Almost one-fourth of the NFL’s 32 teams are searching for their next head coach, with some of those also searching for general managers.
In my experience throughout my three-plus decades in the league, teams searching for both a general manager and head coach are likely to first hire the person who will have final say on draft decisions. But no matter who has the final say, the best GM-HC tandems work collaboratively to build a roster. During my time as general manager for Washington and Houston, I always felt it was my job to bring in players who fit the coach’s system. Our organization never took a high draft pick, made a trade or carried out a major free-agent addition without the head coach signing off on it. Some of the teams listed below must figure out the decision-making hierarchy, and some already have.
I, for one, am not here to make those decisions. Instead, I took a look at the remaining head-coaching vacancies and listed pros and cons for each opening. Now, let’s get to it.
NOTE: All salary cap information comes from https://overthecap.com/salary-cap-space/” target=”_blank” >Over the Cap and is current as of the time of posting.
2021 first-round draft pick: No. 4 overall
Projected cap situation in 2021: $24.4 million over
Pros: The organization has had success under owner Arthur Blank and president Rich McKay, and the feeling is this team should have won more games in both 2019 and 2020 with the rosters that were in place. From an offensive standpoint, the Falcons have a veteran quarterback in Matt Ryan who can still be effective — and whose contract makes it tough for the team to move on from him, but more on that in a minute — along with an emerging star receiver in Calvin Ridley and an adequate tight end in Hayden Hurst (who, as a 2018 first-round pick, could be retained until 2022 via the fifth-year option). Seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones is still a good receiver, but injuries and his cap number may make some candidates think about moving on from him to allow the team to address other areas. Speaking of …
Cons: Atlanta’s lack of salary cap space heading into the offseason could limit the new regime, as the Falcons project to be $24.4 million over the cap, with only 31 players (of 53) under contract in 2021. The contracts of Ryan (who will count for $40.9 million against the cap, with a dead-money figure of $49.9 million) and Jones (who will count for $23.1 million against the cap, with a dead-money figure of $38.6 million) along with a highly paid offensive line that has performed at a very average level, could put them in a bind when it comes to filling other voids in the offense (they need a No. 1 RB, with Todd Gurley being a free agent) and defense (they need to improve the pass rush from both defensive end positions in addition to adding more size in general along the line to stop the run).
2021 first-round draft pick: No. 7 overall
Projected cap situation in 2021: $11.7 million under
Pros: The Lions have generally been viewed by candidates as a good organization to work for, and with a low bar to clear on the winning scale (the Lions have not won a playoff game since the 1991 season), there is room for major improvement here. The offense has a strong chance to be pretty good, with a solid offensive line led by Pro Bowl-center Frank Ragnow and tackle Taylor Decker, a play-making tight end in T.J. Hockenson and a running back in D’Andre Swift with big-play ability. Then there’s quarterback Matthew Stafford, a top talent at one of the game’s most important positions, who has two years remaining on his current contract. The next regime might be inclined to move on from the 32-year-old, but if he’s willing to commit to the rebuilding effort, he could help prompt a quick turnaround. If I was coming in to lead this team, I would want Stafford back on the roster.
Cons: While there’s reason to be optimistic about the offense, all four of Detroit’s top wideouts — Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola and Mohamed Sanu — are free agents. The Lions, who own the seventh overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, have a real opportunity to bring in weapons for Stafford by retaining Golladay and bringing in a true No. 1, either in free agency or the draft. The defense is another story. Ranking dead last in scoring and overall defense in 2020, Matt Patricia’s unit was slow and old, lacking playmakers at every level. The few assets they do have are pass rusher Romeo Okwara, an unrestricted free agent worth re-signing, and first-round pick and cornerback Jeff Okudah, who has potential in this league but struggled as a rookie. Simply put, the Lions need a complete rebuild on defense, and it could be extremely hard to pull off with limited draft capital.
2021 first-round draft pick: none
Projected cap situation in 2021: $17.9 million over
Pros: Deshaun Watson. As one of the league’s premier quarterbacks and an excellent leader, he alone makes this job attractive. However …
Cons: The most alarming concern is the apparent internal turmoil involving management and Watson. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported the star quarterback was “extremely unhappy” with the hiring of GM Nick Caserio. Per Rapoport, Watson was told he’d be involved in the hiring process for the team’s new GM and head coach, but then he wasn’t consulted about Caserio’s hiring. There have been reports about Watson potentially asking for a trade; making him happy must be a priority. Other concerns involve a tricky cap situation that will force the Texans to lose some veteran players, a lack of early-round draft picks (they don’t have a first- or second-round pick in 2021) and key personnel decisions. This team is going to have to be creative when finding ways to add players this offseason.
There are a number of defensive players who are highly paid, which adds to the team’s cap dilemma. J.J. Watt will carry a cap number of $17.5 million (with zero in dead money), and though he’s still a good player and the best defensive lineman on the team, the 31-year-old is not the perennial Defensive Player of the Year he once was. Whitney Mercilus didn’t produce the kinds of numbers (four sacks, 21 tackles) his contract (with a $12 million cap figure in 2021) suggests, while linebackers Benardrick McKinney (carrying a cap figure of $8.5 million) and Zach Cunningham (who has a 2021 cap figure of $11.4 million) are also highly paid. The team’s highest-paid cornerback, Bradley Roby (he’s receiving $10.5 million per year, with a 2021 cap figure of $10.3 million), has been inconsistent on the field and must finish serving his six-game suspension before getting back on the field in Week 2 next season.
There are also a lot of needs on offense. Houston must locate a No. 1 running back, improve the production of the offensive line, get more from the tight end position and — most importantly — re-sign deep threat Will Fuller, who’s also serving a six-game suspension that will force him to miss Week 1 next season. This almost feels like a requirement in order to mend fences with Watson. It may be tough to keep both Brandin Cooks ($12 million cap figure, with zero in dead money) and Fuller on the roster if the latter is given a big extension.
2021 first-round draft picks: No. 1 overall, plus another TBD first-rounder via Rams
Projected cap situation in 2021: $73.2 million under
Pros: There’s a lot to like about this vacancy. There’s plenty of room for improvement with an organization that’s posted just one winning season over the last 10 years (2017), and the organization has a history of being patient with its head coaches. Perhaps the biggest positives are the team’s draft capital (Jacksonville currently owns five picks within the first 65 draft slots in 2021, including the No. 1 overall selection, which allows the franchise to choose its quarterback of the future from a deep QB class) and the fact they have the most cap room in the NFL. The luxury of being able to truly build a roster with whoever you want in free agency and the draft is very enticing.
Cons: With the freedom to make a lot of roster moves comes a roster with a lot of issues. The offense has a good base to start, with a solid O-line, a good receiver in D.J. Chark and running back James Robinson. What the unit needs is a quarterback, a change-of-pace running back, a true No. 1 wide receiver and a No. 1 tight end. Plus, there’s more work to be done on defense. Stopping the run game has been an issue all season long, so bringing in tackles or ends who can help with that must be a priority, along with developing DaVon Hamilton and former first-rounder Taven Bryan. There is one building block along the defensive line for sure in 2019 Pro Bowler Josh Allen, and 2020 first-rounder K’Lavon Chaisson has a chance to help the pass rush, depending on which position he plays (LB or DE). Though they look set at linebacker with Myles Jack and Joe Schobert, the Jags need more help in the secondary to play alongside promising rookie cornerback C.J. Henderson.
2021 first-round draft pick: No. 13 overall
Projected cap situation in 2021: $29.1 million under
Pros: The Chargers have a well-respected general manager (Tom Telesco) in place, along with a patient owner (Dean Spanos), and most people view this as the opening with the most talented roster. Since 2019, the Chargers have played in 23 one-possession games (the most in the NFL), while losing 16 such games. The roster boasts talent on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Justin Herbert, who exceeded expectations in Year 1 and made a convincing Offensive Rookie of the Year case. He has the potential to be the franchise QB for years to come, and he’s surrounded by a group of skill position players that include receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams and running back Austin Ekeler.
On defense, the Bolts are led by a stout defensive line that features Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa, Uchenna Nwosu, Jerry Tillery and Linval Joseph, who may have one more good year left in him. Rookie Kenneth Murray showed promise in a steady linebacker group, while the secondary boasts several stars, including Derwin James and Nasir Adderley.
Cons: Decisions must be made about free agents Melvin Ingram (edge) and Hunter Henry (tight end), who’ve been staples at their positions for quite some time. But the single biggest issue for this team, roster-wise, is the offensive line, as it has been for several years. Last offseason, the Chargers brought in veterans Bryan Bulaga and Trai Turner, but both players’ seasons were shortened by injury. Now, centers Mike Pouncey and Dan Feeney and former first-round pick guard Forrest Lamp, among others, will hit the free agency market. They must emphasize this position group to and protect their up-and-coming star quarterback.
2021 first-round draft picks: Nos. 2 and 23 (via Seahawks) overall
Projected cap situation in 2021: $70.7 under
Pros: The Jets have let go of several good players over the last two seasons — the most recent being All-Pro safety Jamal Adams, who was traded away to Seattle in July — but they are in position to rebuild after accruing plenty of draft capital, including six selections in the top 98 picks of April’s draft. With a plethora of early and mid-round picks and what is projected to be the third-most cap space in the NFL, GM Joe Douglas and the Jets look poised to make a splash this offseason. Priority No. 1 is the quarterback position, and they have options. They could decide to stay with 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold, who many coaches around the league feel could be the next Ryan Tannehill. Give him a running game and an offensive line and put him in a system that uses bootlegs and play-action, and Darnold’s career could be revived. They could also decide to move on from Darnold and start anew in free agency or the draft.
Cons: Other than the options at the quarterback position, there aren’t a ton of positives on offense. 2020 first-rounder Mekhi Becton is an excellent tackle, but the rest of the O-line is average, and they need No. 1s at the wide receiver, running back and tight end positions. At this point, Denzel Mims seems to be a No. 2 receiver, and Jamison Crowder provides a playmaker in the slot when healthy. Defensively, lineman Quinnen Williams and linebacker C.J. Mosley (who opted out in 2020) are good building blocks, but that’s where it drops off. (Safety Marcus Maye, who posted two picks and a team-high 11 passes defensed, is headed for free agency.) The Jets need to bring in two edge rushers, two cornerbacks and get help at linebacker, whether they decide to run a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. There’s plenty of work to be done.
2021 first-round draft pick: No. 6 overall
Projected cap situation in 2021: $51.7 million over
Pros: There is a proven commitment to win in Philadelphia, with the Eagles having been to the playoffs and multiple Super Bowls (winning one just three seasons ago) under owner Jeffrey Lurie. Bringing in an entire new staff will give this organization a fresh start, but the new coach shouldn’t expect to have the luxury of slowly rebuilding. The Eagles and their passionate fan base expect excellence, and the decision-making process will begin almost immediately, with the quarterback position in flux. Can Carson Wentz, the 2016 No. 2 overall pick who signed a contract extension in 2019, be fixed and return to his MVP form after being benched for rookie Jalen Hurts? What is Hurts’ ceiling? Making a decision about the team’s most important position will be one of the biggest moves the new coach makes during his tenure (no matter how short or long that may be), which should both challenge and excite.
Another enticing aspect of the Eagles’ opening is their draft capital. They currently have seven draft picks, including the No. 6 overall choice, and could earn several more compensatory picks. This should be encouraging for a team that has plenty of holes to fill.
Cons: The QB situation could turn south if Wentz can’t figure things out and Hurts isn’t well-rounded enough to win. Then you’re left with a bad cap situation and without a winning starting QB. Other than the QB position, this roster needs a lot of work. With room to improve in the secondary, at linebacker and at receiver, the biggest area for concern is along a once-dominant offensive line, where there are more questions than answers following an injury-riddled campaign. The unit will get guard Brandon Brooks, who missed 2020 after tearing his Achilles in June, back, and hopefully a healthy Lane Johnson, currently the league’s highest-paid right tackle, whose 2020 campaign season ended after seven games. Jason Kelce is under contract through 2024, but there’s always a chance he steps away during the offseason (a decision Kelce’s mulled over the last few years). If he does, guard Isaac Seumalo will move to center, leaving a hole at left guard. Andre Dillard, a 2019 first-round pick who’s made just four starts in two seasons after missing the entire 2020 season with a biceps injury, is still a question mark until we see him return to game action.
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