The never-ending cycle of front office and coaching staff overhaul continues again this offseason, and seven teams have new head coaches for 2015 -- the Jets, Bills, 49ers, Falcons, Raiders, Broncos and Bears. The changes these teams make, schematically and philosophically, will have heavy effects on how they draft and build their rosters for next year.
The draft is a crapshoot no matter what when it comes to predicting picks, but as team needs change based on the new regimes, selections can be surprising as established players are replaced by draft picks and as teams change their style of personnel. Just when you think you've got a grasp of where things will go in the first round and a little beyond, these wild card teams come in and screw with everyone, and it creates a kind of butterfly effect. It's going to be awesome.
New Head Coach Todd Bowles, Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey
Todd Bowles brings his attacking, multiple and aggressive defense to New York. While the Jets will not be switching up their basic 3-4 front, it's a different style of play that requires different talents from their players. At the core of Arizona's elite defense last year was an excellent front that featured Calais Campbell, but their secondary consisted of a deep stable of playmakers. With Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie, Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Buchannon, Justin Bethel, and more ranging about, Bowles was able to effectively institute what he wanted. Execution is big, after all.
This secondary, a mix of effective blitzers, strong run stoppers and damn good man-cover corners, was necessary for Bowles to run the cover-0 style blitzes and exotic schemes that proved so deadly. When you're bringing everyone and leaving your corners alone on the outside to fend for themselves, you better hope they don't get toasted or you're going to give up some big plays.
So, obviously, and I realize this isn't novel, I'd expect the Jets to look hard at cornerbacks in both free agency and the draft. They'll have some options in the draft. Michigan State's Trae Waynes set the bar for the class by running a 4.31 40-yard dash before UConn's Byron Jones blew the roof off the Combine with his record-setting broad jump (and everything else, really) performance. LSU's Jalen Collins, Florida State's P.J. Williams, Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson, Washington's Marcus Peters, Utah's Eric Rowe -- the list goes on. This is a deep class, and the Jets will almost surely be looking to add a cornerback in the first couple rounds. That could have a cascade effect for teams following them.
That said, they may look to add some talent in the linebacker corps, another strong area for the Cardinals (not this year so much, but the inside linebackers -- Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington -- made up the identity of that defense in 2013). Having a solid middle of the field there is huge for Bowles, so that could end up being priority number one.
Additionally, as with any team, they'll look to add some pass rushing help on the outside. This could start a run on outside linebackers -- Dante Fowler, Vic Beasley, Bud Dupree, among others -- and have effects on the later part of the round.
One exciting thing for the Jets going into this year is their talent on the defensive line, and Bowles will have some fun working with Muhammed Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and a few others in implementing his scheme, but I wouldn't rule out another investment at defensive end. Strength on strength on strength.
As for the offense, scheme and philosophical changes under new coordinator Chan Gailey could have huge reverberations on the rest of the draft because New York may feel they need to select a quarterback early in the draft. Regime changes haven't always been easy on young quarterbacks that were selected by the previous group. This would obviously be an interesting bombshell.
"We're going to run it and throw it," Todd Bowles told reporters at the Combine when asked what the new offense under Gailey would look like. "We're going to be very balanced. It's not going to be a certain style of offense. As we get all our pieces in place, we'll drift toward that as we go. But we're going to run the ball and we're going to throw the ball equally. We're going to be a well-balanced offense."
That's vague. But, Gailey has a history in the league and his offenses have been fairly wide open, trending toward the spread-style looks you tend to see in college. He asks his players to make things happen in the open field and speed and explosiveness after the catch are huge components. Gailey's offenses attack the entire width of the field and spread you out horizontally, but at the same time, like to take shots downfield as well. Running backs, because the field is more spread out, tend to find room to operate.
On the surface, the Jets seem to have some weapons that will fit this scheme, but don't be surprised if they look at the talented group of wide receivers early, and there are some very interesting running backs in there as well at the beginning of the second round.
Overall, though, the Jets present an interesting subject at No.6 this year, and with an overhaul on both sides of the ball, will be especially hard to predict.
SB Nation presents: The Post-Combine mock draft
John Fox, Vic Fangio look to get things back on track
"It's a little hard to say right now," replied Fox at the Combine when asked about Fangio's new-look defense in 2015. "We're going to be a 3-4 terminology wise."
Which, of course, implies there will be a big change from the Bears' 4-3 last year. Will it be a wholesale change to something like what the Niners run or will it be less dramatic than that? Fox was purposely vague.
"We haven't had our players on the grass yet so until we evaluate that," he said. "We've looked at a whole lot of tape, not as much as we need to continue to do. That'll help us define what we're going to be and how we're going to use the pieces. Until we look at the tape I'm confident we'll piece together a good defense. It's still too early in the process. We've not had a practice and been on the grass yet and in my experience, players define that when you get to that point."
Of course, as the Bears' new general manager, Ryan Pace, pointed out in Indianapolis, calling a defense a 3-4 vs. a 4-3 doesn't really tell the whole story anyway because of the importance of sub packages in the modern NFL. Teams are barely in their "base" defense half the time.
"That's the system Vic Fangio comes from so we've had a lot of internal discussions about that," said Pace, "and really you're in your base 3-4 a certain percentage of the time, but a lot of times you're in multiple defensive packages on third down. So, we'll be base 3-4, that's accurate and that's what Vic's comfortable with, but the best coaches they find ways to maximize their players' skill sets, I know Vic's going to do that. So our base with be 3-4 but we'll be in multiple schemes."
In theory, the Bears have some nice pieces on defense to work with and some depth to throw at their sub packages. The question on a lot of people's minds, though, is whether Jared Allen, who signed a four-year, $32 million contract last year, is now just going to be a sub package pass rusher. Can he play standing up as a 3-4 outside backer?
"Well again, I mean I haven't seen that so it'd be hard for me to evaluate until we get him out there," said Fox, "but he's a good football player, he's got good instincts, so my experience has been that works in a two-point or a three-point stance."
"I think he can be very flexible," added Pace. "We can use him in a variety of ways. He has done it for a lot of years. I feel the same way about several other players. Lamarr Houston is the same way. I think position flexibility is a strength of some of those guys. And again, I think Vic Fangio and John Fox -- intelligent guys that will find ways to maximize their skill sets."
This is playing things close to the vest when it comes to "need" and helping opposing teams project their needs, of course. Adding to that, the line between a 3-4 standup outside linebacker and a 4-3 edge rusher have somewhat blurred over the years.
You can have teams evaluate 4-3 ends as 3-4 backers, and visa versa, and it makes it tough to pinpoint scheme archetypes.
"A lot of times it opens it up for you," said Pace. "Because there are a lot of undersized defensive ends in college who can stand up and play outside linebacker in the 3-4. So it's exciting to me. I've been in both systems in New Orleans. We've been 4-3 and 3-4. So I think it opens up more players. Because there are undersized ends who can play that stand-up position and rush the quarterback from a two-point stance."
Mizzou's Shane Ray, Utah's Nate Orchard and LSU's Danielle Hunter come to mind.
As Pace pointed out, there's some flexibility with what you can do at the traditional nose tackle position in a 3-4 as well.
"I think there's a couple guys who can do it," he said. "One of them's done it before in Dallas. It doesn't have to be this big, 350-pound space-eater. You can use him in a variety of ways."
Bottom line? We haven't even gotten past the front-seven and it's already hard to predict what Chicago will do, not to mention what they need.
Dan Quinn's defense, Kyle Shanahan's offense
As the Falcons transition to Dan Quinn's Seahawks-style defense, they too will have to go through the process of figuring out who fits and who will be looking for a new job. Last year, Atlanta made waves by signing a bunch of 3-4 style players, and this offseason, Quinn and his staff will set out to piece their version of what made Seattle so strong on that side of the ball the past two years.
"You guys know me, in terms of affecting the quarterback," said Quinn at the Combine when asked about pass rushers on the roster. "That's one of the things that's near and dear to me. There are a number of guys on our roster that I can't wait to work with and continue to develop. As we go through the combine and through free agency, we'll get a vision of who else can be a part of this team and add to that. When you look at a guy, you're trying to picture things that he can do. I was fired up about the guys on the current roster. Then we'll add into whether if it's in the draft or free agency, all of the unique stuff that a guy has, we'll try to use it in the future."
Quinn has a history of fitting players into potentially-surprising spots that work for what they're trying to get done. In Seattle, he was the architect behind moving the 6'4, 330-pound Red Bryant to the strongside end in the early days of Carroll's defense.
2015 NFL Draft
8 takeaways from the 2015 NFL Combine
As expected, Florida State's Jameis Winston stole the show. But there were plenty of other notable happenings in Indianapolis this year.
2015 NFL Draft
On the other side, the weakside, the Seahawks under Quinn have utilized a type of player called the LEO, which is, generally speaking, an undersized defensive end whose principal traits are speed and explosiveness. Quinn will have to go about finding a guy who can play that spot
"I think just pass rushers in general, always finding ways to affect the quarterback," he said. "Sometimes, it's outside with the guys who cover so well. Sometimes, you blitz them and do it. But having multiple pass rushers, who can keep attacking and trying to get the quarterback to move is always at the front of our thinking ... that spot is a unique one. We'll find some guys that can do it."
Quinn could go with a bigger player in the mold of Michael Bennett or Cassius Marsh, as he had in Seattle, or could look for an explosive but smaller guy like Bruce Irvin for that role. It really creates uncertainty for the type of player he even prefers.
Of course, with Quinn now in Atlanta, we can go ahead and assume he'll start looking for the Seattle-style bigger corners, and he may start looking for his Earl Thomas, or Kam Chancellor at safety. He'll be looking for speed at linebacker, and multiplicity on the defensive line.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons will be changing things up as well. They'll be running Kyle Shanahan's zone blocking scheme, so needs and prototypes on the offensive line and at running back change somewhat.
"My first impression of him is that you can feel the quickness," Quinn said of Devonta Freeman. "In our outside-zone-system, I feel like this is tailor-made for a guy who can really explode off the edge."
That said, Quinn comes from Seattle, where the philosophy has been to amass running backs of 215-plus pounds and look to physically beat down opponents. Will a big back be in the cards early on for Atlanta?
Similarly, will zone-style offensive linemen -- smaller, more athletic -- be a big emphasis? With style and scheme changes comes the need to turnover a good amount of established players on your roster.
Gary Kubiak's offense, Wade Phillips' defense
Like the Falcons, the Broncos will be switching to the zone blocking scheme, and both are descended from the Mike Shanahan system that he and Kubiak perfected in Denver while winning two Super Bowls (with John Elway at quarterback, of course).
The main questions around that change are centered around the offensive line and running backs, of course, because it's a system that requires slightly different style of players.
"I think that you never know until they get out there and do it," Elway said in Indianapolis when asked if the Broncos' current personnel on the offensive line fits the new system. "I think that it's a combination that's not strictly zone but that's part of it. We also have power and gap schemes within Gary's system. We're going to find out but we also know that we've got the people that can do it and we'll also look on the market and see what's available out there and try to create the best football team and create some competition."
SB Nation presents: What areas the Broncos need to address in the draft
The team will have to assess what they have in their backfield, and then decide if they need to continue investing in running back or rely on C.J. Anderson and Montee Ball.
"I think it fits great," for C.J. Anderson, said Elway. "I think we saw what C.J. could do last year, especially halfway on through the end of the year. He came in and had a tremendous year for us. He's a one-cut guy and he's a north and south runner. That's what style of an offense this is. I think C.J. will be a perfect fit for it so I'm thrilled we still have him."
As for how Ball fits in?
"Montee just had a tough year with injuries last year," said Elway. "It's just a matter of getting him in the right spot-the right position-and having him be healthy and having him get some confidence. In this offense we're going to use more than one back and I believe Montee can be very helpful to our football team and do good things for us.
"We still think Montee is a north and south runner. Really, any running offense that is successful has backs that are running north and south. That's what Montee can do. He can stick his foot in the ground and get north and south. I don't think he will have any problems adjusting to the new offense."
We shall see. Right now, they're not disclosing all of the team plans, but in any balanced zone-blocking scheme, the running back is a very important figure. Just look at Seattle or Houston.
Offense isn't the only overhaul for the Broncos. The Broncos are moving to Wade Phillips' multiple 3-4 defense and while they already have a good solid core of 3-4 type players, they may need to add some things via the draft.
"I think we have the personnel to go both ways," said Elway. "I think it's going to be a smooth transition. You look at [LB] DeMarcus [Ware] and [LB] Von Miller on the outside and what we have as far as defensive linemen that can make that transition. I'm looking forward to it. Everywhere Wade's been, he's been very successful and always had a highly-rated defense. We had that last year and I expect we're going to be that much better this year."
"I think a 4-3 team that plays an under front, I mean, that's no different than playing the 3-4," added Kubiak. "So I think there are a lot of similarities right there. But obviously through my conversations, my dealing with [defensive coordinator] Wade [Phillips], some of the personnel we think that fits very much with what Wade wants to do, with Von having the ability to play on the edge as well as play some off the ball. So we just think it's an easy transition with him and Ware, and where we want to go. I don't think it's that big of a change, really, because of the under front."