With the 2018 NFL season kicking off next Thursday, we’re running out a week’s worth of countdowns to help you get ahead of the madness…
The start of a long NFL regular season is nigh, but for some fans that initial high quickly converts into a longing for the inevitable changes to follow in the offseason.
In today’s Countdown to Kickoff season preview, we’ll look at the seven coaches who currently don’t run their own NFL team, but will certainly be in the discussion once the dog days of November and December hit. There have been 50 head coaching changes since 2011, or an average of 7.14 hirings and firings each offseason. The last time there were fewer than six firings during a coaching carousel, it was 2010.
With that in mind, here are some names to start brushing up on:
1. James Bettcher, defensive coordinator, New York Giants
Bettcher was a jump-ball away from taking over for Bruce Arians in Arizona but ended up making the best-case lateral move to New York. After posting defenses that finished fifth, second and sixth, respectively, over a three-year period with the Cardinals, he takes over a talented but complicated set of personnel with the Giants. Should he help a win-now team reach the playoffs, there’s a good chance his raised profile in a large media market leads to a bevy of interviews.
The 40-year-old, who Andy Benoit pegged as a defensive Sean McVay type last winter, is from an intriguing coaching tree that has already spawned Todd Bowles in New York. He was, for the time, imaginative with a diverse set of talents in Arizona and if he can replicate the magic without a true shutdown corner in the mold of Patrick Peterson, teams will be interested.
2. Matt LaFleur, offensive coordinator, Tennessee Titans
I’ve received mixed feedback about LaFleur so far, but something to consider before we really get going: While these names have come up fairly often, this list will be dictated significantly by a consistent history of owner behavior. Should Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay’s stars continue to burn bright this season, there is going to be a push to pillage and raid their inner circle for other offensive wunderkinds. The 38-year-old LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach in Washington the same three years Shanahan was offensive coordinator and McVay was tight ends coach. He was the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta the two years Shanahan was offensive coordinator (including the Super Bowl season), and he was offensive coordinator in L.A. for McVay’s first season as a head coach.
While the move from L.A. to Nashville seems like a downgrade, it allows LaFleur the chance to stand on his own, call his own plays and get his hands on a quarterback who can do myriad things well and propel a playoff-caliber offense. LaFleur gets bonus points for having his foot in the college game fairly recently (Notre Dame, quarterbacks coach, 2014), but not too deeply.
3. John DeFilippo, offensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings
Another name that very likely could have already been a head coach if the hiring cycle broke the right way. DeFillipo was everywhere this past offseason after a strong 2017 in Philadelphia.
He’s engaging and comes from a coaching room that, quite honestly, did not get the attention it deserved for their collaborative efforts offensively during the Super Bowl run. With a horde of young quarterbacks flooding the market, there will always be a push for candidates who are, or believed to be, whisperers at the position. Now, he enters a plumb situation with the most polished passer he’s worked with since Derek Carr. Assuming everyone stays healthy, the Vikings will be in the playoff mix and DeFillipo will see his cell phone ringing off the hook.
4. George Edwards, defensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings
Edwards was interviewed by the Bears last offseason, though the deck was stacked against him. The team was leaning toward an offensive mind for young quarterback Mitch Trubisky, which left Mike Zimmer’s right-hand man on the outside looking in.
For those stuck in the idea that a coordinator has to call plays, consider that most playoff-caliber teams receive their best contributions from those who help put the playbook together, and not necessarily the playcaller himself.
Those inside the business see a steeper climb for entrenched defensive coaches, though investing on that side of the ball has produced some of the NFL’s best coaches right now (Mike Tomlin, Mike Zimmer, Ron Rivera, Dan Quinn).
5. Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
Two questions most people in hiring positions ask themselves: Can this guy take over a locker room, and can he get some decent coaches to follow him here? Read Robert Klemko’s piece on Saleh and tell me he doesn’t fit the bill motivationally. As for staff access, he’s in the building in San Francisco where, again, there will be interest in mining some of the still unheard of talent. Saleh also has footprints in the championship season Seahawks and the Gary Kubiak Texans.
The 49ers had a strong weighted DVOA last year via Football Outsiders. The things they excel at are the product of good coaching, but not statistics that will typically appear on a common overview box score. Last year, Saleh had a top 10 unit in stuffing running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage. They were eighth in second-level yards (yards earned after the 5-10 yard mark beyond the line of scrimmage) despite playing in a division against Todd Gurley and the run-first Seattle Seahawks.
6. Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills
An interesting theory I heard recently: Imagine if Josh Allen has a decent season. Imagine if, on the fly, Daboll is able to adjust his base and patch some of his mechanical issues. How attractive might that be to a team that will be making a change at head coach and will likely have a high enough draft pick to take the top QB in next year’s class?
The league is full of Josh Allens right now—young quarterbacks who have a promising set of tools but not nearly enough time to hone them. Anyone, like McVay, who can create a system that negates those flaws and produces a productive offense, is going to get brought in to meet owners and general managers.
Plus, Daboll has ties to both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. Those aren’t bad letters of recommendation.
7. Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
Schwartz’s name keeps coming up, just like it did around this time last year. Second-chance head coaching candidates are fading in popularity a bit, unless you’re the kind of coach who spends a decade rehabilitating your image on television.
That’s not Schwartz, who has always been blunt and gruff, but may also be perfect for a young team that has a talented defense. Watch what he’s doing in Philadelphia right now with the simulated pressures he’s creating. He’s in the zone right now with a loaded roster and could see the benefits down the line.
Also worth keeping an eye on: Raheem Morris, assistant head coach, Atlanta Falcons... Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills… Dave Toub, assistant head coach/special teams coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs… Brian Flores, linebackers coach, New England Patriots… Eric Washington, defensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers… Teryl Austin, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals… Jim Harbaugh, head coach, University of Michigan.