Ranking the NFC South coaching staffs


Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Our final stop in our series of NFC South position rankings is the coaches. This was one of the tougher calls (at least for the top two spots) and it's important to note, we're not just ranking head coaches. We're factoring the entire coaching staffs.

1. Atlanta. Mike Smith worked a miracle in his first year, taking one of the league's worst teams and turning it into a playoff squad. Yes, he's got to do it again to fully prove himself as an elite coach. But I like Smith's chances of doing that. The best thing Smith did was surround himself with an all-star staff. Brian VanGorder will be a head coach before long. Mike Mularkey will get another shot as a head coach. Position coaches like Emmitt Thomas, Paul Boudreau and Bill Musgrave are among the best in the league at what they do.

2. Carolina. There's no question John Fox has the best résumé in the division and that's why I came very close to going with him at No. 1. Fox is the only division coach to have taken his team to the Super Bowl, but he's never had back-to-back winning seasons. He's got a good chance to change that this year. But there were two reasons I gave the nod to Smith. First, I'm still trying to figure out why Fox, with one of the league's best running games, decided to put it all on Jake Delhomme on a rainy night in the playoff loss to Arizona. Don't tell me it was because the Panthers got behind. They weren't using the running game much before that. Second, and this one is bigger, Fox's staff had some major changes in the offseason. Just about the entire defensive staff left voluntarily and that makes you wonder about things like harmony and chemistry. There was a time early in his tenure when Fox had one of the league's best coaching staffs. Maybe the new coaches will work out well, but we have to wait to see.

3. New Orleans. I think there's a very good chance Sean Payton moves up a spot or two this season. But you can't put him in the top two right now because the Saints have underachieved the last two seasons. A lot of that was due to injuries and bad luck, but that's all part of a coach's body of work. There's no doubt Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the game. But defense was the problem last year. That's why Payton went out and got Gregg Williams as the defensive coordinator. Williams has done great things defensively and Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have given him a lot of good parts to work with. If he can just make the Saints average on defense, they'll be a playoff team and Payton will be a rising star again.

4. Tampa Bay. Raheem Morris has never been a head coach on any level and, at 32, is the league's youngest head coach. He's an unknown, so I have no choice but to rank him last right now. But I think there's tremendous upside with Morris. He relates extremely well to the players and that was an area where predecessor Jon Gruden was lacking. But the best thing I can say about Morris right now is he put together a very good staff. Much like Smith last year, Morris made sure he got experienced coordinators to help him. Jim Bates knows how to run a defense and has some experience as a head coach. Jeff Jagodzinski helped develop Matt Ryan at Boston College and will be in charge of developing rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.