Asked after the draft for a way-too-early prediction for 2018 NFL Coach of the Year, the educated stab in the dark from here was …
Pat Shurmur, New York Giants.
Perhaps you know him better as the only offensive coordinator Vikings fans didn’t think they were smarter than. He got a free pass when Norv Turner abruptly resigned midseason in 2016. Then he got the Giants job when the Vikings reached the NFC Championship Game with Case Keenum at quarterback in 2017.
The 2018 Giants already were ripe for a big turnaround before the draft. That potential was enhanced when General Manager Dave Gettleman’s decision to help rather than replace Eli Manning shaped what appears to be one of the league’s better drafts.
The first two picks — running back Saquon Barkley at No. 2 and guard Will Hernandez at No. 34 — immediately help Manning by upgrading a running game that has ranked 18th or worst in each of the past five seasons. The next two picks — linebacker Lorenzo Carter at No. 66 and defensive tackle B.J. Hill at No. 69 — are good pieces for new defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s transition to a 3-4 defense.
With their fifth pick (No. 108), the Giants took Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta. Yes, they spent a third-rounder on Davis Webb last year, but now Shurmur doesn’t have to settle with the previous regime’s hand-picked quarterback.
The Giants made only six picks and were one of five teams not to make a trade during the draft. But a solid offseason that began with Shurmur’s hiring continued.
Patriots left tackle Nate Solder was signed in free agency. Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree arrived via trade. Cardinals linebacker Kareem Martin was another free-agent signing.
Upgraded talent, stronger coaching and better luck with injuries would put Shurmur much closer to the 11-5 team in 2016 than the 2017 team that was decimated by injuries, started 1-8, got coach Ben McAdoo and General Manager Jerry Reese fired at 2-10, and ended the season at 3-13.
In the past 10 years, the Associated Press Coach of the Year has won an average of six more games than his team won the previous year. Last year, Sean McVay, a rookie head coach, took the Rams seven wins higher, from 4-12 to 11-5.
In 2013, Ron Rivera went 7-9 with the Panthers. A year later, he was Coach of the Year at 12-4. In 2014, he went 7-8-1. A year later, he was Coach of the Year at 15-1.
Shurmur has a 10-23 record as a head coach. But this is best opportunity after going 9-23 with the Browns and 1-0 as an interim coach in Philadelphia.
The Giants should enjoy lower expectations. Or at least lower than the intense Super Bowl hype that helped squash last year’s team.
Of course, a turnaround in the stacked NFC won’t be easy. Especially in the NFC East, where the Super Bowl champion Eagles look even stronger with Carson Wentz returning, and the Cowboys hopeful that a full year with Ezekiel Elliott will make them closer to the 2016 team that went 13-3.
The Eagles drafted only five players, but will get an immediate impact from second-round pick Dallas Goedert, the South Dakota State tight end who will step into coach Doug Pederson’s potent two-tight end offense.
The Cowboys’ draft hasn’t received good reviews, and Dallas certainly will miss tight end Jason Witten, who reportedly is retiring to join the new “Monday Night Football” booth. Needing a receiver desperately and having their pick of any wideout in the draft, the Cowboys took linebacker Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall.
Washington’s draft doesn’t appear to be as impactful as the Giants’, either. And, of course, the wild card there is Alex Smith and how well he does replacing Kirk Cousins.
The Vikings, Packers, Rams and everybody in the NFC South will have heightened expectations in the NFC this year. But if, for some odd reason, you’re asked to make an early guess for NFL Coach of the Year, give Shurmur some thought.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org