NFL Rookies Best (and Worst) Set up for Early Success

So every year guys get drafted by teams that just put them in the perfect situation, whether that be the scheme fit or having the right supporting cast around them. A lot of times success and failure in the NFL is based on just being in the best situation. So with that, let’s take a look at some rookies that are in the best and worst position to succeed.

Best: Sony Michel-RB-New England Patriots

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This one’s not quite so obvious, but hear me out. Yes, Michel is in a VERY crowded backfield in New England and he’s going to be in an offense that prefers to throw the ball (who could blame them with the GOAT slinging it). However it’s a very similar situation to what he had at Georgia and look how that turned out. Michel shared a backfield first with Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb, then with Chubb and D’Andre Swift. Nowadays he’s going to be sharing with James White (pass catcher), Rex Burkhead (wildcard), and either Jeremy Hill or Mike Gillislee (power back) and replacing Dion Lewis as the de facto all-around guy. One of Michel’s main issues coming out of college was stamina and when you’re splitting carries, it allows you to remain fresh throughout the game. Michel will basically be doing the exact same thing in New England that he was at Georgia only this time the roles are more defined and there will likely be a specific gameplan geared towards his skills. I think that bodes well for his future NFL success. He may never reach 1000 rushing yards in a season, but his yards per carry is probably going to be nuts.

Worst: Sam Darnold-QB-New York Jets

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Darnold is probably the safest quarterback in this year’s class. There’s very little that he does poorly, or at least there are far fewer red flags than what you get from the other quarterbacks. However there was one major flaw at USC that had me a little concerned about team fits and that was the fact that his play dropped significantly when the talent around him wasn’t as good. He was awesome his redshirt freshman season when he was throwing to guys like Juju Smith-Schuster, however when Juju was drafted by the Steelers and Darnold’s entire offensive line went pro as well, he struggled mightily. While from a talent standpoint, the Jets are obviously better than USC, they are one of the least talented offenses on paper. Robbie Anderson is the #1 receiver and while he had a pretty solid season last year, that was more out of necessity than anything. The offensive line of the Jets isn’t great either and unless the front office somehow manages to swing a deal for some talent before Darnold gets the starting job (whether that be this year or next), he could be in for a world of hurt, no matter how good he is.

Best: Saquon Barkley-RB-New York Giants

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Barkley doesn’t really need help to be great but he’s going to get it anyway. Not only is he the most talented runningback to come out of college maybe ever, but he’s going into a situation that will be really beneficial for him. Now yes, the Giants sucked last season, but injuries and offensive line woes played a big part of that. Well ODell Beckham Jr is coming back healthy and the Giants signed Nate Solder at left tackle and drafted Will Hernandez out of UTEP to play guard. Plus, if they should decide to move Ereck Flowers to guard, that could wind up being beneficial for his career. So having Beckham back to take pressure off of him and an improved offensive line should set up Barkley nicely for early career success.

Worst: Denzel Ward-CB-Cleveland Browns

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Ward is a really good corner but given the Browns’ lack of options at the position, he may draw #1 receiver duties from Day 1. Now granted, it worked for Marshon Lattimore with the Saints last year, but I felt like Lattimore was a more complete player than Ward was. Ward struggled with the bigger receivers and there are plenty of them in the AFC North like AJ Green, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Michael Crabtree. Plus there’s also the smaller but even more dangerous Antonio Brown to contend with. Lattimore didn’t have an ideal group of guys to cover either like Julio Jones and Mike Evans, but again, he was more polished than Ward is and Lattimore also didn’t have to draw #1 receiver duties out of the gate. And even if he did, he had better safeties available to bail him out should he need them. I’m not saying Ward isn’t up to the challenge because if any cornerback in this year’s rookie class is it’s him, but his situation isn’t ideal by any stretch.

Best: Rashaan Evans-LB-Tennessee Titans

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Evans was a leader on Alabama’s National Championship-winning defense and it looks like he’s going to be thrust into the limelight in Tennessee as well, as he immediately becomes the best member of the Titans’ needle-thin linebacking corp. The offensive lines he’ll be going up against in the AFC South are mediocre and the only really potentially deadly runningback he’ll have to face at this point is Leonard Fournette. He’s also got an excellent coach of linebackers in Mike Vrabel as his head coach so he’s going to get even further mentoring. He’s in prime position for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Worst: Rashaad Penny-RB-Seattle Seahawks

<> on December 23, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Penny was a reach by Seattle, however given that he was likely going to be gone the next time they picked (late 3rd round), I can understand why they went that route if they were so high on him. Penny’s a good back, don’t get me wrong, and he fits the bruising style of running back the Seahawks like to employ. However the Seahawks have once again hardly touched that god-awful offensive line this offseason so they’re just setting Penny up for failure. Duane Brown at left tackle is the only competent guy on that offensive line and he’s going to be 33 when the season starts. He’s basically going to be running for his life out there. Plus aside from Doug Baldwin, there aren’t any receivers of note to take the pressure off the running game. Again, Penny does have the power to bulldoze over guys, but he’s going to get stuffed behind the line more often than not and I’ve got a feeling his yards per carry numbers are going to be pretty ugly.

So those are just a few guys that have some interesting situations brought about with them. I stuck with just first rounders given that the expectations for them are so much higher than the others. Let me know what you think of these conundrums in the comments section below or on Facebook or Twitter @jimwyman10.

A Look at the NFL Head Coaching Hires

With Arizona’s hiring of Steve Wilks and Indy’s and Detroit’s inevitable hirings of Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, it appears that all head coaching vacancies have been filled. Let’s take a look at how each team did with their new head man.

Arizona Cardinals Hire Former Carolina Panthers’ DC Steve Wilks

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Wilks is probably the least experienced coach in the group as far as major responsibilities go. 2017 was his first year as a defensive coordinator in the NFL and only the second time he’s ever held such a title, when he was DC at East Tennessee State in 2002. Wilks spent one year as a head coach at the college level at Savannah State in 1999 before moving to Illinois State as defensive backs coach. He’s been an NFL coach since 2005, primarily as a defensive backs coach. He had spent the last 5-6 years in the Panthers organization, where he helped create guys such as Josh Norman into what they are today. His best work has easily come as a member of the Panthers, particularly in the last couple of seasons. Carolina’s secondary had been about as weak a defensive unit as there is in football but always got masked by a great front seven. Last year, Carolina boasted the 7th best defense in the NFL in total yards and helped lead the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. He joins an Arizona team that has talent but has to reload after the retirements of both former head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer. I don’t think it’d be fair to expect a ton out of Wilks and the Cardinals in his first year, as that offense is going to need to undergo a lot of changes, however I do think Arizona will continue to field a strong defense.

Indianapolis Colts Are Going to Hire New England Patriots’ OC Josh McDaniels

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Josh McDaniels is arguably the best offensive coordinator in the NFL, as the Patriots are consistently at the top of the NFL in terms of points and yardage year-in and year-out. He does have head coaching experience with the Denver Broncos, however after starting his career 6-0, he crashed and burned horribly. What I think went wrong was McDaniels tried to be Belichick with his new team before he had earned that right in his players’ eyes. He traded their quarterback and top wide receiver (Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall) before even coaching a game, which probably should’ve been the first sign of things to come. I think McDaniels will have learned a lot from his failures in Denver, however, and I expect his tenure with the Colts to go much better. He has still yet to be announced as their head coach but all signs point to McDaniels becoming the head man after the Super Bowl. The Colts offensively won’t become the Patriots overnight, but I think if they can boast just an average offensive line, then I think they could be deadly if McDaniels is able to transition his system over from New England to Indy.

Detroit Lions Are Going to Hire New England Patriots’ DC Matt Patricia

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Same situation with Patricia as McDaniels, as he hasn’t been announced as the head coach yet since he’ll be coaching in the Super Bowl, however it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that he’s getting the Lions job. There’s a lot of talent on the Lions that went unrealized under previous head coach Jim Caldwell however they could never get over the hump. It is unknown how Patricia will do as a head coach because he’s never been a head coach at any level before. He’s been the Patriots’ DC since 2012 and before that served as an offensive assistant, O-line, linebackers, and safeties coach. Patricia’s defenses in New England have been the personification of bend-but-don’t-break, as they’re routinely near the bottom in yards allowed but near the top in points allowed. Patricia is notoriously well-liked by his players and it will be interesting to see how he gels with the Lions. I really don’t know what to expect out of the Lions under Patricia just because there’s nothing to go off of since he’s never been a head coach before. I think the Lions will fall somewhere between the 6-9 wins range next season.

New York Giants Hire Former Minnesota Vikings’ OC Pat Shurmur

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Pat Shurmur has been in coaching since 1988 when he was a grad assistant at his alma mater at Michigan State. He’s been in the NFL since 1999 with the Eagles’ staff and has had one stint as a head coach and another as interim head coach. He led the Browns in 2011 and 2012 and posted a 9-23 record. He was also the Eagles’ interim head coach after they fired Chip Kelly in 2015 and won his only game at that position before the Eagles hired current head coach Doug Pederson. Shurmur has spent the last two seasons with the Vikings. In 2016 he was the tight ends coach before becoming interim offensive coordinator, then keeping the job on a full-time basis for 2017. In 2017, the Vikings were able to find a lot of success on offense despite the injuries to key offensive players. Stud rookie Dalvin Cook tore his ACL in Week 4 and Sam Bradford suffered a leg injury that effectively ended his season. But I think the biggest thing that got Shurmur the Giants’ gig is the rise of Case Keenum under his watch. When a journeyman quarterback leads his team to an NFC Championship game while posting the numbers that Keenum did, the OC is going to get some looks. I think this could wind up being a sneaky good hire. There’s lots of talent on the Giants, who simply underperformed in 2017 and if Shurmur can get the most out of a guy like Keenum, doing the same for Giants players will be a breeze. I think there will be a hefty win improvement in 2018. The intriguing thing for me is going to be what he decides to do with the #2 pick in the Draft. Do the Giants take Eli’s heir or do they take a playmaker like Saquon Barkley? We’ll have to wait and see.

Tennessee Titans Hire Former Houston Texans’ DC Mike Vrabel

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Like Matt Patricia, Mike Vrabel is also getting his very first head coaching gig at any level. Vrabel was a stud linebacker with the Patriots during their initial dynasty in the early 2000’s, as he was a major part of the team that won 3 super Bowls in a 4-year stretch from 2001-2004. He has since served as linebackers and defensive line coach at his alma mater Ohio State from 2011-2013 before joining Bill O’Brien on the Houston Texans’ staff in 2014 as linebackers’ coach. When Hard Knocks focused on the Texans in 2015, we got a chance to see Vrabel’s coaching style firsthand and man, is he tough. He’ll get in your face and yell and call your mother a bitch but you also get the sense that he really cares about his guys. In 2017, he was promoted to defensive coordinator and the Texans ranked 20th in yards allowed and last in points, however a large part of that was all the injuries to key players the team had to deal with. But Vrabel’s personality is the type of thing I think the Titans need. At times they seemed a little relaxed and I think a good kick in the pants could be what takes them from an inconsistent and mediocre team to one that contends for division titles every year. I’m not so sure the Titans will make the playoffs next year like they did this year, though, especially with the rise of the Jaguars and a healthy Texans team. But again, we don’t know what to expect with a true rookie head coach in Vrabel and how his players might respond to his coaching style.

Oakland Raiders Hire Monday Night Football Broadcaster Jon Gruden

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This is easily the highest-profile coaching hire of the offseason. Jon Gruden was a pretty well-decorated coach with the Raiders from 1998-2001, then with the Buccaneers from 2002-2008, including a Super Bowl XXXVII victory with Tampa over the same Raiders team that had fired him the year before. He also holds the distinction of being the winningest coach in Buccaneers’ history and was inducted into their Ring of Honor this past season. Since being fired from the Buccaneers in 2008, however, Gruden has been the color commentator for ESPN’s Monday Night Football, where his antics had become endearing to many fans. He now rejoins a Raiders team that really regressed last season but there are a lot of talented pieces in place. The AFC West appears to be wide open next season as both the Chiefs and Chargers, who finished ahead of Oakland, were wildly inconsistent while the Broncos struggled mightily. I think Gruden gets the Raiders back in the thick of things, though we may see some early-season rust.

Chicago Bears Hire Former Kansas City Chiefs’ OC Matt Nagy

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Matt Nagy was the first coach hired this offseason, as he was introduced as Bears’ head coach one week to the day that John Fox was fired. He may have the smoothest transition out of any of these coaches as he has a quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky that has a very similar skillset to his previous quarterback, Alex Smith, and an excellent runningback in Jordan Howard. Nagy is only 39 years old and had been playing football professionally as recently as 2008 with the Columbus Destroyers of the Arena Football League. Nagy has been a coach since 2010 as a coach’s assistant with the Eagles and was an offensive quality control coach there until 2012. He had been with the Chiefs since 2013, where he served as quarterbacks coach until 2015 when he was promoted to offensive coordinator, a position he had held up until his hiring with the Bears. Under Nagy, the Chiefs experienced a lot of success on offense through ball control and ball security, as they were #1 in turnover differential in 2016 and #2 in 2017. We’ll have to see if the transition is as seamless as I think it has the potential to be, considering the similarities I find between Trubisky and Smith, because if it is, then I think the Bears could be dark horses in 2018, perhaps becoming next year’s version of the Rams. Young head coach, young quarterback, complete overhaul in offensive philosophy. It worked in LA, can it work in Chicago?

That’s going to do it for my thoughts on the NFL head coaching hires. Let me know what you think of these hires in the comments section below or on Facebook or Twitter @jimwyman10 and contribute to my Patreon.