Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer 47d

Robert Saleh faces big decisions with New York Jets, including his own role

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Robert Saleh is one focused individual. During the final stages of negotiations with the New York Jets, he locked himself in his home office and told his wife to hold all calls. That included family. He was so isolated from potential distractions that his own father had to get the news of his hiring on TV.

Saleh will need that kind of steadfastness in his new gig as Jets head coach. It's one of the toughest coaching jobs in sports -- so tough that the past five men who held the position went out with a losing record.

Welcome to the Jets.

The former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator, who will be introduced to the New York media Thursday afternoon via a virtual news conference, has a lot to do in the coming weeks, including:

Hire a defensive coordinator: Saleh might opt to call the defensive plays, I'm told, which runs contrary to the organization's objective in having a "CEO" coach. Instead of naming himself the playcaller, he should hire a coordinator he trusts, which would allow him to coach the entire team and manage the games. They don't need a repeat of the Adam Gase era. That always felt like there were two head coaches -- him and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Saleh wanted to bring along 49ers assistant DeMeco Ryans, a source said, but that idea was snuffed out when Ryans was promoted to 49ers D-coordinator. Longtime Atlanta Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, a past Saleh associate who ended the season as the Falcons' interim defensive coordinator, has emerged as an option to join Saleh, a source said.

Pick a quarterback: From all indications, Saleh and the front office believe Sam Darnold can be salvaged. This doesn't mean he's a lock to return. There's a lot to evaluate, particularly the quality of the quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL draft, namely Ohio State's Justin Fields and BYU's Zach Wilson. It also would behoove them to explore Darnold's trade value, in case they want to go in that direction. This is a multi-faceted decision.

You also have to believe Saleh would like to meet with Darnold before he renders a verdict. Saleh and presumptive offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur already have watched a lot of Darnold tape and they believe he has untapped potential that can be extracted by a coaching/scheme change. Chances are, this won't be resolved until April's draft.

If Houston Texans star Deshaun Watson becomes available, the Jets should scrap the plan and make a trade offer for him. It's hard to believe he'd waive his no-trade clause to play for the Jets, who aren't close to contending, but the call has to be made.

Solidify his vision on offense: This is crucial for Saleh, who has spent his entire coaching career on the defensive side of the ball. LaFleur, who, like Saleh, joined Kyle Shanahan's coaching staff in 2017, is a young coach. He has no playcalling experience on the NFL level, but he was so highly regarded that Shanahan actually blocked him from working under his older brother, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur. (Side note: Saleh was the best man in Matt's wedding.)

LaFleur, 34, will install the Shanahan version of the West Coast offense, a quarterback-friendly system that features zone running, play-action passing and moving pockets. This is a big transition for LaFleur, who will stray from the Shanahan nest for the first time. (He has worked alongside Kyle in every one of his seven NFL seasons.) Saleh reportedly is hiring the well-traveled Greg Knapp as quarterbacks coach; he can be a sounding board for LaFleur. Much of his offensive staff is inexperienced.

Implement his defensive philosophy: Saleh employs a 4-3 base defense, which the Jets haven't used since Herm Edwards' final season in 2005. The change won't be as radical as it might seem because they deployed plenty of hybrid fronts under Williams. The biggest difference will be on the back end. Saleh likes to play zone coverage (specifically, a Cover 3). The Jets preferred man-to-man in the Williams system.

They should be strong up the middle with Quinnen Williams and Folorunso Fatukasi at defensive tackle and C.J. Mosley at middle linebacker, but Saleh's system requires speed-rushing defensive ends -- and the cupboard is empty. Saleh also likes big cornerbacks. Blessuan Austin and Bryce Hall (both 6-foot-1) fit the prototype, but they're relatively unproven.

Recruit free agents: The 49ers have 27 unrestricted free agents, and you can bet some of them wind up in New York. The Jets will become San Francisco East in terms of scheme and philosophy. The biggest name is cornerback Richard Sherman, whose season was derailed by injuries. He will be 33 for the season, but he can still play when healthy. He's a big Saleh supporter and certainly would provide much-needed leadership in the locker room.

Others to watch are cornerback K'Waun Williams, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and edge rusher Solomon Thomas. When you're installing new systems, it always helps to have players already familiar with them. They can help teach the others. It's also worth noting that Saleh's time with the Jacksonville Jaguars overlapped with that of wide receiver Allen Robinson, who will be a coveted free agent after a big season with the Chicago Bears.

Build a relationship with GM Joe Douglas: Lost in the aftermath of the Saleh hiring is the fact he and Douglas never have worked together. The Jets were criticized in the past for taking that route (Todd Bowles-Mike Maccagnan, Rex Ryan-John Idzik), so it can't be brushed off. The difference here is Douglas picked Saleh. It's not an arranged marriage, but it was a quick courtship.

It means they have a lot of work to do, making sure they're aligned when it comes to identifying talent. Saleh's prototypes are different than those of Gase, which makes it imperative Douglas adjust his scouting system to meld with Saleh's vision.

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