s not like any of the hired coaches haven’t experienced plenty of success, but their past arguably means nothing in their new digs until their results can be repeated.

Of the five, which head coach in their first season with their new team is poised for success, and who’s set for a bumpy ride in 2023?

Related: 2023 NFL power rankings: Jets, Steelers rise and Cardinals, Patriots fall after 2023 NFL Draft

Jonathan Gannon, Arizona Cardinals are in worst position to succeed

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As much as the local fanbase would love to believe otherwise, it’s no secret that the Cardinals aren’t exactly all-in on competing right away in 2023. In addition to positioning themselves to land the Houston Texans’ 2024 first-round pick after some savvy draft-day trades this past April, the Cardinals are set to have a total of 10 selections in next year’s player selection process.

This is just another indication that this isn’t a front office that is building for 2023. They’re planning to bounce back the following year with a much-improved roster.

The main reason why the Cardinals appear to be punting on the upcoming season is because they don’t have much of a choice. Franchise QB Kyler Murray tore his ACL late in the year, on December 12, 2022, which likely means he won’t be back to 100% until 12 months from then or Week 14 of this season. While it’s possible Murray returns a month or so earlier, even a return by Week 10 (November 12), doesn’t give the Cardinals much hope to have a strong season in Gannon’s first year as head coach.

In a way, that’s ok for a defensive specialist like Gannon, who now takes over a Cardinals defense that allowed the second-most points per game a season ago. Now he’ll have time to implement his scheme, identifying the right fits for his style of play before being under pressure to win in a competitive NFC West.

Related: 2024 NFL mock draft: Cardinals, Rams take Caleb Williams, Drake Maye

DeMeco Ryans, Houston Texans

NFL: Houston Texans Head Coach DeMeco Ryans Introductory Press Conference
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After finishing with three, four, and four wins each of the past three seasons, the Texans aren’t projected to suddenly catapult to the top of the AFC South, even if the division is there for the taking. While the Jacksonville Jaguars project to take the crown again, Indianapolis and Tennessee project to have inconsistent performances.

But with an inexperienced former Texans legend taking over a defense that ranked 27th in points allowed, combined with a rookie QB getting the call under center, the Texans will have plenty of their own struggles. They don’t have their own first-round pick next season, so the pressure to win will be on in Houston, and having some easier opponents in the division may help, but they may be asking too much from C.J. Stroud to lead a quick turnaround.

Related: 4 NFL rookies with Pro Bowl potential in 2023, including one QB

Shane Steichen, Indianapolis Colts

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Everyone saw how effective Steichen’s offense can be when he’s given a highly-skilled, smart, athletic dual-threat QB to operate his scoring attack. Having two 1,000-yard receivers and plenty of capable running backs help too, but now the former Eagles offensive coordinator hopes to bring this high-powered offense to Lucas Oil Stadium.

But he won’t immediately have the same weapons at his disposal, nor will he have a top-ten defense when his offense does flutter to make up for his mistakes. Anthony Richardson has sky-high potential, but like Jalen Hurts, it doesn’t mean he’ll reach it right away, if at all.

Plus, Richardson will have to build chemistry and try and identify another reliable receiver opposite Michael Pittman Jr. Between Alec Pierce and Josh Downs, the Colts may already have that weapon on the roster.

But this team didn’t stumble out of the blocks with just four wins by having a poor offense. They also had the 28th-ranked defense a year ago and spent just one of their top four picks on the defensive side of the ball. With Steichen focusing on the offense, how will the defense magically improve too?

Related: Why the Anthony Richardson pick might be a turning point for the Indianapolis Colts

Sean Payton, Denver Broncos

NFL: Super Bowl LVII-Kansas City Chiefs vs Philadelphia Eagles
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When the Broncos traded for Russell Wilson, they were immediately touted as Super Bowl contenders. We didn’t see that come to fruition last season, as Nathaniel Hackett’s coaching tenure got off to a terrible start, and the Broncos finished with the NFL’s worst-scoring offense.

But now they have a coach who’s excelled at the highest level before, even with another QB with a shorter stature in Drew Brees. Coach Payton led the Saints to the postseason in nine-of-15 seasons at the helm. But each of those seasons came with Brees quarterbacking the team.

The hope is, with Payton’s help, the Broncos can get the most out of Wilson’s ability who is now heading into his age-35 season. We’re optimistic about this offense, but the Broncos are still in a tough division with two other teams who reached the playoffs a season ago in the Chargers, and of course, the NFL’s defending Super Bowl champions in the Chiefs. The Raiders don’t have any plans of ‘tanking’ any time soon either, so the Broncos will have their hands full trying to rebound in 2023.

Related: Who is the highest-paid NFL coach? (Today and All-Time)

Frank Reich, Carolina Panthers are in best position to succeed

NFL: Combine
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While it would be easy to pick the Broncos to thrive with their new yet experienced leadership led by coach Payton and another Super Bowl winner with Wilson at QB. Instead, we’re taking the Panthers, who have a much better chance of winning their division in a weaker NFC South.

Like Payton, Frank Reich has experience putting together a high-powered offense in more than just one location. Reich has coordinated a top-ten offense in both Philadelphia and Indianapolis, but now he gets to mold a No. 1 pick with the high IQ Bryce Young getting a chance to impress.

While the Panthers may have picked first in April, this was a team that still had seven wins a season ago, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense. If Miles Sanders and Chuba Hubbard can help the Panthers pick up where they left off, with the 10th-ranked rushing attack while taking strides in other areas of the roster, we don’t see why the Panthers can’t either maintain their record from a season ago, or possibly even take a leap forward in 2023.

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