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Impact of NFL head coaching changes on fantasy football

There are seven new head coaches in the NFL. How will they impact fantasy football in 2021?

The NFL’s head coaching carousel spun during the 2021 offseason, as seven teams appointed a new head coach. The number of new hires is up from last offseason, as five coaches landed new gigs in 2020.

All of this movement will certainly have an effect on fantasy football, so here’s what you can expect from the new faces in new places.

Arthur Smith – Atlanta Falcons

(Twitter // @sportaruce)

Previous position: Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator (2019-2020)

In each of his two seasons as offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, Arthur Smith’s group ranked top-3 in the NFL for rushing-play frequency. Last year, Tennessee was one of just three teams to run the ball on over 50% of its offensive plays (50.28%). This, of course, is largely due to having the human wrecking ball that is Derrick Henry in the backfield and the positive gamescript that comes with having a strong 11-5 record. Joining an Atlanta Falcons team that finished 4-12 in 2020, passed the ball the ninth-most in the league, and now has a backfield led by 28-year-old Mike Davis, the expectation is that Smith will have to defer to passing the ball much more in 2021.

One major change coming to the Falcons offense will be the deployment of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). Last season, Smith’s Titans tied for the the most frequent use of this personnel grouping with 35% of the squad’s offensive plays coming in this alignment, according to Sharp Football Stats. This is obviously good news for rookie Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst, who will both likely see the field a fair amount. In Tennessee last year, neither Jonnu Smith nor Anthony Firkser topped 500 receiving yards despite respectively ranking third and fourth on the team in targets. This is largely due to the Titans’ run-first approach and rushing-friendly gamescript. Smith will be forced to utilize the air attack much more with the Falcons, therefore, much better statistical seasons should be expected from Pitts and Hurst.

With more 12 personnel coming to Atlanta, the training camp battle for the No. 2 wide receiver spot will be very important to monitor. Because only two wide receivers see the field in this personnel grouping, whoever wins this battle will benefit from seeing the field more often. After the Julio Jones trade, Calvin Ridley is firmly entrenched into the ‘X’ receiver position, which leaves Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus and Tajae Sharpe to compete for duties opposite Ridley.

Dan Campbell – Detroit Lions

(@MySportsUpdate // Twitter)

Previous position: New Orleans Saints assistant head coach and tight ends coach (2016-2020)

Dan Campbell, more affectionately known as Motor City Dan Campbell (MCDC), is joining the Detroit Lions after being New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton’s top assistant since 2016. In addition to bringing Campbell aboard, the Lions also added former Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn to be the team’s new offensive coordinator. Lynn is the coach I suspect will have a bigger impact on the squad’s offense.

Lynn made it clear in his opening press conference that he wants Detroit to run the ball more in 2021 after rushing the fourth-least frequently of any team in the NFL in 2020. While the idea is noble, and not surprising from the former running back and running back coach, the Lions don’t profile to be in a lot of run-positive gamescripts. This is a team that’ll likely be playing from behind more often than not, which will make it difficult to really lean on the ground game. After a poor run with the Chargers that was marred by numerous mistakes, Lynn appears to be starting his Lions tenure off with one major one: He has implied that the recently acquired Jamaal Williams will be his ‘1A’ back, rather than the younger, more talented sophomore D’Andre Swift. One positive of having Lynn oversee the offense, however, is his affinity for getting running backs involved in the passing game. In each of his four seasons as head coach of the Chargers, his team ranked top-10 in percentage of targets to the position. Swift and Williams are both able pass-catchers, so they’ll both likely benefit from his system.

With Detroit likely having to claw its way back into games through the air, a lot of pressure will be put on new quarterback Jared Goff. After failing to meet expectations with the Los Angeles Rams, Goff will have to prove he has what it takes to be a starting QB with an extremely lacklustre group of wide receivers. Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman and Amon-Ra St. Brown headline his top wideouts for the upcoming campaign, which is a far-cry from the Robert Woods-Cooper Kupp duo he was accustomed to in Los Angeles. Given the lack of target competition and head coach Campbell’s background as a former tight end and tight end coach, T.J. Hockenson should be in store for a massive season. The Lions will likely deploy a lot of 11 personnel, as Lynn’s Chargers were just one of seven teams in the NFL during 2020 that used the personnel grouping on over 70% of its plays.

David Culley – Houston Texans

(Twitter // @AroundTheNFL)

Previous position: Baltimore Ravens assistant head coach, wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator (2019-2020)

On and off the field, there’s not a lot of positives surrounding the Houston Texans’ organization. The team is reeling after a horrible season that led to a 4-12 record, and its disgruntled superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson is embroiled in sexual harassment allegations. Newly hired head coach David Culley is staring at a burning building and he

Despite being an NFL wide receivers coach since 1994, Culley failed to develop a 1,000-yard receiver in each of his two seasons as Baltimore Ravens wide receiver coach and passing game coordinator. Additionally, the Ravens threw the ball the least frequently of any team in the NFL over the past two seasons. This, of course, is in part due to Lamar Jackson, who owned a very average passing grade from PFF in 2020 and is the best rushing QB in the NFL. In Houston, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the QB position, especially with Denver Broncos defensive back Kareem Jackson stating that Watson wants to play in Denver, and the ongoing investigation surrounding him. An unavailable Watson would thrust Tyrod Taylor into the starting spot, which would severely hinder the outlook of this offense. There was nothing overly distinct about Baltimore’s passing game under Culley, as 62% of its passing plays occurred while in 11 personnel. With two standout tight ends in Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, the Ravens did utilize two tight ends on the field for 21% of their passing plays, more than most other teams. Without a standout duo at the position, it’s expected that Culley will lean on 11 personnel with three wide receivers. Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, Keke Coutee and Nico Collins will all compete for snaps while Jordan Akins will serve as the top tight end.

In 2020, Houston relied heavily on David Johnson in the run game. Johnson racked up 147 rush attempts and 33 receptions through 12 games while averaging an impressive 4.7 yards-per-carry. With Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram joining the squad’s running back room this offseason, Culley will likely deploy more of a committee in this backfield. Given his history with Ingram, who is also joining Houston by way of Baltimore, it wouldn’t be shocking for Culley to ride all three options at certain points of the season. In each of his two campaigns as the Ravens’ passing game coordinator, the team ranked amongst the bottom of the league in passing target percentage to tailbacks, but on a Texans team that’ll likely be throwing the ball much more, hat trend shouldn’t continue with Culley.

Urban Meyer – Jacksonville Jaguars

(Twitter // @SECfootball)

Previous position: Ohio State head coach (2012-2018)

The head-coaching signing that drew the most attention this offseason was college football legend Urban Meyer leaving his position as a college football analyst with FOX to join the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s been three seasons since Meyer was last seen on a football field sideline, and this fall will mark the fist time he’s ever done so in the NFL.

In Meyer’s final year with the Buckeyes, he oversaw one of the best offenses in college football. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins led the nation in passing yards while receivers Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill and Terry McLaurin all finished with more than 700 receiving yards. In Jacksonville, his offense will likely operate heavily with 11 personnel given the impressive trio of wide receivers at his disposal. D.J. Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr. and Marvin Jones Jr. will all likely see a fair amount of snaps. At tight end, the Jaguars should expect to see very little in terms of offensive production. At Ohio State, Jeff Heuerman and Marcus Baugh were the only tight ends under Meyer’s lead top top 300 receiving yards. He’ll also have very little to work with considering the squad’s talent at the position, as nobody currently listed on the depth chart profiles to be much of a threat in the passing game – not even Tim Tebow.

At running back, Meyer had two players receive 150 or more carries in six of his seven years at Ohio State. He also coached some very impressive NFL talent that includes Carlos Hyde, Ezekiel Elliott and J.K. Dobbins during his tenure. In Jacksonville, there is some high-end skill on the depth chart that’s highlighted by first-round pick Travis Etienne, James Robinson and Hyde. The selection of Etienne was puzzling considering the other glaring roster flaws on the team, but it’s fair to assume that he’ll be a 1B at worst. This negatively impacts Robinson’s fantasy value, as he excelled while serving as a three-down back last season. While both of those two should handle the bulk of the workload, it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest to see Hyde mix in more than people are expecting. The signing of Tebow has me believing the Meyer familiar faces connection will be alive and well, and he may be willing to give some opportunities to the more experienced Hyde. It was reported earlier this offseason that Etienne was seeing snaps at wide receiver, a development that makes him the most likely candidate to handle the team’s receiving duties.

Brandon Staley – Los Angeles Chargers

(Twitter // @BFTB_Chargers)

Previous position: Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator (2020)

The Los Angeles Chargers didn’t have to go far to recruit Brandon Staley, plucking him away from the team they share their home with, the Los Angeles Rams. Staley’s coaching experience comes solely on the defensive side of the football, so newly hired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will be in charge of handling the Bolts’ offense in 2021.

This isn’t Lombardi’s first opportunity to be an offensive coordinator in the NFL. From 2014-2015, the 50-year-old held the position with the Detroit Lions. In each season, Detroit owned a top-12 pass offense and the team made the playoffs in 2014. Since then, Lombardi has spent the past five years with the New Orleans Saints as a quarterbacks coach. In Los Angeles, he’ll have similar offensive players in place to imitate parts of the Saints’ passing offense. For starters, rising star Justin Herbert presents a sizeable upgrade on late-career Drew Brees. Keenan Allen, while a little older, offers a similar skillset to Michael Thomas. Both are possession receivers that are funnelled targets. At tight end, Lombardi has brought Jared Cook from New Orleans with him, and he’ll be tasked with replacing Hunter Henry who departed to the New England Patriots. Likely utilizing a fair amount of 11 personnel given the shallow depth at tight end, Mike Williams will likely continue to be used as a deep-ball specialist and ‘X’ receiver while Jalen Guyton and Josh Palmer battle for third receiver duties.

On the ground, Lombardi is leaving the versatile Alvin Kamara for another multifaceted tailback in Austin Ekeler. In each of his past four seasons, Kamara has hauled in 80 receptions or more. This is great news for Ekeler, who brought in 92 passes in 2019 and corralled 54 balls in 10 games last year, which is prorated to 86 receptions across 16 games. When it comes to rushing attempts, the carries will likely continue to be split fairly evenly between Ekeler and Josh Kelley while Justin Jackson mixes in every now and then.

Robert Saleh – New York Jets

(Twitter // @NYJetsTFMedia)

Previous position: San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator (2017-2020)

After being subjected to two seasons of Adam Gase, fans of the New York Jets will be relieved to see Robert Saleh’s face on the sideline. While Saleh is one of the more highly-touted coaching hires this offseason, similarly to Staley, his coaching background is exclusively related to defense. Instead, newly hired offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who’s also coming over from the San Francisco 49ers, will oversee the offense.

LaFleur has held the position of 49ers passing game coordinator since 2017. During his tenure, the team’s passing game utilized 21 personnel more than any other team in the league. 21 personnel involves having two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers on the field. This means Denzel Mims, Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder and Elijah Moore will all be involved in a training camp battle for snaps. Crowder and Moore profile as slot receivers, which means they will likely be competing for snaps when the team utilizes 11 personnel, which is the base personnel grouping for LaFleur’s offenses. Given the current outlook of the Jets, a team that is still rebuilding in a competitive AFC East, they’ll likely be in more pass-friendly gamescripts than not. Ultimately, LaFleur will be graded on his ability to develop second-overall pick quarterback Zach Wilson.

In the backfield, the increased use of 21 personnel means there will be two running backs on the field more. The Jets did sign Tevin Coleman this off-season, another member with 49ers ties, which means LaFleur may be willing to give him some opportunities early on. Additionally, the team just drafted Michael Carter, who’ll compete with offseason acquisition Ty Johnson and second-year back La’Mical Perine for snaps. During San Francisco’s run to the Super Bowl in 2019, the team rushed the football on 51.39% of its place, the second-highest mark in the league that season.

Nick Sirianni – Philadelphia Eagles

(Twitter // @BroadStMisery)

Previous position: Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator (2018-2020)

Doug Pederson’s lasting impression as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles is quite frankly one of the worst of any coach all things considered. After bringing the town its first-ever Super Bowl victory, he takes the fall for blatantly tanking mid-game against the Washington Football Team by replacing rookie Jalen Hurts with lifetime clipboard holder Nate Sudfeld in Week 17. Filling his shoes is Nick Sirianni, who spent the last three seasons serving on former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich’s staff with the Indianapolis Colts.

On offense, Sirianni’s Colts operated out of a base 11 personnel grouping, but used a lot of 12 personnel with Mo Alie-Cox, Trey Burton and Jack Doyle all mixing in at certain points of the 2020 season. In Philadelphia, similar tight end depth can be found as Dallas Goedert continues to ascend, Zach Ertz is somehow still around and Richard Rodgers proved to be an impactful player when given opportunities last year. In his three years as offensive coordinator for Indianapolis, Sirianni’s team ranked top-10 in target percentage to tight ends twice. At wide receiver, 2021 first-round draft pick DeVonta Smith and 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor seem locked into starting roles while Greg Ward and Travis Fulgham fight for the third spot.

In the backfield, Indianapolis often relied on Marlon Mack to handle the carries while Nyheim Hines served as the receiving back. The Eagles backfield will be important for fantasy managers to monitor, because while Miles Sanders is capable of handling both responsibilities, the team did add Kerryon Johnson and Kenneth Gainwell this offseason. Gainwell, a fifth-round pick, profiles as a receiving back while Johnson leaves the Detroit Lions with a respectable 4.3 yards-per-carry. The added competition is not a great development for Sanders’ fantasy outlook, as his chance to entrench himself as a three-down back seems to wearing thin. In two of Sirianni’s three seasons as offensive coordinator with the Colts, the team ranked top-10 in rushing-play frequency. This is due to the team trying to protect sub-par quarterback play from Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers more than philosophy, but the Eagles’ approach on offense will be very dependant on second-year quarterback Hurts’ ability to improve as a passer. Sirianni has never coached a quarterback as dynamic as Hurts in the NFL, but there’s no doubt he’ll be a major part of the squad’s rushing attack.

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