The Brandt Report  

 

Lions, Texans, Buccaneers tops among teams changing coaches

Not all head-coaching jobs are created equal -- and the difference is often found in the to-do lists that greet new hires.

Is Task No. 1 to figure out how to get an underachieving group of good players to live up to their potential? Or is it to build a competitor from the ground up?

With that in mind, I took a closer look at each of the seven teams that will enter the 2014 season with a new coach, assessing the roster and overall health of each organization in an effort to suss out exactly what kind of challenge awaits the next man on the job. Here's what I found (teams are listed according to roster strength):

1) Detroit Lions

The next coach of the Lions will find top talent at the skill positions (namely Calvin Johnson at receiver, Matthew Stafford at quarterback and Reggie Bush at running back) plus a loaded defensive front (featuring Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah and Nick Fairley) headlining a roster capable of making the playoffs. "Capable," of course, is the key word, as even with all that talent, Detroit's season ended in a puzzling -- and near-epic -- meltdown. The main challenge here isn't accumulating players, but rather coaching up the cornerstone pieces already on hand. This is especially true with regard to Stafford, who seemed to become careless with his mechanics and coughed up too many interceptions.

The ownership is unobtrusive and wants to win, and the fans are passionate. Whoever takes the job will have to be a tough-minded individual who can get the most out of the underachievers on the team.

2) Houston Texans

New head coach Bill O'Brien was a very good hire. He's inheriting a team with solid talent on offense and defense -- and, like many of the teams on this list, serious questions at quarterback. I don't expect Matt Schaub to return, while Case Keenum does not seem to be the kind of signal-caller who fits what O'Brien wants to do. The ideal scenario for Houston, which currently has the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, would be to select a promising quarterback prospect, then add a serviceable veteran stop-gap who can keep the team competitive while the youngster develops. It's worth noting that O'Brien was offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots when they drafted backup Ryan Mallett in 2011.

Running back might be a concern, as veteran Arian Foster, 27, missed the end of the 2013 campaign with back problems. Again, though, the Texans have some serious pieces, between rising star DeAndre Hopkins, veteran Andre Johnson -- who stays in such great shape that he should be able to play longer than the typical receiver -- and defensive dynamo J.J. Watt. Houston won't necessarily match the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 and Kansas City Chiefs this season in going from two wins to 11. But depending on what O'Brien and the team decide to do at quarterback, the Texans could make the playoffs in 2014.

3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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The Buccaneers have a tough row to hoe, stuck as they are in a division with three well-quarterbacked opponents. Still, I have a ton of confidence in new coach Lovie Smith. Smith can build a great rapport with his players; he's easy-going, but he's also tough. This bodes well for Tampa Bay, as one of Smith's chief tasks will be to stabilize a talent-laden group that was nonetheless highly inconsistent in 2013. Roster-wise, Smith will have a number of assets, from Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin on offense to Mark Barron, Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy and Darrelle Revis on defense.

Quarterback Mike Glennon, of course, is one of the big question marks. Though Glennon threw 19 touchdown passes against just nine picks -- good numbers for a rookie -- the Bucs failed to score much with him at the helm, finishing 30th in the league in points per game (18.0). He's shown just enough to get you excited without proving that he can be the man. Thankfully for Tampa, Smith hired famed quarterback-developer Jeff Tedford as his offensive coordinator.

4) Cleveland Browns

The NFL's quarterback-driven nature surely isn't lost on the Browns, who struggled through yet another losing season despite having top-notch skill players and a solid defense. Josh Gordon was excellent. Jordan Cameron made the Pro Bowl -- and he's still learning the tight end position. Barkevious Mingo can develop into an outstanding pass rusher if he adds upper body strength.

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CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi are very good at what they do. With the right signal-caller and the right coach, Cleveland could potentially push for the AFC North title. If Brian Hoyer -- the backup who showed promise before going down for the season with a torn ACL -- can fully regain his health, the Browns could hang on to him and then perhaps roll the dice on Johnny Manziel in the draft. I was once lukewarm on Manziel's potential as a pro prospect, but after seeing him play this season, well, I think people should start calling him "Magic Man" -- because that's what he is. The Browns should have some cap space to go with a couple of extra draft choices, including a first-round selection acquired from the Colts in exchange for Trent Richardson. For what it's worth, the Browns passed on Ryan Tannehill, who's had a solid first two seasons quarterbacking the Miami Dolphins, to pick Richardson third overall in 2012.

5) Washington Redskins

The Redskins' ninth-ranked offense is in decent shape for new coach Jay Gruden. They have a starting quarterback with great upside in Robert Griffin III, a good backup in Kirk Cousins, a Pro Bowl left tackle in Trent Williams, a top-notch running back in Alfred Morris and an upper-tier receiver in Pierre Garcon (though he does have a tendency to drop some passes). Washington has some work to do on its 18th-ranked defense, however, like finding a replacement for London Fletcher.

The team is set to have cap space for the first time in years, though the Redskins will again be without a first-round pick, part of the price paid to draft RGIII in 2012. Was that move worth it? OK, so Griffin took them to the playoffs as a rookie. But if the Redskins had held on to the picks and rolled with Cousins, could they have gotten comparable production at quarterback -- with the added benefit of having a few more top players? Furthermore, will RGIII prove to be the true long-term answer at the position? A year ago, I'd have said yes -- now, though, I don't know. The new coach will have to do his best to instill some discipline in the quarterback, as Griffin seems to prefer the deep ball over high-percentage passes.

6) Tennessee Titans

The departure of Mike Munchak represents a big loss with respect to both his coaching abilities (he was a good one) and the impact on any sense of continuity. I think Munchak will be difficult to replace. Whoever does net the job, of course, will be depending on some key offensive pieces to step up -- not the least of whom is quarterback Jake Locker. He's one of those guys who has a history of looking really good running around throwing the ball, but he has yet to put it together. If Locker can come of age in 2014, he can do some things, especially with Kendall Wright to throw to. Running back Chris Johnson must have a big season, as well -- if, that is, he sticks around.

GM Ruston Webster has done a good job in the draft, and he knows what to look for in a coach. Of course, it doesn't help that the Titans are in an AFC South that figures to continue improving in 2014, with even the Jacksonville Jaguars likely to be better.

7) Minnesota Vikings

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Quarterback -- do we sense a theme here? -- is a big need, even though the Vikings ended the regular season with three signal-callers on the roster. Of that trio -- Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel -- Cassel is probably the best, though I'm not sure he can be a starter going forward. Minnesota does have some excellent skill players, like Cordarrelle Patterson and -- of course -- Adrian Peterson. Peterson might be getting older, but the running back still has a few good years left -- provided the Vikings can find a quarterback who can loosen up opposing defenses. Speaking of defense, Minnesota's aging unit slipped to 31st overall, giving up 20 or more points in 15 of 16 games this season.

That said, the Vikings do have a good GM in Rick Spielman and a new stadium on the way, which should give the franchise a shot in the arm -- and for which team executive Lester Bagley, who never gave up on the project over the years, should be commended.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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