The impact of the 2019 AFC coaching hires on their teams’ draft classes

Last season saw five new head coaches take the reins in the AFC. But how did those 2019 coaching hires impact their team's draft classes last season?

The 2019 cycle brought some interesting names to the head-coaching ranks in the National Football League. That group ranged from a rookie head coach to a coach that was brought out of retirement after spending some time in the broadcast booth. For most of the teams that had new head coaches in 2019, the moves have started to pay dividends or are at least showing some signs of promise. Others, however, have been a little less fortunate.

The recent 2020 cycle only brought us five teams with new head coaches, three fewer than 2019, when eight teams began a new era, not including the two teams that made coaching changes in the middle of the season — the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers.

In this post, we’re going to take a look back at the five AFC head coaching hires from a year ago, how those teams fared in 2019 and whether those teams seem to be moving in the right direction or if they should have gone in another direction from the start. We’ll start with the most infamous result from that 2019 group, the Cleveland Browns.

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Cleveland Browns and Freddie Kitchens

This is, without a doubt, the easiest one to figure out. Freddie Kitchens was in way over his head as head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2019.

It’s not like Kitchens didn’t have plenty of coaching experience in the NFL because he did. He has been a coach in the league since 2006 where he was the tight ends coach for the Dallas Cowboys. The issue was that Kitchens was always a position coach in the NFL, having never experienced the responsibility of being even a coordinator prior to his arrival in Cleveland. This was Kitchens’ resume before coming to Cleveland in 2018.

  • Tight Ends coach, Dallas Cowboys (2006)
  • Tight Ends coach, Arizona Cardinals (2007-2012)
  • Quarterbacks coach, Arizona Cardinals (2013-2016)
  • Running Backs coach, Arizona Cardinals (2017)

After spending a decade coaching numerous positions in Arizona, Kitchens was named associate head coach and running backs coach for the Browns in 2018 under head coach Hue Jackson. After Jackson was fired along with offensive coordinator Todd Haley midway through the season, Kitchens was promoted to offensive coordinator while defensive coordinator Gregg Williams served as interim head coach.

When it came time to hire the permanent coach for the 2019 season, many thought Williams would be the man for the job. While the Browns also interviewed other candidates besides Williams and Kitchens, including two former head coaches in Mike McCarthy and Jim Caldwell, as well as Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores and a guy that is now very familiar with the Browns, Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.

In the end, the Browns chose to let Kitchens complete his fast rise through the Browns’ coaching ranks and name him head coach. That also put a lot of pressure on Kitchens as the Browns, thanks to their busy offseason, came into the 2019 season with high expectations from analysts and fans alike. What better way to live up to those expectations than to get absolutely smashed by 30 points in Week 1? The Titans went into Cleveland and hung 43 points on the Browns as Cleveland was penalized an astounding 18 times.

Cleveland never fully recovered from that beatdown, and they were 2-6 at the halfway point of the season. They would win their next three games, including a 19-16 win over a Buffalo Bills team that won 10 games and made the playoffs. However, that three-game winning streak also included the ugly incident between defensive end Myles Garrett and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. Garrett was suspended for the rest of the season, as questions continued to be raised about Kitchens’ handling of his players.

After a 6-10 finish to the season, including a Week 17 loss to a Cincinnati Bengals team that was 1-14 going into the week and had already clinched the No. 1 draft pick, the Browns ended the Kitchens era after just one season and admitted defeat. So what should the Browns have done in hindsight?

You can argue they should have just gone with Williams, who would become defensive coordinator for the New York Jets. However, since they hired Stefanski for 2020, why didn’t they just side with him from the beginning? Especially when the Browns seemingly went all-in on offense in free agency in trading for Odell Beckham Jr.? The added concern here is whether a seemingly player-driven locker room may have done lasting damage in terms of the growth of the young players on the roster.

Kitchens and the 2019 Draft class

Kitchens and the Browns added some good talent via the draft. Greedy Williams has already established himself as a solid cornerback partner to 2018 first-round pick Denzel Ward. Fourth-round pick Mack Wilson played the second-most snaps on defense, behind only Joe Schobert, who is no longer in Cleveland after signing a hefty contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Their other fourth-round picks also saw early contributions as rookies, including safety Sheldrick Redwine and kicker Austin Seibert. Redwine became a core special-teamer and saw some action on defense, while Seibert was a middle-of-the-pack kicker in 2019, going 25/29 on field goals and 30/35 on extra points.

For all of the flaws that have been discussed with the Kitchens hire, his effect on the draft class should not be a damaging one going forward. Largely that is because of the Browns focusing their attention on the defensive side of the ball in the 2019 NFL Draft. That meant that many of the players would have had limited interaction with the offensive-minded head coach.

An unceremonious end

Overall, it was Kitchens’ inability to keep all the talent in check and on the same page that proved to be the issue. Cleveland was a popular playoff pick before the season but it quickly became apparent they were never in the race. Perhaps Stefanski will be the man to finally break the longest active playoff drought in the NFL (2002) and second-longest among the four major sports (Seattle Mariners, 2001). With the Browns deciding to move on after just one season, the hope is that the 2019 season should not leave a lasting footprint of damage on the young players on the roster.

Cincinnati Bengals and Zac Taylor

Before 2019, it was almost hard to believe that Marvin Lewis was the coach with the second-longest tenure at an NFL franchise, behind only Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. But after 16 seasons, the team finally made a change that many felt was long overdue.

That led to the Bengals joining the youth movement in the head coaching ranks as they hired Zac Taylor, who turned 37 on May 10th. Taylor was previously the quarterback coach of the Los Angeles Rams and also had one year of experience as an offensive coordinator under head coach Joe Philbin and interim head coach Dan Campbell with the Miami Dolphins.

Taylor inherited a 6-10 team but there were growing pains all over the place. The Bengals lost their first 11 games and finished 2-14. That gave the Bengals the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and now LSU QB Joe Burrow has arrived to help save the franchise. However, for Burrow to have immediate success it is important that some of the 2019 NFL Draft class take that next step, so how did Taylor do developing his rookies in his first year as a head coach?

Taylor and the 2019 draft class

The Bengals’ 2019 Draft class included a couple of building blocks for the future. That begins with first-round pick Jonah Williams, who will effectively be a rookie in 2020 after his shoulder injury cost him the entire 2019 season. Williams is expected to step in at left tackle and should hopefully be an immediate upgrade to that offensive line.

Second-round pick Drew Sample saw limited time at tight end as he played just 10% of the Bengals offensive snaps. He should get more playing time now that Tyler Eifert is in Jacksonville, but C.J. Uzomah is likely still the top guy for now at the position. It is too early to judge the development of Sample, but if he fails to get on the field in 2020 and 2021 then it raises some red flags around how he has been handled.

Third-round linebacker Germaine Pratt worked his way into a starting role and will handle the middle of the defense going forward. He finished with 76 tackles in 2019. As he continues to develop, Pratt is a name to watch on the Bengals’ defense.

Joe Burrow was not the first quarterback Taylor selected. That honor belongs to North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley in the fourth round in 2019. Finley started three games after Andy Dalton was benched following an 0-8 start. Finley didn’t fare much better, losing all three of his starts and the team went back to Dalton for the final stretch of the season. The Bengals found out very quickly that Finley was not the answer, but his level of play is extremely concerning for a head coach that has a history of coaching quarterbacks.

As for the rest of the draft, it’s been fairly quiet so far, though fourth-round pick Michael Jordan earned the starting left guard role as a rookie in Week 1, only to flip with Billy Price later in the season. Former Oklahoma running back Rodney Anderson was still being bit by the injury bug while fellow running back Trayveon Williams had a quiet rookie season, but could still be in the team’s future plans.

The first season for Taylor was somewhat of a bust when it came to developing offensive players. Losing your first-round pick to injury will always make a draft class look worse, and Finley was no sure thing entering the league in the first place. With a bolstered offensive line, 2020 is the year that real judgment will start being made on Taylor as a talent developer.

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