Not to be controversial, but it’s easier to get elite results out of elite players. However, the obvious problem is that not every player is elite. Shocking stuff, we know, but it creates an imbalance in terms of how “difficult” a position coach’s job is – we’ve pointed out previously how highly we think of a guy like Miami DBs Coach Gerald Alexander, but he’s now working with the most expensive DB room in the league that includes three(!) rookie-contract backs picked on Day 1 or 2. The Miami secondary should be elite. On the other end of the spectrum, there are position coaches who are getting great results despite a low team investment. They may have great players, but these players were relatively cheaper for the team to acquire, indicating that the position coach has played a role in coaching these players up. Below, the seven NFL position coaches doing the most with the least:
Cardinals RBs Coach James Saxon
2021 Cap Hit Ranking: 30th for RBs/FBs
Notable Players: James Conner, Chase Edmonds
As one of the most surprising teams of the 2021 season, the league-leading Cardinals have clearly done a lot right. Hidden behind the star turn of third-year QB Kyler Murray and their big-name receiving core, the RB room has quietly led the league’s 8th-ranked rushing offense.
Leading rusher James Conner gained acclaim with Pittsburgh, but struggled to find a home on the open market last offseason and was forced to settle for a 1-year, $1.75M deal. Chase Edmonds was a fourth-round draft pick way back in 2018 but has always been stuck behind another back on the Arizona depth chart. Even removing the rushing ability of Kyler Murray from the equation, Arizona’s backs have been excellent. Third in the NFL with 14 RB rush TDs, the Cardinals rank fifth for expected points added (EPA) per RB carry and tenth for RB yards per reception. It’s simply par for the course with the always-excellent James Saxon.
Raiders WRs Coach Edgar Bennett
2021 Cap Hit Ranking: 28th for WRs
Notable Players: Hunter Renfrow, Bryan Edwards, Henry Ruggs III
It’s difficult to expect a 30-year-old player to significantly improve without changing many pieces around them, but Las Vegas QB Derek Carr is putting up per-game averages of 302 yards and 13 first downs — both career-highs that join his 7.9 yards per attempt atop his personal leaderboard.
Rather than bring in improved weapons for Carr to throw to, the Raiders were forced to jettison both HC Jon Gruden and WR Henry Ruggs III midseason. Carr is left with one of the thinnest WR rooms in the league, led by fifth-round Hunter Renfrow and supported by third-round Bryan Edwards and midseason pickup DeSean Jackson. The most expensive among them, Zay Jones, has a $2.5M cap hit and ranks a distant 7th on the team for receptions.
Even after all the turmoil, the Raiders are on pace to sport the 3rd-best pass attack in the NFL, their highest ranking since their 2002 Super Bowl campaign. It’s not all Darren Waller, either, with the WR room 2nd-best for EPA/WR target and the 6th-lowest WR drop rate despite throwing further downfield than all but 10 other teams. Two-time Super Bowl Champion and Packers HOFer Edgar Bennett may have fallen under the radar, but his work this season remains excellent.
Cowboys TEs Coach Lunda Wells
2021 Cap Hit Ranking: 27th for TEs
Notable Players: Dalton Schultz, Blake Jarwin
Fantasy players may be more attuned to the Cowboys TE room, especially given the team’s WR injuries this year, but it’s important to remember that Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin weren’t early draft picks — they’re just playing like them. The fourth-round Schultz has been a rare consistent receiving piece for the Cowboys, the only Dallas player to catch a pass in every game this season, while the undrafted Jarwin has rated as PFF’s 9th-best pass blocking TE.
As Dallas tries to hold on to their second-ranked total offense and second-ranked scoring offense, the tight ends continue to play a large role in every aspect of the game, ranking 14th in EPA/TE target and 3rd in TE broken tackles despite recording the 6th-most contested catches. Furthermore, they are 11th in average rush yards before contact with a TE blocking. Lunda Wells has jumped around position groups in his career, but his experience coaching receiving TEs like Evan Engram and OLs like LSU’s have clearly given him the ability to push Dallas forward.
Browns LBs Coach Jason Tarver
2021 Cap Hit Ranking: 28th for LBs
Notable Players: Anthony Walker, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Sione Takitaki, Mack Wilson
JOK is another example of a player whose hype hides the fact that the team only had to invest a late second-round pick to get him. The rookie has done a bit of everything and done it well, allowing only six first downs in 203 coverage snaps while adding a 22.9% pressure rate (7th among LBs with 25+ rush snaps) and a 2.48 average depth of run tackle (8th among LBs with 100+ run defense snaps). He joins Anthony Walker, the team’s leading tackler despite missing four games and making only $3M this year, Sione Takitaki, and Mack Wilson in the NFL’s fifth-best total defense.
Cleveland has suffered from bad fumble luck, recovering only five all year, but the group has excelled with the 14th-best LB average depth of run tackle and a league-best pass yards allowed per coverage snap (when LB’s assignment was targeted). Jason Tarver seemingly worked for every west coast team under the sun before coordinating Vanderbilt’s defense from 2018-2019, but he’s a reason the Browns have allowed 16 points or less in 5 of their past 7 games.
Cardinals DBs Coach Marcus Robertson & CBs Coach Greg Williams
2021 Cap Hit Ranking: 25th for DBs
Notable Players: Byron Murphy, Robert Alford, Marco Wilson
Back to Arizona, where this time the defense’s great statistics come a bit more into focus. We’re not too far away from the 2021 offseason, where the secondary was the major question mark on the team. Nearly every mock draft sent a corner to Glendale, from Jaycee Horn (Todd McShay, Danny Kelly) to Greg Newsome (Peter King, Will Brinson) and even Caleb Farley (Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz).
Arizona’s excellent scouting operation ignored them all, filling the position with FA Malcolm Butler and a pair of late-round selections in Marco Wilson (4th round) and Tay Gowan (6th round). When Butler retired in the preseason, chaos seemed set to reign once more, but Marco Wilson has ably filled the spot (80.85% of snaps). The Cardinals have also leaned on a pair of steals in 2019 second-rounder Byron Murphy and veteran-minimum Robert Alford, but the team keeps rolling.
With a CB in primary coverage, Arizona has boasted the 8th-best EPA allowed/pass and the 8th-best pass yards allowed per coverage snap, not to mention the team’s overall league-leading EPA allowed/pass. Individually, Marcus Robertson and Greg Williams have worked on some of the league’s best secondaries in the 2017 Broncos and 2014 Chargers, and they are at it once again.
Buccaneers Safeties Coach Nick Rapone
2021 Cap Hit Ranking: 29th for DBs
Notable Players: Antoine Winfield Jr, Jordan Whitehead
Only two division leaders have a four-game lead on their next-closest foe — the league’s two Bays, Green and Tampa. Despite bringing back everyone and their mother from last season’s Super Bowl edition, Tampa Bay has been forced to shuffle around their secondary with every major contributor missing time. With key third safety Mike Edwards now suspended for committing federal offenses, the load will fall even more on a pair of mid-round rookie contract players in Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. Regardless, this defense has been incredibly opportunistic, registering the fourth-most interceptions in the league (including 6 by safeties) and allowing the lowest yards per reception in the league — one of only two teams under the 10.0 mark.
The safeties have been excellent in primary coverage, allowing the 3rd-lowest EPA allowed/pass and 8th-lowest pass yards allowed per coverage snap, both especially important for a Tampa team that faces more passes than anybody else. Nick Rapone was a longtime college and HS coach before being tabbed in 2013 to lead a young Patrick Peterson in Arizona. Tampa managed to grab him back from the college ranks in 2019 and he has continued to excel.