Just over two weeks ago I dropped a column highlighting my Top 10 “available” coaching candidates that NFL franchises should approach and go after, and here we are now with 6 of 8 vacancies now “officially” filled, coaching staffs coming into shape and we can begin to pass judgment on the hires. Only the Miami Dolphins & Cincinatti Bengals haven’t officially named their next head coach, but only because their candidates respective team’s are still playing on conference championship weekend, but we have a good indication of who their next head coach will be and I’ll offer my thoughts here as well.
Matt LaFleur: Green Bay Packers – A-
This was one of the guys I had tabbed in my top ten candidates column and I nailed this match in my prediction. LaFleur is the guy everyone had in mind throughout the league as the next Sean McVay type, at 39-years-old with an extensive background working with QB’s, the marriage here with Aaron Rodgers just made the most sense. Before joining the Titans as OC under Mike Vrabel last season, he was the Rams OC in ’17 and the Falcons QB coach under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta. He impressed in head coaching interviews last year and nailed his interview with the Packers.
LaFleur is just the type of guy the Packers needed to get back to winning. They have a young and new GM who will have to shape the roster and personnel and move on from some of the older and overpaid names, but the familiarity in bringing back veteran defensive coordinator Mike Pettine certainly helps LaFleur with the transition knowing he has someone who knows the remaining personnel on defense and whom he can trust to run that side of the ball. I would rank this as the second best hire of the cycle and best possible fit in particular for the Packers.
Bruce Arians: Tampa Bay Buccaneers – B+
Good on Jason Licht to court Arians out of retirement and onto his sideline to lead his franchise for the foreseeable future. I didn’t even have Arians on my list because I thought the rumors were all smoke, but clearly the 67-year-old still had the desire to coach and has landed is a good spot with some familiarity and trust with his front office. He’s a no-nonsense head coach who turned the Cardinals around and has had years of experience in big spots as a coordinator. This is Jameis Winston‘s chance to prove he can make it in this league. Bruce will mentor and work with him this season, but if he fails once more next year, Arians and Licht will quickly move on especially with a dynamic outside receiver like Mike Evans in his prime.
Another under the radar move here by the Bucs was to quickly scoop up former Jets HC Todd Bowles to serve as their defensive coordinator. The familiarity with Arians here is the reason behind bringing in such a well-renowned defensive mind and he will have plenty of great talent to work with on that side of the ball with the likes of Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul and so on. The Bucs have finished in last place 7 of the last 8 years and hiring Bruce Arians to replace the likes of Dirk Koetter represents a massive upgrade.
Kliff Kingsbury: Arizona Cardinals – B
Many were quick to pass judgement negatively on this hire for the Cardinals here going with the young 39-year-old hot shot in Kingsbury, but I am a fan of the move and also predicted this match in my preview column. The Cardinals just blew out Steve Wilks, a defensive-minded coach, after one year with a young franchise QB in Josh Rosen. They have the talent on defense to compete right away if they get the offense right and have a solid coordinator running things. They have already scooped up Vance Joseph reportedly and the former Broncos HC makes perfect sense as he has the pedigree and experience to get the most out of the likes of Chander Jones & Patrick Peterson.
The Cardinals were looking for the next young bright offensive minded head coach, especially considering they have two in their division that they have to play twice a year. They need someone who can match wits with those two and points, in comes Kingsbury to work with and mold Rosen. Sure Kliff was 35-40 at Texas Tech, but that offense was incredible and you can’t blame all the losses on him with the crazy offensive shootouts the Big 12 is known for. USC quickly scooped him up and teams were quick to interview him. He’s got NFL head coach written all over him and I am a huge fan of this hire.
Vic Fangio: Denver Broncos – B
Fangio has an extensive background as a coach and is the only one officially hired this cycle with a defensive-minded background. Considering the personnel of the Broncos and what he has done in recent years turning around the Bears defense into the best in the league and his work with San Francisco under Jim Harbaugh, this coaching hire seems like a perfect fit under John Elway. He has elite talent on defense with the likes of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb and will quickly get the Denver defense playing at an elite level and bringing in a defensive-minded head coach allowed for Gary Kubiak to come back to the sidelines and run the offense. That was until Kubiak and the front office had a disagreement and they were forced to go with Steelers OL coach Mike Munchak to run their offensive line and be their assistant head coach. Their offensive coordinator will be Rich Scangarello from the 49ers.
The former Titans HC has the experience and leadership pedigree to be a great fit in Denver with Fangio and just run the offense and make the most out of a unit with game-manager Case Keenum under center along with Scangarello. The Broncos will go back to playing great defense and controlling the game on offense and everyone will fear going into Mile High and playing in that place on the road.
Adam Gase: New York Jets – A
The best hire of this cycle, period (despite the crazy eyes at that introductory press conference). I’m a huge fan of Gase and I brought the grade up to an A when you pair with it who they just brought in to be their defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams. Look what Williams just did with a young defense in Cleveland and now he will have the same chance to do the same with the Jets led by Jamal Adams and a team that has draft and salary capital to further bolster that side of the ball. Gase and the Jets have also secured Brant Boyer as the special teams coach, well-known as one of the league’s best.
Back to Gase, this hire is all about Sam Darnold. Gase is a brilliant offensive mind who has an extensive history of getting the most out of his Quarterbacks. He will refine the second-year QB’s game and take him to the next level. He learned a lot during his tenure in Miami and won’t even have to leave the division. Sure it’s a re-tread, but it’s for the better as the last time the Jets hired a coach with previous experience running the show, it was Bill Parcells. Gase will make that offense click and this could open the door for the Jets to take over the AFC East once the sad day finally comes where Tom Brady hangs ’em up.
Cleveland Browns: Freddie Kitchens – C-
Lazy hire. I don’t like the move to promote an interim offensive coordinator whose success was largely due to just getting Hue Jackson out of the building and letting Baker Mayfield do his thing. Sure the connection between the young QB and his offensive coordinator played a big role in elevating him to the heading coaching job, but with this opening being so coveted with all the talent, draft and salary cap room for John Dorsey, why go small and promote your interim coordinator to head coach?
Steve Wilks, just fired by Arizona, will be the Browns defensive coordinator, and while I like the move on it’s own merit with an offensive-minded head coach, the Browns could’ve done so much better than Kitchens. I don’t like the hire and the grade here reflects it. Give me Adam Gase or even Mike McCarthy for this job any day over an unknown in Kitchens. Better yet, go outside the box into the college coaching ranks and woo a Matt Campbell to come win in Cleveland. Kitchens probably doesn’t make it to year three.
Cincinnati Bengals: Zac Taylor: B-
While this hire hasn’t been officially announced, it’s been widely reported that the Rams QB coach will join Cincy as their next head coach replacing long-tenured Marvin Lewis. I like this move first because it’s something different for an organization that has often played it safe and rolled out the same average coaching staff year-in and year-out. The Bengals have some talent on defense, so the coordinator hire will be huge here, but a 35-year-old bright offensive mind from the Sean McVay coaching tree is outside the box and something the Bengals needed to pursue.
Taylor has a connection to the city after serving as the University of Cincinnati’s OC before joining the Rams. They have good talent on offense with AJ Green & Joe Mixon and he can get the most out of veteran Andy Dalton or decide he wants to draft and develop his next guy. Either way, I’m a fan of this move and it’s a direction the Bengals needed to go if they want to contend once more in the AFC North.
Miami Dolphins: Brian Flores – B
Miami is reportedly set to hire Patriots linebackers coach and defacto defensive coordinator Brian Flores once New England’s season comes to an end. Flores is well known as a leader of men and a brilliant young mind in the game, but I am surprised to see him land a job in the division just one season into “running the Patriots defense”. After Matt Patricia left for Detroit, it left Flores to assume that role, and he clearly impressed in the interview process to land the job in South Beach.
Miami has some great talent on the defensive side of the ball to work with, but the question of what to do with the offense remains. His offensive coordinator has not yet been announced as he’s still working through the playoffs, but firing Adam Gase who took this team to the playoffs in year one for a defensive minded-head coach with limited experience will raise some eyebrows. Jim Caldwell is expected to join his staff, which is good from the experience stand-point, but this kind of move still leaves more questions to be answered rather than getting closer to coming up with a solution.
There you have it. My grades for the eight newest NFL head coaches as their coaching staff’s begin to come together ahead of conference championship weekend.