Previously, we looked at how the AFC’s new head coaches and the coaching hires of 2019 did last season, and how they impacted their respective draft classes that year. Now, we’re going to take a look at the NFC teams and evaluate the job that the new organizations accomplished. What kind of impact did they have right way and what kind of change have they implemented moving forward?
2019 NFC coaching hires
Arizona Cardinals and Kliff Kingsbury
The Arizona Cardinals had their own Freddie Kitchens-like saga in 2018 when they tabbed former Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks to lead the charge after Bruce Arians retired. That move absolutely blew up in their face, as Wilks had a difficult time scheming his players, and the Cardinals slogged their way to a 3-13 finish. The terrible performance gave the franchise their first-ever number one selection in the draft.
In an attempt to make a splash, the Cardinals dipped into the college ranks and hired former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury to lead the charge. Kingsbury had an interesting offseason even before coming to the Cardinals as a surprise hire. Kingsbury was fired by Tech after three straight losing seasons, and then, before his possible rise to the NFL, Kingsbury was hired as offensive coordinator at USC, putting an end to the NFL idea. Or so we thought.
Kingsbury was actually blocked from interviewing with NFL teams by then-USC athletic director Lynn Swann. Because he still wanted a shot at the NFL, Kingsbury resigned from his position after just a few weeks. Kingsbury interviewed with the Jets before the Cardinals, ultimately choosing to lead the Cardinals.
Speculation then immediately began that Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray was on his way to Arizona as the top overall pick. A clip of Kingsbury praising the Heisman Trophy winner during Kingsbury’s time at Texas Tech surfaced and football observers already starting trying to put the puzzle together. As it turned out, many had pegged since the Scouting Combine that Murray would be the pick at first overall. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. The 2019 season was a solid, if unspectacular, first year for the Kingsbury regime, but the question is what foundations did he lay with his draft class.
Kingsbury and the 2019 draft class
After the Cardinals took Murray, the team wasted little time making it known he would be the guy. On day two of the draft, the Cardinals traded 2018’s tenth overall pick, Josh Rosen, to the Miami Dolphins for a second-round pick. They would use the pick to select another offensive weapon in Massachusetts wide receiver, Andy Isabella.
In total, the Cardinals drafted three wide receivers (Isabella, Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler, Fresno State’s Keesean Johnson). Butler suffered an avulsion fracture during the preseason which ended his season before it began. Isabella and Johnson did not set the NFL world alight, combining for 376 yards as rookies.
That being said, the rookie receivers were behind the great Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. They’ll continue to be backups and role players in this offense, especially after the team went out and acquired former Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in exchange for running back David Johnson.
Defensively, they added Byron Murphy in the second round and Zach Allen in the third. Murphy started 16 games and performed reasonably, while Allen had just eight tackles. To some extent, it is hard to judge Kingsbury on the performance of his defensive draft picks, as his focus will have largely been on installing a new offensive system with hos rookie QB.
If we want to judge Kingsbury on his development of draft picks, then Murray is the place to look. The first-overall selection won rookie of the year as he threw for over 3,700 yards with 20 touchdowns. He added another 544 yards and four touchdowns on the ground as he demonstrated that he has the skills to be a talented starting quarterback in the NFL, especially in the high octane system that Kingsbury operates. A solid first overall season is a big tick for the start of the Kingsbury regime.
The Cardinals are looking at an intriguing future
Despite a 5-10-1 season as a rookie head coach, you can feel the Cardinals moving up in the league with their Air Raid offense. Murray now has Hopkins, along with Fitzgerald and Kirk, to throw to, as well as a much needed new offensive tackle in Josh Jones. As Kingsbury and Murray grow together, so too do the Cardinals. Looking back at the hire, it was a risk worth taking. This was always going to be a fascinating process to watch and the potential is definitely there. As long as year two brings continued progression for Murray, Kingsbury should continue to run the show in the desert.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bruce Arians
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lured the former Cardinals head coach out of retirement in 2019, and he brought defensive coordinator Todd Bowles with him. Not only Arians, but Bowles have begun turning the franchise around and that effort was apparent in the second half of the season when the Buccaneers won four straight after a 3-7. They did lose their final two games, ending the season in almost perfect fashion under quarterback Jameis Winston, a pick-six in overtime to finish 7-9.
The immediate future is obviously quite bright in Tampa Bay as they landed Tom Brady. Brady, the six-time Super Bowl champion, signed a two-year contract to replace Winston, who is now backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans. However, Arians was brought in to put this team on the path to the Super Bowl and a crucial part of that is developing the players drafted in 2019.
Arians and the 2019 draft class
The Buccaneers were in a fortunate position in 2019. They needed an inside linebacker in the worst way and Devin White was right there for the taking with the fifth pick. Even after missing three games, White posted 91 tackles, 2.5 sacks, recovering four fumbles, returning two for touchdowns.
Arians and Bowles spent nearly the entire 2019 draft reworking the defense. They spent their first five picks and six of their eight total picks on that side of the ball. About half of those picks worked their way into the starting lineup, including White and two defensive backs, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and safety Mike Edwards. Even cornerback Jamel Dean saw action, playing about a third of the total defensive snaps in 2019.
Sixth-round pick Scott Miller also saw game action at the end of the season after injuries ended the seasons of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Matt Gay, their fifth-round kicker, went 27/35 on field goals and 43/48 on extra points. Every 2019 Draft pick that saw significant time in 2019 seemed to have a positive impact, which is a great sign for the Buccaneers coming out of the 2020 NFL Draft.
As for going forward, their top three picks from 2019 (White, Murphy-Bunting, and Dean) all should continue to see action in 2020. Edwards may eventually see his time on defense drop after the Buccaneers selected Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round. But so far, Arians and his staff have done a nice job with their 2019 picks.
Green Bay Packers and Matt LaFleur
The relationship between Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and former head coach Mike McCarthy has been well-documented by now. Ultimately, the franchise sided with Rodgers as McCarthy had basically overstayed his welcome in Green Bay. In an effort to revamp the offense and get Rodgers seemingly back in everyone’s good graces, the Packers went out and hired former Rams and Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur as their next head coach.
LaFleur began his NFL coaching career as an assistant with the Houston Texans in 2008 and has also spent time with the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons in the pros, as well as Notre Dame, among other schools, in the college ranks.
Thanks to a fresh offense and a newfound rebuilding job to their defense, the Packers went 13-3 in 2019, won the NFC North, earned the two seed in the NFC playoffs, and advanced to the NFC Championship. Part of that was also thanks to help from their 2019 class.
LaFleur and the 2019 draft class
While LaFleur has gotten a solid return so far from his first draft class, he would like to see more from his first draft selection, Rashan Gary, who was somewhat of a surprise selection from the Packers. That absolutely puts a lot of pressure on the former Wolverine to live up to his high expectations. So far, the jury is still out on Gary, as he was fairly quiet as a rookie, with just 21 tackles and two sacks.
That production without question needs to improve, starting in year two. Part of the reason for a slow start was Green Bay going out and signing Za’Darius and Preston Smith in free agency, who combined for 25.5 sacks. However, in his second year, the Packers need to see Gary step up and be a third complimentary piece.
Fortunately for Green Bay, their second pick in round one had himself a fine rookie season. Safety Darnell Savage immediately worked himself in with Adrian Amos and finished with 55 tackles. Savage needs to continue developing in year two as part of the Packers’ young secondary.
Second-round pick Elgton Jenkins showed he is at least a valuable backup in case he isn’t starting in 2020. He started 14 games for the Packers in place of the injured Lane Taylor and had a fine rookie season. Taylor may step back in as the starting left guard, but Green Bay should feel good turning to Jenkins when they need to.
The early indications for LaFleur developing talent are good, but the Packers now need to see Gary and third-round selection Jace Sternberger take a step for this draft class to be seen as a success. LaFleur’s ability as an offensive mind will be tested in how he develops the 2020 first-round selection, Jordan Love, to be ready to take over from Rodgers.