Who Are the Hot NFL Head Coaching Candidates? 25 Names to Watch

With Black Monday quickly approaching, plenty of NFL teams are about to begin the formal interview process to find their next coach-in-chief. Who will find themselves on the interview trail as the carousel starts spinning?
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We released our initial NFL head coaching hot list back at the end of September, and overall, I’m pretty happy with how it held up over the course of a long season. We’re going to update some of the names here, along with adding a few others who might make some sense for jobs this coming year (or in the near future).

This post is going to be broken up into two parts: The first is bringing back some thoughts from the initial list along with updates, and the second will be any new names that might have risen over the last 14 weeks or so.

Without further ado…

Robert Saleh

Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers

What we wrote in September:

Saleh is energetic and young, and he comes from a great coaching tree. The 49ers are 3-0, second in total defense and are top 10 in both sacks and interceptions at a time when the interception is declining generally. Does he have tremendous talent up front? Yes, but the simplistic beauty of his defense allows good players to move fast and keep up with well-schemed offenses.

What we’re saying now: 

The 49ers have the second-best defense in football, have surrendered the second-fewest yards per game and the fewest passing yards per game and are third in sacks, even if that isn’t the best representation of quarterback pressure. If you’ve watched a 49ers game recently, the camera seems to be on Saleh almost as much as it is on Kyle Shanahan. Saleh is an energetic presence who is handling a talented unit well, and hiring him as a head coach may be the biggest no-brainer of the coaching cycle.

Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

What we wrote in September:

The next great offensive mind up in the Andy Reid pipeline, Bieniemy had a largely quiet hiring cycle last year despite the monstrous offensive performance in Kansas City. This year, he may be harder to ignore as we learn more about Bieniemy’s work with star Patrick Mahomes.

What we’re saying now:

Bieniemy should be a head coach in the NFL next season. If Andy Reid’s recommendation means anything (and clearly, it seems to), it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him as one of the first candidates in an interview room after the end of this season.

Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills

What we wrote in September:

I had Daboll on my list last year as well, and I think people are starting to see why. With internships under both Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, with feet in both the college and professional worlds, Daboll undertook a true project in Josh Allen and is starting to get hard results. His handling of Allen in the preseason was smart, and owners would do well to pick up on the way he’s increasingly empowered his young passer through the last few months.

What we’re saying now: 

The Bills clinched their second playoff spot in three years with a Week 15 win over the Steelers. And you might be saying to yourself: Well, the team is No. 23 in yards per game, No. 22 in DVOA, No. 21 in yards per play, etc. etc. I would challenge a coordinator to have come up with a better complementary system than Daboll has for Josh Allen, essentially making him an effective piece of a puzzle without exposing his weaknesses.

Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens

What we wrote in September:

It’s been a long and winding road for Roman, from the cusp of a head coaching gig on a rising 49ers team, to Buffalo, to Baltimore where he worked his way into the offensive coordinator role in Lamar Jackson’s second year. While I think it will be difficult for people to untangle their original thoughts on Jackson and his current status (they thought he wasn’t good, and now believe it is an effect of the system), Roman did revamp this sleepy offense and create something truly dangerous and different in today’s NFL.

What we’re saying now: 

Roman created the league’s most potent offense in 2019. There is little doubt he’ll have his brain picked, and his circle of friends will likely be prodded for information.

Kevin Stefanski, offensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings

What we wrote in September:

Stefanski came up with the Brad Childress regime, but he’s risen under Mike Zimmer in Minnesota. He interviewed for the Browns job this past offseason and, while the Vikings are not lighting up the scoreboard, Stefanski’s ability to create a complementary offense in Zimmer’s vision and maximize a talent like Dalvin Cook should not be overlooked.

What we’re saying now: 

The Vikings started lighting up the scoreboard. Minnesota is fifth in yards per play, fifth in points scored, ninth in third-down conversion rate and fifth in turnover margin. We’re going to be hearing a lot about Kevin this winter.

Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England Patriots

What we wrote in September:

It’s just nonsensical to leave him off a coaches-to-watch list. McDaniels, despite choosing the nuclear option and walking away from Indianapolis, is a curiosity in league circles and has, for years, piloted one of the best and most diverse offenses in football. A team with a veteran quarterback will always at least have passing interest in him.

What we’re saying now: 

The Patriots’ offense has struggled this season despite the team’s stellar record. Still, an owner interested in learning more about McDaniels will see a top-15 unit that is still winning games despite some serious counterweights, including a lack of reliable receiving talent across the board. I’ll double down on what I wrote before—McDaniels will still be a valuable interview candidate for teams with a veteran QB presence.

Kellen Moore

Kellen Moore, offensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys

What we wrote in September:

Many thought it was too early for Moore to be a playcaller, and I’ll probably receive some flak for throwing him on here after just three games. However, there will always be a market for QB-friendly offensive minds, especially in the coming years as the latest herd of veteran quarterbacks bow out. At the least, I think Moore’s rise forces Jerry Jones to make some interesting decisions in the coming years.

What we’re saying now: 

Say what you will about Dallas’ struggles and the need for seasoning on Moore’s part, but the Cowboys have the second-most efficient offense in football. This season, Dak Prescott has gone from uncertain commodity to bona fide star. Dallas has vacillated throughout this strange season, but they are leading the league in total offense by a steady margin.

Kris Richard, defensive passing game coordinator, Dallas Cowboys

What we wrote in September:

Richard has been given the defensive spotlight in Dallas, even if he’s not the full-time coordinator. I think Richard is long overdue for a shot, having played an instrumental role in the development of a generationally great passing defense in Seattle. In Dallas, he’s been part of a crucial injection of young coaching talent that has helped push the Cowboys to Super Bowl contention.

What we’re saying now: 

Dallas’ defense has fallen off a bit, though I don’t think Richard disappears from potential coaching lists. There’s a chance that the Cowboys can rewrite a bit of their story in the coming weeks, which would be interesting for all their top assistants.

Bret Bielema, defensive line coach, New England Patriots

What we wrote in September:

The former big-time college coach is moving up the ranks in New England at a time when the Patriots are touting an unstoppable defense. I like Bielema because he’s been the head coach in high-pressure jobs before, has access to and knowledge of college offenses and has spent a few years in various roles under Bill Belichick. He is different from the slew of other Patriot assistants in that Bielema had success and his own persona before coming to New England.

What we’re saying now: 

New England still has the best defense in the league, with an expected points total of +182.7 (Pro Football Reference only has six teams as a net positive, for perspective). Maybe it’s Jerod Mayo who gets the credit as NFL Network noted in their initial coaching list. But I think someone gets to make the rounds and tell owners how they can replicate this scheme.

Shane Waldron, passing game coordinator, Los Angeles Rams

What we wrote in September:

The run of hiring 30-something assistants under Sean McVay could very well continue, especially if the Rams’ offense shifts into high gear at some point this season. While the reviews on Zac Taylor are still out and may inevitably (and unfairly) impact another coach coming out, Waldron is part of a budding tree and is being groomed for bigger things under McVay.

What we’re saying now: 

Defense might be more of a trend this offseason, especially since the Rams have cooled off in 2019. While each coach deserves to be evaluated as an individual and not as part of some trend, Waldron may get caught up in a trend shift.

Nick Sirianni, offensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts

What we wrote in September:

I think we may soon be talking about a Frank Reich tree. The Colts are going to be praised roundly for their creativity and ingenuity amid chaotic circumstances, and owners may want a piece of the action with a team in transition.

What we’re saying now: 

Though the Colts have struggled over the latter half of the season, the Colts’ offense is still among the most efficient in football, hanging around with the Patriots, Eagles and Cardinals in Football Outsiders’ rankings. If I’m an owner, I want to hear from the coach who is keeping them alive despite losing a franchise quarterback.

Dave Toub, special teams coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

What we wrote in September:

Toub has been instrumental in Kansas City’s success under Andy Reid, and he deserves a shot. Former pupils I’ve spoken to tout a true teacher, and someone with an understanding of both sides of the football. Plus, he has access to Reid’s offensive coaches, who he could poach for a new opportunity elsewhere.

What we’re saying now: 

Toub’s status as a solid coaching candidate hasn’t changed much over the years. He has a rolodex of ringing endorsements should he need them. The issue will be waiting for an owner to approach it with an open mind. Might John Harbaugh’s past in special teams nudge some people along?

Mike Groh, offensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles; Press Taylor, quarterbacks coach, Philadelphia Eagles

What we wrote in September:

As the searches for coaches with connections to innovative schemes intensify, Groh, Taylor and some other members of the Eagles staff will find themselves under the microscope. While Frank Reich and Doug Pederson had a heavy hand in Super Bowl LII, Groh also deserved a ton of credit for his analytical eye.

What we’re saying now: 

I think Philadelphia still has some work to do in order to make it into the playoffs, but that the work their coaching staff has done through a slew of injuries has been impressive. Both of these names warrant some consideration, even if it takes an owner willing to get their hands dirty and sort out what a good team does during a not-so-good season.

Mike Pettine, defensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers

What we wrote in September:

Back in 2018, when offenses were ripping the NFL apart, Pettine was one of the names I heard from coaches in the know as someone who was getting the counter-strike right. With the benefit of time away after his end in Cleveland, Pettine is now a major force behind the 3-1 Packers. Yes, his team gave up 34 points against the Eagles on Thursday Night Football, but he could be an attractive second-chance candidate, especially for those who understood what a toxic situation he endured in Cleveland.

What we’re saying now: The Packers are currently 11-3 and the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Their staff is going to get looks, especially since Green Bay is a favorite ground of search firms to pluck coaches from.

Mike McCarthy

NEW NAMES

Mike McCarthy, former head coach, Green Bay Packers

McCarthy would like all of you to know he’s changed. That’s fairly obvious from the recent public relations tour in which we’ve heard all about the things he’ll do differently this time around. He’s hitting on all the buzz words: Growth, innovation, analytics. This will play with an owner who is nervous about making a critical hire.

Ron Rivera, former head coach, Carolina Panthers

A coach who has been to a Super Bowl with deep ties to some legacy franchises. Rivera is well regarded and represents the counterpoint to a slew of offensive coaches who have populated the landscape over the past few years. A smart owner might see Rivera’s track record in a good division and a defense that still created a good deal of havoc in 2019, as well as Cam Newton’s injury that wiped out this entire season, and think he’s getting a steal.

Mike McDaniel, run game coordinator, San Francisco 49ers

The Kyle Shanahan tree might be stripped this offseason depending on how deep the 49ers make it into the playoffs and how conveniently an interview schedule fits into playoff preparation. McDaniel has been alongside Shanahan for the duration of his rise. He’s dotted through some of the better offensive systems in the NFL over the past 10 years and coordinates one of the most efficient and versatile run games in the league for Shanahan. McDaniel’s prior struggles with drinking will obviously come up but perhaps his turnaround is part of the story.

Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I think in a few years we’ll realize how important Bruce Arians was to the NFL head coaching community and if I were an owner I would be interested in recreating that environment. Todd Bowles may also get another shot. Over the past few weeks, Jameis Winston has put up comically large offensive numbers. The Buccaneers lead the league in passing and have a first down percentage that is up there with some of the most efficient systems in football (Baltimore, San Francisco, Houston and Dallas).

Mike Kafka, quarterbacks coach, Kansas City Chiefs

While this may take a year or two to materialize, an organization looking to develop for the long haul might take a chance on the 32-year-old quarterbacks coach. Drafted by Andy Reid in 2010, Kafka spent five years bouncing on and off a few rosters before returning to his alma mater, Northwestern, in 2016 for a graduate assistant run under the respected Pat Fitzgerald. He then rose quickly in Kansas City, moving into the QB coach role in 2018.

Leslie Frazier

Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills

I would count Frazier among the coaches who deserves a second chance. The former Vikings coach hasn’t stopped working, going from Tampa Bay to Baltimore to Buffalo since his stint in Minnesota. The Bills have a top five defense and are creating something special in that locker room.

Lincoln Riley, head coach, Oklahoma

Lincoln Riley may enjoy his status as belle of the ball too much to actually leave Oklahoma. When you’ve reached a point where recruiting is churning out a constant stream of talent and your offense is good enough to consistently throttle opponents and reach the postseason, maybe it’s not in your best interest to make a jump. That said, if the Cowboys came calling, this would at least be a fascinating sit down.

Matt Rhule, head coach, Baylor

Rhule nearly took the Jets job last year had it not been for a disagreement over hiring assistants. He developed a program at Temple and revived another in Baylor, still reeling in the wake of scandal. The Bears are one of the top scoring teams in the country and Rhule likely gets bonus points as a coach who has worked both sides of the ball and took a brief stop in the NFL (Giants assistant OL coach, 2012).

Urban Meyer, former head coach, Ohio State

He is, at the least, the thirstiest candidate of the cycle. Meyer was seen in Daniel Snyder’s booth at last Sunday’s game and has publically expressed interest in the Cowboys job. I would think he’d be better suited for Washington, where a desperate coach would fling all sorts of personnel control his way in an effort to woo him. Though Dallas is interesting given that Jerry Jones sees a closing window with which to win a championship.

Dan Mullen, head coach, University of Florida

My favorite dark horse. First mentioned by NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, I liked the perspective that Bruce Feldman over at The Athletic added: Mullen is a Meyer protégé who could bring some of the program’s tentpole philosophies without the desire to be all powerful. Mullen also coached and developed Dak Prescott at Mississippi State.

Don Martindale, defensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens

UPDATE (12/19): Thank you to everyone who pointed out one glaring omission on this list. (The email address below is always open.) This thing starts on notebook paper and makes its way over to a Word document and for whatever reason one name simply slipped through the cracks.

Martindale, 56, has been with the Ravens in multiple capacities since 2012 and has been the team’s defensive coordinator since 2018. All the Ravens did in his first year was finish as one of the three best defenses in football, and they are fifth in the latest DVOA rankings for 2019. Martindale has seen good, veteran pieces leave and has swiftly incorporated different veterans into a scheme that is complementary to the team’s innovative offense. The Ravens are hell for any opponent and not just because of Lamar Jackson. I wouldn't be surprised if any Ravens assistant gets a boost simply from being associated with the organization, as it tends to turn out good head coaches and is in rarefied NFL air right now as a unified front full of perfectly working piece.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.