New Coaches and Players to Watch
Every year the NFL coaching carousel adds a few new faces. While this year didn’t match the blood bath after the 2008 season, which saw 11 coaches canned, there are still seven teams with a new head coach and, by extension, new philosophies. Maybe they’ll institute the Tampa 2 defense, maybe they’ll switch to a pistol offense. No matter what teams do, a few players would stand to benefit from new direction. A lot will change over the next months with the draft and free agency, but let’s look at who on their respective teams, right now, could benefit most in 2014 so you can keep them in mind.
New Coach: Bill O’Brien
Player to Watch: Ryan Griffin, Tight End – With only one year as a coordinator with the New England Patriots and two years as head coach at Penn State, there’s not much history to work with evaluating Bill O’Brien. But in that limited time, it’s apparent that tight ends played an important role for both teams.
The first team we’ll look at is the 2011 Patriots. O’Brien ran a very good offense, one that averaged over 32 points per game for third best in the league. They famously used two tight ends to near perfection with Rob Gronkowski turning in one of the best seasons ever by a tight end while Aaron Hernandez ranked only behind Gronkowski and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham in fantasy points that season. They were easily quarterback Tom Brady’s top two targets, accounting for a combined 42% of his completions. After his success, O’Brien moved on to Penn State where tight ends accounted for at least 25% of his team’s completions in both years as head coach.
If we use 25-42% as our range of tight end completions and multiply that by the 633 pass attempts the Texans took last year, you’re looking at 158-234 receptions for tight ends in Houston next year. Currently, the depth chart has Owen Daniels at the top with Ryan Griffin as his primary backup. However, Daniels is 31 and is coming off an injury-riddled season where he only played five games. He hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2008 and could even become a cap casualty. All of this adds up to more opportunities for the 6’6” Griffin, who was productive for a limited time last year. He caught 19 of 25 passes thrown his way for a superb 76% catch rate, good for fourth among all tight ends. He also showed an ability to get down field with an average depth of target of 10.8 yards per aimed throw (aDOT), good for sixth among all tight ends. Griffin will have no problem getting a piece of the rather large receptions pie this year.
New Coach: Mike Zimmer
Player to Watch: Cordarrelle Patterson, Wide Receiver – Mike Zimmer has been a defensive coordinator for over 10 years in the NFL but Minnesota will be his first stop as a head coach. He’s brought in Norv Turner, who was in Cleveland last season and has just as much experience on the offensive side ball as Zimmer does on the defensive side, to be his offensive coordinator. Turner has a history of guiding successful offenses and Minnesota should be no different thanks to his access to Patterson at receiver. The freakish athlete checks in at 6’2” with a 4.4 40-time. When unleashed in the kick return game, Patterson led the league with an average return of 32.4 yards and two touchdowns in his rookie year. He played behind Jerome Simpson in the passing game but Turner has already indicated that Patterson is the priority in 2014, even putting in 10 plays for Patterson specifically when he first got to Minnesota.
Some may wonder who, exactly, will be throwing Patterson the ball. The Vikings are widely expected to address the quarterback position either through the draft or free agency. No matter who starts under center for Minnesota, Patterson is still expected to be a big part of the offense. Consider what Turner did with Josh Gordon last year (he finished the season with over 1,600 receiving yards) with quarterbacks that ranked 28th in QBR as a team and you’ll understand why the quarterback situation shouldn’t hold Patterson back. At the very least, he’ll improve on his 45-catch, 469-yard season and should be the most valuable fantasy option in Minnesota this side of Adrian Peterson.
New Coach: Jim Caldwell
Player to Watch: Matthew Stafford, Quarterback – If Detroit had one reason for hiring a new coach, it was to get Matthew Stafford back on track. To date, Stafford had his best season in 2011 when he threw for over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns. In the subsequent two years he’s managed to throw for almost the same amount of yards but nowhere near the same amount of touchdowns. He’s seen his completion percentage drop from 63.5% in that 2011 year down to 58.5% last year, five whole points in just two seasons. The Lions hope Jim Caldwell is the answer.
Caldwell oversaw several successful seasons in Indianapolis and tutored Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. In nine seasons with Caldwell as Manning’s quarterback coach or head coach, Peyton never completed less than 65% of his passes and threw no less than 27 touchdowns each season. No disrespect to Marvin Harrison but Manning never had a Calvin Johnson to use as a safety net. Joe Lombardi’s hire as offensive coordinator further aids Stafford’s chances. All Lombardi has done the past seven years is work under Sean Payton and with Drew Brees, so he knows a thing or two about quarterbacks. In that time, Brees has never completed less than 63% of his passes and has thrown for 5,000-plus yards three times.
Between Lombardi and Caldwell, they have experience working with two of the best quarterbacks of this generation. They should be able to impart some wisdom on the 26-year-old Stafford in an effort to improve his decision-making.
New Coach: Ken Whisenhunt
Player to Watch: Delanie Walker, Tight End – After spending one year as San Diego’s offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt is getting his second crack as a head coach, this time with the Titans. All Whisenhunt did in his time with the Chargers was take a team that was second-to-last in offense all the way up to fifth in one season.
While Whisenhunt had more weapons to work with in San Diego, it’s clear he also heavily involved the tight end position. Consider that San Diego completed 25.9% of its passes to tight ends last year under Whisenhunt compared to the Titans who completed just 20.4% of their passes to tight ends. If we were to apply simple math and increase Walker’s 2013 production (60/571/6, 12th among tight ends in fantasy points) by the increase in tight end usage (26.9%) from Tennessee to San Diego, we’re looking at a line of 76/724/7, with Walker knocking on the door of being a top five tight end.
Looking at other factors that could affect Walker’s value, there’s little-to-no depth behind him. Craig Stevens will be 30 this year and is primarily a blocking tight end. Taylor Thompson is a converted defensive end who is still learning the position. Unless the Titans choose to make another tight end signing in free agency after outbidding the league for Walker last season, there should be no competition for the increasingly valuable tight end role in Tennessee.
New Coach: Jay Gruden
Player to Watch: Roy Helu, Running Back – Jay Gruden comes to Washington after three years as the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. Gruden managed to guide the Bengals offense to a top 10 ranking while the team made the playoffs all three years despite a very average Andy Dalton at the helm. However, Gruden did have an elite receiver in A.J. Green and budding star running back Giovani Bernard, and will have similar personnel in Washington with Pierre Garcon and Alfred Morris.
Gone will be the zone blocking scheme the Redskins used last season with a west coast hybrid in its place. Thanks to the shorter passes designed for the west coast, and more passes in general, expect an uptick in receptions by the receivers and especially backup running back Roy Helu. Helu already led all Washington running backs in receptions with 31 but that number should improve. Consider the percentage completions to running backs in Cincinnati last year (16.5%) compared to Washington’s (12.7%) and you’re looking at a 30% difference. Apply that to Helu’s numbers and you’re looking at 10 more receptions in 2014.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New Coach: Lovie Smith
Player to Watch: Darrelle Revis, Cornerback – Perhaps no player will benefit more from a coaching change in 2014 than Revis and the switch to Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defense, which emphasizes man-to-man pass coverage. Revis, long considered one of the best shutdown corners in the game, was plugged into a zone scheme under previous coach Greg Schiano. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a corner with shutdown ability relegated to playing zone defense where he could, or could not, be covering a player at any given point. You’re also paying said player $16 million per year and want him involved on every play possible rather than on a zone island. Letting Revis do what he does best will be a big upgrade for the Bucs defense where he could be back to his average of 15 passes defended per year, especially in the pass-happy NFC South.
New Coach: Mike Pettine
Player to Watch: Barkevious Mingo, Linebacker – After a disappointing rookie season, Mingo is expected to be a big part of new Cleveland coach Mike Pettine’s aggressive defensive scheme. Drafted 6th overall, Mingo only had 42 tackles, five sacks, and three passes defended. Not bad for a rookie making the transition from end to linebacker who only started three games, but he’ll be expected to vastly improve that production. Luckily, under Pettine’s aggressive scheme, he should be able to accomplish that.
Last year in Buffalo, Pettine’s defense was a fantasy football player’s dream: they were second in the league with 57 sacks, third in the league with 115 passes defended, and second in the league with 23 interceptions. They had three players with 10-plus sacks alone. It’s not unreasonable to say Cleveland’s defense has better personnel than Pettine worked with in Buffalo and should be able to match or exceed that production as a team. As for Mingo, he’s the most athletically gifted in the Browns linebacker corps and is set up for a big sophomore season. His primary role, already confirmed by Pettine, is to stay at outside linebacker and get to the quarterback by any means necessary. Expect Mingo to get there.