Mailbag: Broncos Make Right Hire With George Paton; Fits for More Coach and GM Openings

Who has the inside track as the dust starts to settle on some of the NFL's open jobs? Plus, linking veteran QBs to Washington and New England, the return in a Deshaun Watson trade and more.
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It’s divisional round weekend! And you brought a lot of questions … on the coaching carousel. Let’s dive in.

From Meeshie (@Hardycharchar): Who should the Broncos hire as their GM?

So Meeshie, I got your question Wednesday morning, before the Broncos announced George Paton was getting the job. Just for fun, I’m going to leave my initial answer here …

Meeshie, I think if they can land Vikings assistant GM George Paton, they should do it (and I think Saints exec Terry Fontenot is right in that category, too). Paton’s been Rick Spielman’s No. 2 since Spielman brought him with him from Miami in 2007, which gives him 14 seasons of experience sitting right next to one of the NFL’s most respected GMs. Together, they made the playoffs with three different head coaches and built consistently strong, tough rosters.

Paton, to me, is prepared to be a GM the way Chris Ballard was before making the jump from Kansas City to Indianapolis four years ago.

That also means they’ll be able to tap into his connections in, and his institutional knowledge of, the scouting world, if that winds up being necessary down the line (Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald is one very well-respected coach he knows well, and Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy’s another he’s been connected to). And I think the transition from John Elway to Paton could happen seamlessly because of Paton’s experience and personality.

Which is to say that, yes, I think the Broncos hired the right guy for the job.

From The Washington Football team (@WFT411): Washington will be in the QB hunt. From what I’m hearing: 1. Status on Dak; 2. Status on Stafford; 3. Eyes on Trey Lance in the draft. Thoughts?

WFT, I’d be stunned if Dak Prescott makes it to the market. If the Cowboys can’t get a deal done with him by the end of February, I’d guess he’ll wind up getting tagged again. Stafford is definitely more realistic, but his availability rides on who the Lions’ coach and GM wind up being. If he’s out there, sure, I think he’d make sense. Cam Newton’s another vet to watch, because of his connection to coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Scott Turner.

And the draft’s obviously a possible avenue for Washington, though the team may have played its way out of picking one there—winning the NFC East put it at 19th in the draft order. They could trade up, but the question then, with a new general manager in place, would be whether that’s smart, given crying needs at premium positions (left tackle, corner, etc.) all over the roster.

In the end, Washington’s draft position puts it in an uncertain spot as far as its ability to land a top guy that way. I think that Washington is going to have to make a play for a veteran and work from there. Maybe that veteran is Alex Smith. We’ll see.

From Kieran Steckley (@Kieran_Steckley): Thoughts on Dan Campbell being a head coach?

Kieran, Campbell’s been an interesting name out there for a while—he interviewed for the Colts’ job a couple years ago and has been on and off the head-coaching radar since. Bill Parcells has pushed his candidacy to anyone who’ll listen. He’s been a big part of a winning program in New Orleans for five years, and even had a 12-game test drive as a head coach in the league, having served as the Dolphins’ interim coach for the last three months of 2015.

The questions that’ll follow for him are obvious—who are his coordinators, and what are his plans for the quarterback position? The upside, with Campbell, is he’s now seen how Sean Payton has handled that position firsthand for an extended period, and his decade as a player and decade as a coach have given him a deep Rolodex to draw from.

Really, buying on Campbell is buying on his ability to lead and build a culture, which is to say how viable he is for each team really depends on what each team is looking for.

From Matt (@bolt_laker): Front-runner for Chargers head coaching job?

Matt, the two names I’d give you are a little different from one another, but let’s start with what the Chargers are looking for. I think the idea that getting the most out of quarterback Justin Herbert is a big part of the hire is both correct, and maybe a tad overplayed. Do offensive-minded coaches have an edge here? Yeah, probably. But my understanding is that the Spanoses are fine hiring someone who’s less quarterbacks-centric—just so long as that person has a well-developed and detailed plan for the offense and Herbert.

So I’ll give you one name in each category.

In the offensive-guru column, and this’ll come as no surprise, it’s Bills OC Brian Daboll. He actually went to the same Buffalo-area high school as Chargers GM Tom Telesco (Telesco was a senior when Daboll was a sophomore), and Daboll’s varied experience in different programs (from Bill Belichick’s and Nick Saban’s to Sean McDermott’s), and background with a variety of quarterbacks makes him a good fit, as does his success in taking a quarterback of similar outsized talent, in Josh Allen, to a whole new level.

In the non-offensive-guru column, Rams DC Brandon Staley is one to watch. Staley’s an impressive dude—and it’s hard to argue with his results this year. He also, I believe, has a strong plan for the offense. San Francisco assistants Mike LaFleur and Mike McDaniel are both well-positioned for OC opportunities during this cycle, and I think Staley and 49ers DC Robert Saleh could each take one, if both land jobs.

And for what it’s worth, I think both those guys would be good choices for where the Chargers are going.

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From Max (@max_schein): Other than Saleh, who do you think is a realistic finalist for the Jets job?

Max, Saleh could have multiple opportunities—I’m told he’s stayed in touch with Detroit throughout, even as he headed to interview in-person with the Jets. So it’s certainly possible that the Jets move on Saleh, and Saleh’s people try and get an answer from the Lions on where they stand. Would the Lions then bring their process to an abrupt end in order to land Saleh? That I’m less sure of.

But if it’s not Saleh, my feeling is Titans OC Arthur Smith would be a name of interest, as would a couple college coaches—you’re hearing less about college names now in large part because, for recruiting reasons and otherwise, it doesn’t behoove college coaches to have their names out there as candidates for NFL jobs. I will say that the Jets’ pledge that they’d have a wide-open search has been fulfilled. There isn’t really a natural connection between Saleh and the team, meaning this reflects the Jets’ liking his plan.

From Jason Kroulik (@crowlick): Who do you think are the favorites to land the Lions’ GM and head coach job now?

Jason! This is another question I had to rework my answer to, because one of five names in play for the GM job, Paton, is now off the board. That leaves Indy’s Ed Dodds, New Orleans’s Jeff Ireland and Terry Fontenot, and the Rams’ Brad Holmes. Holmes is in Detroit for a second (and first in-person) interview on Wednesday. Paton had interviewed in-person the first time around, though it was with owner Sheila Ford Hamp over Zoom. Dodds just had his first interview this week. And Ireland and Fontenot can’t meet with the Lions, or anyone else, in person until the Saints are eliminated from the playoffs.

I believe Paton was a leader in Detroit. Dodds’s late add to the interview list looks, at least on paper, like a sign of how seriously the Lions are considering Saleh—Dodds is high on Saleh’s GM list. And Holmes logistically has an interesting smaller edge over Fontenot and Ireland in that he’ll have met everyone in-person, after Wednesday.

The coaching search, I believe, ties into all of this. If Paton had been GM, the Lions might’ve made a run at Fitzgerald or Bieniemy. If Saleh gets the job, I think Dodds will become the favorite to get the GM job. If one of the Saints guys land there, then Campbell could make sense.

At any rate, this one has certainly accelerated a little this week. They have one interview left to complete the first round, by the way—the Lions’ brass is slated to sit down (virtually) with Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles on Friday.

From ted hawes (@thawes13): Could you see Pederson taking an OC role if Saleh or Staley get the Jets gig?

Ted, I’d say Doug Pederson is more likely to take a year off than land with either of those guys. Like I said earlier, the likelihood here appears to be that both Saleh and Staley tap into the Shanahan pipeline (which is where both their bosses came from) for offensive coordinators. And based on the success of those bosses, plus guys like Matt LaFleur, Arthur Smith and Kevin Stefanski, it’s hard to argue with the idea.

Pederson is in an interesting spot here. He’s never been a play-calling OC—Andy Reid called the plays in Kansas City, of course, when Pederson was OC there—but did call plays for four years as a head coach. So it’s hard to nail down exactly how other teams might value him as a prospective play-calling coordinator. Or whether he’d rather just take a year to regroup now instead.

From Mike (@Daddyshark0629): Can we agree that this would’ve been the year to put a Cincy or someone in the CFP. Might as well see what they could do. The Big Ten pushed hard for OSU to get in only for that result.

Mike! A college football question! I’d pass this one along to our guys Pat Forde and Ross Dellenger, but I wouldn’t want you to think I’m ducking it. Monday was a tough night for my Buckeyes. But Ohio State beating Clemson by three touchdowns, despite losing guys due to COVID-19 protocols, and playing with a banged-up quarterback validates its inclusion, end of story. I have very little doubt the Bucks would run Notre Dame out of the building, too, based on the talent on each roster and consistent history of OSU owning Notre Dame head-to-head.

But it would have been fun to see Cincinnati in there this year, for sure. And without a real good fourth option for the committee (hence Notre Dame getting in), I’d have had no problem with the Bearcats being in this year.

From Christopher Sperou (@itsroo2): Doesn’t Jacoby Brissett seem like a Belichick target? Knows the system, not as expensive as Jimmy G, buys time while they draft the QB of the future and allows for more spending for other pieces on the team.

Christopher, I do think Brissett makes sense—just not as the only guy. If they go after Brissett and Brissett alone on the veteran market, my guess is that would be a pretty strong tell on the Patriots’ plan to be aggressive on draft day. And I wouldn’t be totally turned off by the idea of that.

The trouble is that they’re picking 15th. If you’re picking that low, it’s tough to put all your eggs in that one basket, not knowing what’ll happen in front of you.

From DefendTheDen (@Vretz2121): Lions update? It seems every day it’s someone new. Saleh, then Lewis, then Bevell, now Campbell. What can you give me? Lol

Since I already touched on the Lions’ openings earlier, here it is in a nutshell: I think Saleh is a strong candidate there on the coaching side, and the Jets’ interest might force the Lions to make a call on him. In turn, Holmes being in-house puts him in a nice spot, and word that the Falcons are leading toward Fontenot might compel Holmes, who interviewed in Atlanta, to take the Detroit job if it’s offered.

But I think all things being equal, Detroit would like to get Dodds, Ireland and Fontenot into the building before making a decision. Whether they’ll have the chance to do that, given all the balls in the air right now, is another question.

From Kraig Withakay (@KraigWith_A_K): Let's talk Ohio State instead, Bert.

I’d love to, but this is an NFL mailbag! [Ed note: We think Albert would have answered this question if they’d won.]

From Jahmaal (@jahmaalbox): If the Texans trade Watson to MIA and get five firsts and Tua would Houston flip Tua and J.J. for more picks and go with a quick rebuild? And could we see a large number of QB’s traded this offseason?

Jahmaal, you really are two steps ahead of the rest of us—I think Nick Caserio is going to do what he can to calm the situation between the Texans and Deshaun Watson. And yeah, if you trade Watson, you could get a lot for him, but Tua Tagovailoa and five first-round picks is a tad much (this isn’t the NBA).

As for quarterback trades, what Detroit and Atlanta do with their coach and GM jobs will dictate whether Matthew Stafford and/or Matt Ryan become available, and Jimmy Garoppolo is one to watch, in the case the Niners come across someone they see as an upgrade. You probably should put Derek Carr in that bucket too, considering that’s how the Raiders have approached the last few offseasons (though Carr played really well this year).

From eyeofthetiger (@MarkPhoenix19): Why are teams so reluctant to look to the college ranks for new coaching hires? Fresh ideas. Fresh energy instead of the same retreads year in year out.

Eye, they aren’t! I can tell you for a fact that the Jets, Lions, Chargers and Falcons have explored college coaches, and the Jaguars are obviously deep in a game of footsies with one of the biggest names of the last 30 years in the college ranks. Likewise, the Eagles are looking at their options at the college level (I’ve also heard a lot of the guys they’re exploring in the pros are actually on the defensive side of the ball).

So why aren’t you hearing more? Because college coaches can’t afford to have their names out there. That happens, and players get worried, and players’ parents even more so, and then they risk having recruits bail. There have been a few (Matt Rhule, Chip Kelly, Doug Marrone, Jim Harbaugh) where college-to-pro flirtations were public. But those were cases where the coaches were out there with their aspirations.

In most other cases at least, attempts are made to keep these talks very hush-hush.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Who will be the first non-QB picked in the upcoming draft?

We’ll wrap it up here, Matt, and I’ll give you a few names. The first, and most likely one, I believe is Oregon’s Penei Sewell. He’s barely 20 years old. He plays a premium position. He’s already a really, really good player with monster potential. If everything were equal, I think he’d be the first non-quarterback to go. The trouble is that the teams with the second and third picks took left tackles in the first round last year: the Jets (Mekhi Becton) and Dolphins (Austin Jackson).

So those teams will either take quarterbacks and make this about the fourth pick (Atlanta), load up and try to create an absurd pairing at tackle, or other players will be in play.

On that front, Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith has earned his way into the conversation, without question. The trouble is that there’s very little history of receivers his size going inside the top 10—really, only John Ross and Tavon Austin qualify as examples over the last 10 years—so where he goes will be a nice bearing out of how teams value certain traits and assess risk, as much as anything.

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons is another player I’d put in that mix, and he has the sort of all-over-the-front-seven versatility that Dolphins coach Brian Flores treasures. And then another receiver, LSU’s Ja'Marr Chase, who’s more of the prototype for a receiver taken in the top 10, should be included in the group, too.