NFC West: Dirk Koetter
The Arizona Cardinals won't mind seeing Jeff Fisher land in St. Louis, however, because the move eliminates their defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, from consideration for the job. Horton interviewed for the position and could have been appealing relative to the other candidates beyond Fisher.
A look at other potential beneficiaries of Fisher's hiring, beyond the Rams:
- Gregg Williams, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator. Williams worked under Fisher in Tennessee. He had chances to reunite with Fisher previously, but stayed with the Saints. His contract is set to expire after this season, however. That could clear the way for Williams to leave if Fisher decides to target him for the job in St. Louis.
- Lake Dawson, Titans vice president of football operations. Dawson interviewed for the general manager's job in St. Louis while the Rams were trying to land Fisher. Dawson worked with Fisher in Tennessee. A former NFL receiver, Dawson's personnel roots run back to Ted Thompson when both were together with Mike Holmgren in Seattle. Fisher's hiring improves Dawson's chances.
- West Coast-based offenses. Fisher is not known for having strong opinions on specific offensive schemes. I would expect him to take into account input from Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. Bradford fared well as a rookie while running a West Coast offense. Fisher's teams in Jacksonville ran a Mike Shanahan-based variation of the West Coast scheme, similar to what the NFC West last saw when Jeremy Bates was Seattle's offensive coordinator in 2010 (Bates worked under Fisher's former coordinator in Tennessee, the late Mike Heimerdinger, when both were under Shanahan in Denver). ESPN's Mark Schlabach and others have noted that Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the former head coach at Boise State and Arizona State, could be a consideration as coordinator for the Rams.
Fisher has had time to formulate plans in his mind. We should see signs of clear direction on the GM and coaching staff fronts before long.
Seven NFL teams named new head coaches after last season, tapping into a pool that included experienced coordinators and relatively unknown assistants alike. The class of 2011 featured longtime candidates (Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera). It also included a trusted position coach in Mike Munchak (Tennessee Titans) and a couple of relative hotshots in Hue Jackson (Oakland Raiders) and Pat Shurmur (Cleveland Browns).
Who will comprise the NFL's next batch of head-coaching candidates? That was the question ESPN.com hoped to answer in this week's edition of the offseason Power Rankings. We established one ground rule by eliminating any assistant who has already had a permanent head-coaching job. The idea was to develop a list that focused on the "next wave" of coaching candidates.
No less than 24 NFL assistants received at least one vote, a reflection of both the variables involved in head-coaching searches and the relative lack of national name recognition for all but the most highly regarded assistants.
So in that vein, it was no surprise to see four well-known assistants at the top of our list, headed by New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell -- who placed first or second on six of the eight ballots. Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan finished second, followed by New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm.
Fewell is an ideal candidate in many ways, having spent time as the Buffalo Bills' interim coach in 2009 and leading a substantial turnaround of the Giants' defense last season. Fewell interviewed for four head-coaching jobs last winter, and NFC East blogger Dan Graziano suggested that experience, along with a high profile afforded to coaches in New York, make him "the most likely guy on the list to be a head coach soon."
Just don't bother forwarding his name to AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky, who couldn't find room for Fewell on his 10-man ballot. Kuharsky noted the Giants' poor performance in Week 2 last season against the Indianapolis Colts, during which quarterback Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns and cruised to an easy 38-14 victory.
"Certainly I'm letting one game overinfluence my ballot," Kuharsky muttered. "But Fewell's plan for the Giants against the Colts last season was so bad that I could not help but score him down for it. Was he not familiar with how Peyton Manning and Indianapolis operate?"
We can't cover every coach who received votes in this exercise, but let's hit some of the more interesting names that received attention.
Another Ryan? Deserved or not, Ryan has long been considered a loose cannon. There is little doubt about his schematic prowess, but hiring him would require a confident owner ready to make a leap of faith.
The success of twin brother Rex Ryan with the Jets might have softened the perception of that risk, and collectively we see Rob Ryan on the doorstep of a job.
"Similar to Rex, Rob Ryan is good with X's and O's and has the type of outgoing personality players want to be around," AFC North blogger James Walker said. "I think both are equally important in today's NFL. Both brothers say exactly what's on their mind, and before that scared off a lot of teams. But Rex broke the ice with his success in New York and that could help Rob in the future."
The next generation: Schottenheimer has turned down more opportunities to interview for head-coaching jobs than he has actually submitted to. He has nixed requests from the Miami Dolphins and Bills in recent years, but he did interview for the Jets' job that ultimately went to Ryan. I placed him atop my ballot (he finished No. 3 overall) because I think NFL people have made up their mind that he is the kind of young and innovative assistant who can turn around their franchise. (Think: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.)
Schottenheimer's pedigree doesn't hurt -- he's the son of longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer -- and I'm not sure how closely teams will dissect the specifics of the Jets' offensive performance. Graziano, on the other hand, thinks Schottenheimer is close to coaching his way out of the golden-child image he cultivated and left him off his ballot.
"Having spent a good amount of time around that team the past couple of years, I just feel like defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is the more likely guy to end up a head coach," Graziano said. "Schottenheimer's under a ton of pressure as Ryan defers the offensive responsibilities to him. I feel like, if the offense has a bad year, he could end up in trouble or even out of a job. And given their youth at quarterback and running back and the uncertainty of their receiver situation, a bad year for the Jets' offense is possible.
"Now, he could be a genius, make chicken salad and be the next hot name eight months from now. But I think there's the potential that he may have already peaked as a hot coaching prospect and that he might not be set up to succeed in New York."
The big fella: Four years ago, Grimm thought he would be the next Pittsburgh Steelers coach. He moved to Arizona after the Steelers selected Mike Tomlin instead, and we view his status as a head-coaching candidate with wide disparity.
AFC West blogger Bill Williamson put Grimm atop his ballot, and AFC East blogger Tim Graham had him No. 2. Kuharsky and I left him off.
Williamson thinks Grimm has moved to "the top of the food chain" largely because most of his "hot-name" contemporaries have already gotten jobs. As well, Graham suggested that it will soon be Grimm's turn because he is still well-regarded throughout the league.
Personally, I couldn't get past Grimm's well-publicized gaffe after interviewing with the Chicago Bears, after which he referred to the team owners as the "McClaskey" family. I also agree with NFC West blogger Mike Sando, who ranked Grimm No. 8 and wondered: "Is he still ascending? Grimm seems content coaching the line in Arizona. He has plateaued and doesn't seem to be losing any sleep over it."
Welcome back: Unless you're a college football fan, you might not have heard of Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. He spent six years as the head coach at Arizona State, but has drawn some quiet acclaim for his work with the Jaguars and made a strong impression while interviewing with the Denver Broncos last winter.
"In a setting where he won't have to deal with boosters and can shine for being a smart X's and O's guy with strong coaching DNA," Kuharsky said, "I think he'd do far better. He's smart and will interview quite well. He really impressed John Elway and the Broncos before losing out to John Fox's experience. St. Louis wanted him as coordinator, but Jacksonville wouldn't let him go. He's heading into the final year of his contract. How Blaine Gabbert develops early on will have a big bearing on Koetter's future."
Secret weapon: In two years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have developed quarterback Josh Freeman into one of the better starters in the league. The man largely responsible is offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who navigated a disastrous 2009 preseason -- coach Raheem Morris promoted him in the middle of training camp after firing Jeff Jagodzinski -- and NFL teams often seek out coaches with success developing young quarterbacks.
"I think Olson deserves a ton of credit for developing Freeman so quickly," said NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas. "Freeman threw for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in his first full season as a starter and carried an incredibly young team to a 10-6 record. I also think people need to look at what Olson did last year with rookie running back LeGarrette Blount and rookie receiver Mike Williams. He helped make them into instant stars."
Super Bowl entitlement: The Green Bay Packers were the only team to place more than one name in the top 10, as would be expected from a championship team. Assistant head coach/inside linebackers Winston Moss is at No. 6, while safeties coach Darren Perry finished No. 10. I also voted for receivers coach Edgar Bennett, who has moved over from running backs coach and is clearly being groomed for bigger things.
I'll detail my ranking of the Packers' assistants, including why I think so highly of Perry, in a future post for NFC North readers. But we'll say this for now: Moss is a strong leader who has drawn interest from the Raiders, while Perry is a disciple of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his coveted 3-4 scheme.
With that in mind, would it be wise for the 49ers to draft a second-tier quarterback -- Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, etc. -- in a middle round instead of a first-round guy, and then take a first-round guy next year if it looks like it's not working out?
Mike Sando: I do not think the 49ers, or any team, can make draft decisions based on what might be available to them a year later. The 49ers cannot know how early they will draft in 2012, and they cannot know whether they will like any of the quarterbacks available to them at that time. Jake Locker's shifting stock comes to mind.
Until the 49ers have a legitimate long-term starter, they should draft a quarterback in the first round every time they value one as a first-round selection.
NFL teams tend to draft quarterbacks in the first round more frequently than they take them in the second or third rounds. That helps explain why so many more good ones -- and not-so-good ones -- were first-round choices.
Teams have drafted 143 quarterbacks since 2000. They drafted 28 in the first round, 12 in the second round, 14 in the third round, 12 in the fourth round and 77 in the final three rounds.
Sixteen of the 143 have earned Pro Bowl honors. This includes nine of the 28 first-round choices, but only three of the 38 quarterbacks drafted in the second, third or fourth rounds. None of the 23 fifth-round choices has earned a Pro Bowl berth. Three of 30 sixth-rounders and one of 24 seventh-rounders have earned the honors.
Alex from Spokane writes: Hey Mike, love the blog. I just read an article saying Logan Mankins may become a free agent. If that's the case what do you think the chances are of the Seahawks making a play for him?
Mike Sando: Seahawks general manager John Schneider comes from the Ted Thompson school of personnel. Thompson has never valued guards as much as other teams have valued guards. Thompson has also proven relatively averse to free agency.
That doesn't exclude Seattle from pursuing a player such as Mankins. Schneider has described himself as more apt than Thompson to use free agency. We have already seen Schneider and coach Pete Carroll move aggressively to remake the roster. We have also seen the Seahawks struggle to field a sturdy offensive line. Adding Mankins would finally fill the void left when Steve Hutchinson departed following the 2006 season.
So, in the end, I'm saying there's a chance until we learn otherwise.
Travis from Cave Creek, Ariz., writes: I have been a Rams fan all of my life I am a football freak. Ever since that Week 17 loss to Seattle, I have been pondering the best possible offseason for the Rams.
It starts in free agency by signing Nnamdi Asomugha to help out a Rams secondary that has been allowing way too many big plays. Then we could go sign a big-time wide reciever to help out Sam Bradford. I'm thinking Vincent Jackson or Santonio Holmes, if they indeed become free agents.
Lastly, in the draft, the Rams need to help out Steven Jackson, and I cannot think of a better way to do that than drafting Mark Ingram at No. 14. Mel Kiper has him going to the Dolphins at No. 15, so there is a great chance of him falling to 14.
How plausible is all of this? And if indeed most or all of these things happened, where do you think the Rams would be going into next year?
Mike Sando: The Rams would firm up their status as NFC West favorites if those things fell into place. And that is one thing I love about the offseason; it dares us to dream.
I think it's questionable as to whether one of those things will happen, let alone all three. Oakland showed a willingness to pay huge money to Asomugha a couple years ago. Why wouldn't the Raiders do it again? Al Davis loves cornerbacks. His team has made strides. Asomugha is a terrific player and team-oriented guy. I would think the Raiders would be the favorites to keep Asomugha.
On the receiver front, yes, I could see the Rams making an aggressive play to acquire one of the better free agents at the position. Going that route before the draft would take off the pressure to find a top-tier talent from the college ranks -- always a risky proposition, especially at receiver after first few overall choices.
At running back, I just do not think the Rams will have an easy time justifying using a first-round selection for the position. They have too many needs at other positions. Jackson should be able to get them through the next couple seasons. The team would not, ideally, use a first-round pick for a running back right now.
Howie from Jacksonville, Fla., writes: The Jaguars reportedly denied the Rams permission to interview offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. This struck me as odd. How often does one team deny access to another team's coaches? Isn't that slap in the face to the requesting team? Why would the Jaguars do this? How does Koetter feel about being blocked for possible advancement with another team?
Mike Sando: Teams must allow coaches to interview for head coaching vacancies. In this case, Koetter was already an offensive coordinator. Why should the Jaguars let him interview for a lateral move at the potential expense of their own organization?
My feel from speaking to assistant coaches over the years is that teams regularly deny permission, and that we do not know about it most of the time.
Randy from Peoria, Ariz., writes: Hello Mike. Arizona needs a quality quarterback to assist for the near term (two years), quality on-field personnel at various positions, a quality defensive coordinator, quality offensive coordinators, good draft choices for future development, players who will not demand inordinate income, fans who will not abandon the team while it searches for a way back to the win column, a moneyed partner for a Bidwill family business, new uniforms (my son designed one I'd like to promote) and the need to suspend reality while we hope the previous nine point will be addressed.
Mike Sando: The Cardinals fans I encounter seem relatively unmoved by the success the team enjoyed during its first three seasons under Ken Whisenhunt. They often seem pessimistic, as if conditioned over the years to expect bad fortune to be lurking right behind success. Getting the right quarterback would make some of those other perceived needs seem a lot easier to overcome.
Buddy from Highland, Ill., writes: Hey Mike, I'm just gonna ask a question that's been rollin' through my mind since the Rams announced Josh McDaniels' hiring as offensive coordinator and Dick Curl's retirement as quarterbacks coach. How big of a possibility is it that Kurt Warner can return to St. Louis to replace Curl?
I know it depends on what the coaches want and what's going on in Warner's life, but I think this could be a great hire for the team, and not to mention how much the fans would love it.
Mike Sando: No chance, in my view. Warner doesn't want to trade his new lifestyle for the grind and pressure associated with coaching. McDaniels would have no incentive to hire someone with no coaching experience, no experience in his offense and a profile large enough to overshadow the rest of the staff. Mainly, though, I do not think Warner would want to take his life in that direction, at all.
I know everyone is pointing to a receiver such as Julio Jones, but with injured players coming back next year and Josh McDaniels taking over the offense, I would not mind them going in other directions.
A solid running back to back up Steven Jackson would be nice. A weakside linebacker to compliment James Laurinaitis, a shut-down corner and even another defensive tackle who can stuff the run and put pressure on the quarterback, since the guys we have are getting up there in age.
Mike Sando: You have a great feel for what the Rams need. They're picking late enough in the round -- 14th overall -- to affect their options quite a bit. In recent seasons, the Rams went into the draft knowing they could select the top-rated player at one of only a couple positions. That let them make up their minds more definitively.
This year, the teams picking ahead of the Rams will dictate those options to a much greater degree. Seattle held the 14th overall choice last year. The Seahawks thought Philadelphia was going to draft Earl Thomas, so they were ecstatic when Thomas remained available to them at No. 14. That made the decision easy.
Something similar could happen for the Rams this season. They could sit back at No. 14 and see which player falls further than they expected. They have enough needs to feel good about taking a best-player-available strategy into the draft.
They have the franchise quarterback. There's less urgency to target any one position early in draft.
Alex from Green Bay writes: Let's say San Francisco ends up renegotiating Nate Clements' contract in the next handful of weeks. What do you see his future as?
I see the Niners addressing the corner spot somehow in the offseason, whether it be the draft or free agency. Where does that leave Nate? He is a 31-year-old corner and clearly on the decline. Would he have any value on the trade market? If San Francisco were to try to trade for Kevin Kolb, could Clements be thrown in the mix there? Also, could he possibly move to one of the safety spots as well?
Mike Sando: The 49ers knew when they signed Clements that he would never see the end of that contract. They've reached the point where it's time to renegotiate or let him go. Clements has no real trade value because the acquiring team would be acquiring his contract, and if the 49ers didn't like that contract, why would another team like it?
Remember, too, that teams cannot trade players without a new labor agreement.
At no point have the 49ers shown any inclination they planned to move Clements to safety. They have a new coaching staff now, so it's tough to say whether the team sees that as a long-term possibility, but either way, Clements needs a new contract.
Clements holds some of the cards here. He should just wait out the 49ers, let them release him and then start fresh somewhere he's wanted -- whether that be San Francisco or elsewhere.
Elias from Dayton, Ohio writes: Mike, Gus Bradley has been the Seahawks' defensive coordinator the past for years and they've been terrible. When is this guy going to get fired? The Seahawks fired the wrong coordinator.
Mike Sando: The Seahawks have had defensive-minded head coaches the past two seasons. The responsibility on the defensive side ends with those guys. Bradley has adjusted the defense to reflect the head coaches' vision.
Is Bradley doing a bad job independent of that vision? Hard to say. But we all know the Seahawks have had personnel issues on that side of the ball.
I thought the scheming part was generally a positive this past season. The Red Bryant experiment worked while Bryant's health held up. The Chris Clemons experiment was a smashing success. If I were the Seahawks, I would keep building the personnel on that side of the ball, with Pete Carroll's vision in mind.
Roger from Peoria, Ariz., writes: What are the chances of Dick LeBeau becoming the defensive coordinator for the Cardinals? Is his contract up? He and Ken Whisenhunt are good friends.
Mike Sando: That would make no sense for the Steelers or LeBeau, in my view, regardless of what LeBeau's contract might say (and I do not have a copy on file). The expectation for now is that Whisenhunt is waiting for the Steelers' season to end so he can make a run at linebackers coach Keith Butler or secondary coach Ray Horton.
The Steelers have reportedly promised Butler the coordinating job once LeBeau retires. I suspect that will be enough to keep Butler in Pittsburgh even if the Steelers gave the Cardinals permission to speak with him.
That is another dynamic to consider. NFL rules require teams to let their assistant coaches interview for head coaching jobs. Rules do not require teams to let their assistants interview for jobs as assistants elsewhere.
Jacksonville recent denied St. Louis permission to speak with Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter regarding a lateral move. Even if Whisenhunt wants to speak with Butler or another candidate, he cannot force teams to grant permission.
Update: ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen say LeBeau's contract is expiring. They mention Arizona as a potential option. Again, this makes no sense for Pittsburgh or LeBeau unless the assurances the Steelers made to Butler require quick promotion.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' alleged tiff with Matthew Stafford stemming from a psychological exam is the "most overblown non-story" of the 2009 draft. Stafford has a visit to the 49ers scheduled for Monday.
Also from Maiocco: The 49ers' pick at No. 10 might not start in 2009.
Gil Brandt of NFL.com was the one who reported Stafford's plans to visit the 49ers.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sees Florida State's Everette Brown as a "one-trick pony" who might not interest the 49ers.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says 49ers coach Mike Singletary won't shy away from problem players in the draft. Kawakami: "Despite Singletary's blue-collar attitude, team-first passion and deep religious faith (or maybe in conjunction with all three), Singletary believes he can coach anybody. I think we can use the Vernon Davis example to make the point clear."
Deena Andrews of Blockshopper.com says former Rams coach Scott Linehan has listed his St. Louis-area home for sale, seeking $2.3 million. Linehan, who cited family reasons for declining the 49ers' offer to become offensive coordinator, subsequently took a job with the Lions.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says former Missouri coach Bob Stull didn't produce many victories at the school, but his staffs did produce ascending coaches, including new Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole. Thomas: "Flajole becomes the fourth member of Stull's Mizzou staff [1989-93] currently working in the NFL as a coordinator, joining Marty Mornhinweg [Philadelphia], Dirk Koetter [Jacksonville] and Dave Toub [Chicago]. Mornhinweg and Koetter are offensive coordinators; Toub is special teams coordinator with the Bears."
Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic says the Minnesota Timberwolves donated $2,500 to the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund, established in the name of Larry Fitzgerald's late mother. The fund benefits urban education, the African American AIDS Task Force and the Circle of Love.
Revenge of the Birds' Andrew602 ranks the Cardinals' running backs last in the NFC West. The Rams, 49ers and Seahawks go 1-2-3 in his ranking. Andrew602: "[Tim] Hightower showed flashes of being that franchise back the Cardinals have been waiting for last year. Then at times, he failed to average over 3 yards per carry. He's a quick and tough back that could be a full time starter, but he needs to develop his game more, and stop dancing around in the back field." The scouts I know do not see Hightower as a starter.
Justin Harper of the Oklahoman says former Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth administered CPR to a fallen man, according to an eyewitness.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says 2008 first-round draft choice Lawrence Jackson is motivated to improve upon his rookie season. Jackson: "For me, I'm done with last year. I watched the film -- I still watch it and I go over it -- but last year was last year. The disappointment I felt is gone. That was year one. I take what happened, good and bad, into preparation for year two and move forward, and that's kind of my plan for things."