NFC Week 18 overreactions: Jimmy G’s heroics get Niners into wide open playoffs
Mackenzie Salmon ‘overreacts’ to the biggest NFC storylines from Week 18 in the NFL and provides a first look the NFC playoff bracket.
SportsPulse, USA TODAY
The NFL’s version of “Black Monday” dawned early this year, three teams dismissing their head coaches – two of them also axed general managers – the morning after the 2021 regular season concluded. The New York Giants announced Monday afternoon that embattled GM Dave Gettleman opted for retirement … then turned around and fired coach Joe Judge on Tuesday evening.
That brings the number of coaching openings league-wide to seven*, and recent history suggests there could be more – even if further changes take a few more weeks to materialize.
In the meantime, let’s assess how attractive each of the vacant posts are – and this is a dynamic list that could grow, shrink or simply change as circumstances develop:
DOLPHINS COACHING SEARCH: 8 candidates who could replace Brian Flores
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
Quarterback situation: Trevor Lawrence was almost universally regarded as a generational prospect before being selected first overall in the 2021 draft. However in a rookie season that was largely wasted, he wound up being collateral damage during Urban Meyer’s brief but disastrous tenure – before providing a reminder in Sunday’s upset of the Indianapolis Colts of what might lie ahead. Lawrence is under contractual control for at least four more years, and he’d be a very enticing consideration for Meyer’s replacement – especially if the next coach is offensively focused and/or experienced with directly developing young passers.
Roster: There are certainly holes on a team that scored the fewest points in the league this season, and – given the investment in Lawrence – the offensive line would be a good place to start. An Achilles tear already threatens RB James Robinson’s 2022 season, but 2021 first-rounder Travis Etienne should return from a Lisfranc injury that scuttled his rookie year. Pass rusher Josh Allen is a nice defensive cornerstone, but Jags need work up the middle.
Salary cap: When free agency arrives, the Jags are projected to have more than $68 million available, third most in the league. But they must spend it more effectively than they did under Meyer.
2022 draft: Jacksonville has the No. 1 pick for the second straight year and four of the top 70 selections. The Jaguars obviously won’t take a passer, which gives them flexibility to target the best players or wheel around the board – though that top pick is likely untradeable in a year that appears devoid of elite QB prospects.
Outlook: All things considered, this should still be a fairly plum job. Shad Khan rightly dismissed Meyer once his toxicity was apparent, but the owner has a reputation for extreme patience with his front office – even though the fan base has let it be known lately they’d like accelerated results … and not from current GM Trent Baalke. It also shouldn’t be overly difficult for the next coaching regime to at least be competitive in the AFC South in fairly short order. Khan should be able to redress his 2021 mistake with a candidate far more qualified for an NFL rebuild than Meyer was.
2. Las Vegas Raiders*
Quarterback situation: Now in his eighth year, Derek Carr is finally poised to appear in his first playoff game. Speculation has swirled for years that the Silver and Black were eyeing a potential replacement, but the team has ultimately stuck with Carr – and he’s consistently responded with stability and efficiency … if generally sub-elite play that’s led to a 57-70 record in his 127 starts. However the bigger riddle could be what to do with a 30-year-old who has no guaranteed money left on a deal that runs for one more season with a cap-friendly payout of $19.9 million. Carr’s position is clear, though. “I’d probably quit football if I had to play for somebody else,” he said in June. “I am a Raider for my entire life.” And that may be sufficient if his supporting cast is good enough … though it rarely has been.
Roster: For a team that’s seeded fifth in the AFC playoff bracket, the Raiders aren’t exactly teeming with talent, P AJ Cole, DE Maxx Crosby and LB Denzel Perryman their only Pro Bowlers. TE Darren Waller, who missed six games this season, is a foundational component, and LT Kolton Miller, slot WR Hunter Renfrow and S Trevon Moehrig are major pieces of the puzzle. However GM Mike Mayock can’t afford to continue missing on high draft picks, 2020 first-rounders Henry Ruggs III and Damon Arnette both let go during the season for major off-field transgressions, Ruggs’ alleged actions costing a motorist her life. O-line play remains a significant red flag.
Salary cap: The Raiders will have more than $40 million to spend in free agency … and Packers All-Pro WR Davante Adams, a friend and teammate of Carr’s at Fresno State, would be an ideal target if Green Bay can’t figure out a way to retain him.
2022 draft: It would be the fourth draft for Mayock, the former NFL Network guru. He’s already had six first-round selections, and RB Josh Jacobs is the only one who’s panned out so far. But Mayock has found gems like Crosby, Renfrow, TE Foster Moreau and CB Nate Hobbs in the middle-to-late rounds, and the team has steadily improved since his arrival. Barring a trade, Vegas won’t pick earlier than 19th this year.
Outlook*: It remains to be seen if this job will really even become available given the way Rich Bisaccia* – the first interim coach to lead a team to postseason – rallied this squad from the depths of Jon Gruden’s disgraceful departure and the necessary releases of Ruggs and Arnette. However Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, the Raiders’ quarterbacks coach when they went to Super Bowl 37 following the 2002 season, has been linked to owner Mark Davis. This squad has proven it can be competitive, and any incoming coach would be expected to thrive immediately – but it won’t ever be easy as long as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs rule the AFC West.
3. Miami Dolphins
Quarterback situation: GM Chris Grier opted for Tua Tagovailoa in the first round of the 2020 draft instead of Justin Herbert – and, in fairness to Grier, few questioned that decision … though fired coach Brian Flores did, according to reports. Tagovailoa has gone 13-8 in two seasons and spent much of his rookie year recovering from the hip injury he suffered at Alabama. That said, he’s developing a reputation for not making explosive plays downfield or outside of the pocket, often content to settle for checkdowns. Per reports, the Dolphins were on the verge of acquiring Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans at November’s trade deadline but didn’t pull the trigger due to Watson’s unresolved legal issues. The Watson specter could arise again, though Grier owns two Round 1 choices in the 2023 draft, which should have better QB options than this year’s and would give Tagavailoa one more shot to establish himself. All in all, more questions than answers here.
Roster: Nice array of receiving options for Tagovailoa (or his replacement), starting with 2021 first-round WR Jaylen Waddle, who set a rookie record with 104 catches. Grier has also stockpiled a nice defensive corps featuring CB Xavien Howard, DL Christian Wilkins, S Jevon Holland and edge rusher Jaelan Phillips. The line and – by extension – the running game leave a lot to be desired.
Salary cap: The Fins are expected to have nearly $75 million in free agent funds, which would be the league’s largest war chest. DE Emmanuel Ogbah and TE Mike Gesicki are not signed for 2022.
2022 draft: Miami’s top pick this year belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Dolphins will pick later in the first round, dependent on the San Francisco 49ers’ playoff finish. The big payoff from last year’s blockbuster pre-draft trade comes next year.
Outlook: Despite a checkered draft record and zero playoff wins in Grier’s six-season tenure, the GM appears to be a made man in owner Stephen Ross’ hierarchy. The next coach will have to work hand in hand with Grier – evidently not Flores’ strength – while establishing a culture and continuity that was missing in recent years, when Flores regularly shuffled assistants. There’s definitely an opportunity to excel given this team has won 21 of its last 35 games, but there are unique variables at play, too.
4. Denver Broncos
Quarterback situation: It’s been an open question in the Mile High City since Peyton Manning’s retirement in 2016 following Super Bowl 50. Drew Lock, a second-rounder in 2019 who’s been a model of inconsistency, is heading into the final season of his rookie deal but appears to be the nominal starter with Teddy Bridgewater ticketed for free agency. Denver was a rumored destination for Aaron Rodgers a few months ago, but that chatter is basically non-existent now. Heading into his second offseason with the franchise, GM George Paton will surely weigh veteran options like Watson and Russell Wilson, playmakers with the potential to galvanize this offense. Otherwise, unless Paton falls in love with a prospect like Ole Miss’ Matt Corral or Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, he may have to stick with Lock or find another Band-Aid for 2022.
Roster: It looks pretty good, bolstered by Paton’s first draft, which brought CB Patrick Surtain II, RB Javonte Williams and OL Quinn Meinerz, among others. Quarterback notwithstanding, the offense could be a turnkey operation for a steadier signal caller than Lock, downfield targets including WRs Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick and TE Noah Fant. The defense also has nice pieces, namely Surtain, S Justin Simmons and OLB Bradley Chubb – but it was configured for outgoing coach Vic Fangio.
Salary cap: Paton should have more than $45 million to play with, and RB Melvin Gordon might be worth re-signing if Denver isn’t hoarding space to accommodate an established QB.
2022 draft: Paton holds the ninth overall pick and has extra selections in Rounds 2 and 3 courtesy of the Rams, who traded for OLB Von Miller in November.
Outlook: Intriguing. This team seemed on the verge of contending under Fangio but was largely held back by the instability at quarterback. If the defense doesn’t degrade, a breakthrough is possible next season. However the Broncos’ long-unsettled ownership situation could give prospective candidates serious pause given the recent churn of coaches.
5. New York Giants
Quarterback situation: In a bold move, Gettleman made Daniel Jones the sixth overall pick of the 2019 draft. Though the Duke product’s understated public persona resembled that of Eli Manning, the legend he was tasked to replace, his athleticism – namely the ability to make plays with his legs – distinguished him. Alas, through three years, Jones has also proven even more careless than young Eli, racking up 49 turnovers in 38 games. A neck injury cut Jones’ 2021 season short, so the team’s next GM has much to consider before deciding whether to pick up the QB’s fifth-year option this spring. One overriding consideration could be Wilson, who’d love the opportunities the New York market affords … and could also rectify a lot of ills for an offense that could take off with a more seasoned triggerman.
Roster: Whether it was the shortcomings of Jones or jettisoned coordinator Jason Garrett, the offense finished next to last in the league despite talents like RB Saquon Barkley, TE Evan Engram and WRs Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton. In fairness, injuries were also a significant factor. Engram’s contract is up, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if others follow him out the door. Defensively, New York has a nice nexus that includes DL Leonard Williams, S Xavier McKinney, CB James Bradberry and pass rusher Azeez Ojulari, who comes off a productive rookie campaign.
Salary cap: Not great. Without reapportioning some money, Big Blue would be about zero balance heading into the new league year.
2022 draft: Pretty great. Gettleman broke with character to make some draft day deals last year, and his successor will reap the benefits of possessing four of the top 81 picks, including Nos. 5 and 7 overall. Could mean a nice haul of players, could be ammo to pursue a quarterback solution of Wilson’s caliber.
Outlook: Unlike, say, Minnesota, an incoming regime shouldn’t expect to win right away with this franchise. But the Giants – they share an NFL-worst 22-59 record with the crosstown Jets since 2017 – do have the resources to turn things around relatively quickly and could compete in a division that always seems up for grabs. The organizational approach to the quarterback quandary will tell the fan base how much longer it must remain patient.
6. Minnesota Vikings
Quarterback situation: For better or worse, Kirk Cousins – he of the 59-59-2 career record – will be under center in 2022, his $35 million salary already guaranteed. Kellen Mond was a third-round pick in 2021 … and also the seeming recipient of a parting shot from departed coach Mike Zimmer on his way out of Minneapolis.
Roster: Though Cousins has never won big, he has been highly productive – and should be again in his walk year given RB Dalvin Cook and WRs Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, one of the league’s ascending weapons, remain at his disposal. The offensive line is also young and solid. The defense led the NFC with 51 sacks but was frankly a disappointment in Zimmer’s final two seasons. Despite being the beneficiary of so much pressure, the secondary just hasn’t held up.
Salary cap: Not pretty, Cousins and DE Danielle Hunter, who’s played seven games over the past two seasons, scheduled to eat up one-third of next season’s cap. The Vikes’ next GM will have to reallocate more than $7 million just to be cap compliant ahead of free agency.
2022 draft: Minnesota is scheduled to choose 12th in the first round, but half of the team’s eight picks come after Round 5. Deposed GM Rick Spielman made five first-round picks over the past four drafts, but CBs Mike Hughes and Jeff Gladney are no longer with the team.
Outlook: This probably should have been a playoff team in 2021. As constructed, it probably should be in 2022. But ownership and the next regime have to take a hard look at the roster given the long-term future of the quarterback position and veteran-laden core that doesn’t appear to have the juice to make a Super Bowl run. Jefferson is the crown jewel of the roster, but it’s worth wondering if a sell-off of other players would be the best course of action – to the extent that’s even realistic.
7. Chicago Bears
Quarterback situation: Deposed GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy couldn’t extend their stays despite moving up to draft Justin Fields last year. The quarterback has a world of talent and appears to have the skill set to flourish given how the position has evolved. But Fields’ rookie year was a train wreck – and was probably destined to derail given Pace’s mismanagement of the O-line and injuries to players like WR Allen Robinson and RB Tarik Cohen. Argument to be made Fields would be the No. 1 pick of the 2022 draft had he stayed at Ohio State, but now he needs someone to restore his confidence and create an environment where he can blossom. Backup Nick Foles is signed for 2022.
Roster: Pace’s trades and signings have left a motley assortment of underdeveloped youngsters and aging veterans – think pass rushers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn – whose best value to the franchise might be measured in what they can fetch on the trade market. RB David Montgomery, WR Darnell Mooney and TE Cole Kmet could form a nice nucleus around Fields, but the blocking must improve – and maybe that starts with LT Teven Jenkins, who spent much of his 2021 rookie season on the shelf.
Salary cap: Robinson, TE Jimmy Graham and DL Akiem Hicks are among those set to go free, leaving behind roughly $40 million with which to reload.
2022 draft: Thanks to Pace’s maneuverings, Fields is the only first-rounder Chicago has had in the past three drafts – and his arrival came at the cost of the 2022 Round 1 slot, now property of the Giants.
Outlook: It may boil down to the next coach’s vision for Fields and how quickly that can come to fruition. But a defense that’s long been the underpinning of this team looks primed for a reboot. Given the talent the Vikings have and draft capital already acquired by the Detroit Lions, the Bears seem like the NFC North team least able to mount a challenge to the Green Bay Packers in the near term.
(Salary cap figures courtesy overthecap.com.)
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.