Who Are the Hot NFL Head-Coaching Candidates?

How the pandemic will affect an owner’s thought process when it comes to replacing a head coach? As we begin this season like no other, here are the top candidates who will dominate the coaching conversation moving forward.
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As an obsessive follower of the NFL coach hiring process, I’ve been wondering recently how the pandemic will affect an owner’s thought process when it comes to replacing a head coach. Do they consider 2020 a lost year in nearly all phases (including revenue) and give coaches another chance? Do they view 2020 as a true representation of what a coach can and should be doing, and lean in even further to their evaluation of this year? Do they feel the sting of lost revenue and essentially view a new head coach as a way to jump start the cash machine for 2021?

One industry source said they believed owners would be more inclined to make a change, especially given that there were a few coaches who managed to hang on despite underperforming last year. That goes for general managers, too. If you remember, there’s been a disproportionate number of GM firings compared with coach firings in recent years. We may see a correction there as well. Underperforming during the pandemic gives owners cover to completely rip off the Band-Aid.

A second person well versed in the hiring process believed that the changing world in which we live will also begin to be reflected in the NFL. That means finally recognizing and caring for the pipeline of coaches of color and listening to those who recommend strong candidates from diverse backgrounds. No, you cannot tell a billionaire who to hire. But, maybe, success elsewhere will make him think it was his idea all along.

It’s all on the table, which is why we’re putting out our most robust attempt at covering our bases this preseason. Last year we began with 15 candidates and expanded to 25 heading into interview season, missing only new Giants head coach Joe Judge. The hope is that we can account for some weirdness. Who knows which college coaches will end up getting a full season and, thus, an opportunity to showcase their abilities? Who knows how the current crisis will shape and mold the football season, which may provide a better stage for certain coaches over others?

So let’s get to it. Here, to the best of our knowledge, are the coaches who will make up the majority of the conversation heading into 2021:

nfl-coaching-candidates-2021-bieniemy-eberflus-saleh

THE TOP CANDIDATES:

Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers

Saleh piloted the second-best defense in football in 2019. By taking the effective Cover 3 scheme he mastered in Seattle and tweaking it for a more modern approach to evolving offenses, Saleh’s talented defense finished second in yards surrendered, sixth in turnovers and, perhaps most significantly, first in net yards/attempt allowed in the passing game. His slogan, "All Gas, No Brakes," became a rallying cry for the team during their Super Bowl push a year ago, showcasing his ability not only to design a good defense, but to create some sustainable team building as well. Saleh interviewed for the Browns’ head coaching vacancy in 2019, losing out to Kevin Stefanski and a job that already seemed zeroed in on its intended target.

Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

Undoubtedly the biggest snub of last year’s cycle, Bieniemy, the offensive coordinator of the best offense in football, has returned in that same role this year. Here is a coach who has had his hands on the development of Patrick Mahomes, who sits at the Andy Reid altar and, at times, calls plays. He interviewed with the Panthers and Giants, among others, at the end of the 2020 cycle. There is a belief that this will be a make-or-break year for Bieniemy’s candidacy. Will Andy Reid’s Super Bowl credentials add more heft to his impressive résumé?

Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills

Daboll was one of our top recommendations a year ago and interviewed with the Browns. Daboll has served under both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, and has experience with receivers, tight ends and as an offensive coordinator. His ticket is going to be the continued growth of Josh Allen, which cannot be separated from the offense Daboll is designing. Allen’s bad throw percentage decreased by 5 points in 2019 and his on-target throw percentage is rising. If he takes another step forward and the Bills make the playoffs again, it would be shocking not to see Daboll heavily in the mix.

Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts

Eberflus is a favorite in coaching circles and had a top-10 defense in 2018 that is poised to rebound in 2020. The Colts are gaining some traction talent-wise, which should allow Eberflus to finally implement his grand vision. A favorite of MMQB alum Andy Benoit, one of the first on the Sean McVay train, Eberflus has transformed a unit that didn’t have any of the key components of a great defense upon his arrival.

Nick Sirianni, offensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts

Frank Reich’s coaching tree will soon begin bearing fruit. Sirianni's relationship with Philip Rivers should help the Colts get off to a fast start in a crowded, but not overwhelmingly-talented, AFC South. Every year the pool of coaching candidates is based heavily on who was winning in the previous season, and success in Indy would mean a highly regarded coaching staff getting pillaged.

Wink Martindale, defensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens

Don Martindale interviewed for the Giants' vacancy last year and will be a promising candidate again in 2021. I’ll make this point again below, but as offenses continue to evolve (or revolve), it’s going to be integral to have minds like Martindale running a coaching room. In 2019, the Ravens were not just Lamar Jackson’s team. Baltimore finished fifth in turnover percentage, third in points allowed, fourth in yards allowed and second in first downs allowed. The unit only gets better heading into this season.

Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens

Roman was sought after last season, though not to the extent that we might have expected. The offense that Baltimore crafted around Jackson was brilliant and is an example of what Roman can do (as was his stint in San Francisco). An interesting tidbit for teams looking to hire a coach and draft a QB in 2021: Roman’s teams have never finished worse than fifth in interceptions thrown. In four out of seven seasons, his teams have been top five in points scored and in all but one season, they’ve been top 10 in giveaways. Owners who are afraid they’re hiring an “option style” coach may want to dig a little deeper.

Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bruce Arians was singing Leftwich’s praises before they arrived in Tampa together in 2019. After the organization made the prudent decision to move on from the erratic Jameis Winston, Leftwich now gets the chance to prove both his play-calling skills and offensive design talent with a known commodity in Tom Brady. While all the credit outside the industry will inevitably shift to the quarterback, those who are smart will keep an eye on Leftwich.

Josh McDaniels

Josh McDaniels

SECOND-CHANCE CANDIDATES WITH UPSIDE

Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills

While the Bills’ defensive success has largely been attributed to Sean McDermott, Frazier, the former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, has a huge hand in orchestrating the scheme and calls the defense. Beloved in Buffalo, the Bills’ continued rise could launch Frazier into a second-chance opportunity that is well-deserved. Frazier’s last job was calamitous, starting with an interim gig. At one point, the team reached the playoffs at 10-6 with Christian Ponder behind center.

Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

Could Spagnuolo get another crack at a head-coaching gig? He has won a pair of Super Bowls as a defensive coordinator and has done a transformative job in multiple locations. He most recently had an interim head coaching gig in New York with the Giants and is well-liked around the league. His defensive style is an acquired taste, but when the right pieces are aligned, his teams tend to hit the ground running.

Dennis Allen, defensive coordinator, New Orleans Saints

Allen has four straight top-10 defenses in New Orleans and has helped develop some sustainable star talent, despite varying draft positions. New Orleans’s completeness as a team is partly in thanks to the development spearheaded by the former Raiders’ head coach, who should get another look outside of the typically foundation-less Oakland (now Las Vegas) franchise.

Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator, Jacksonville Jaguars

I’m putting this in as a technicality, so hear me out: If this season goes poorly, Gruden could get a chance to run things on an interim basis. It has happened before—the Jags’ brass liked Doug Marrone, and he took over for Gus Bradley when they let him go. Perhaps there is some curiosity as to how Gruden might perform outside of the raging organizational tire fire in Washington. He made the playoffs. In Washington.

Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England Patriots

There isn’t much else to say here. McDaniels’s situation has been strange, to say the least, since he backed out of a deal to coach the Colts. Is he waiting for the right opportunity? Has the right opportunity passed him by? Does the role of coordinator simply fit him more comfortably? These are questions that can be answered by only McDaniels himself, and each year that passes since his decision to leave Indianapolis at the altar only makes those questions more pointed.

Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bowles piloted one of the best defenses in football last year, one that will not fly under the radar nearly as much in 2020. While his stint with the Jets yielded just one winning season, he was working with a roster that was bad and trending toward threadbare. He handled one of the more difficult organizations in football with some stoicism. A wise team might give Bowles a crack at a budding young defense elsewhere.

Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator, New York Giants

There is a world where Daniel Jones gets a lot better, the Giants surprise this year and some owner wonders whether Jerry Jones didn’t pull the plug too early on Garrett, once believed to be the hottest head-coaching candidate in football. Garrett can run a room, coach quarterbacks and interview well. If he desired to get back in the game, it would seem he could do so fairly quickly.

Raheem Morris, defensive coordinator, Atlanta Falcons

Morris, who was the Buccaneers’ head coach for three seasons, has been with the Falcons in various positions since 2015. The reason I like Morris on this list is that, if the Falcons bounce back and manage to successfully weather one of the most talented divisions in football, someone from that staff will be getting head-coaching looks. Morris, now the defensive coordinator, has the title bump as well.

Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles

If the Eagles keep winning, their coaching staff will be in line for another picking. Schwartz might be a tough sell for some, but there is no doubt his disciplined approach will attract certain owners. His ability to get the most out of an injury-ravaged roster has been noted in recent years. If he can hang tough against a talented Cowboys offense in 2020, he may find a path back to head coaching.

Kellen Moore

Kellen Moore

THE YOUNG GUNS

Anthony Weaver, defensive coordinator/defensive line, Houston Texans

A fast-rising star in NFL coaching, Weaver could be on the Mike Vrabel track: one year of coordinating a defense under the mentoring eye of Romeo Crennel before getting to run his own team. Weaver, a Notre Dame grad with six years of NFL playing experience, has done the grunt work, rising from linebackers coach at North Texas all the way to Houston, where he has been coaching one of the best defensive lines in football since 2016.

Mike LaFleur, passing game coordinator, San Francisco 49ers

Both LaFleur and McDaniel (below) received interest from the Browns’ head-coaching search committee. Both are rising stars in the business and should elicit some interest in 2020, especially if the 49ers don’t make it back to the Super Bowl, making the pair more available for interviews (if they are not blocked from doing so). While Kyle Shanahan is the nerve center of that offensive coaching staff, it is fascinating to listen to LaFleur talk about McDaniel and vice-versa. Both provide an essential service in setting up the offense. LaFleur had chances to follow his brother, Matt, to Green Bay as well, but Shanahan was aggressive in holding the key components of his staff together.

Mike McDaniel, running game coordinator, San Francisco 49ers

McDaniel is a fascinating coach whose mindful approach to life and football might resonate with a new generation of players. His presence has been integral to the creation of San Francisco’s dominant running game, which thrashed the Packers in the NFC championship game. All season long, the myriad ways in which the 49ers could run a few perfectly executed plays out of a dizzying array of formations and setups was difficult for opponents to handle.

Mike Kafka, quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

Should Bieniemy go, and should the Andy Reid tree remain hot, teams might try to jump the line for Mike Kafka, undoubtedly Bieniemy’s successor and a rising name in coaching circles. Kafka, just 33, was on the highly revered Pat Fitzgerald staff at Northwestern after his NFL playing days before reconnecting with Reid in Kansas City. Kafka quickly jumped from quality control to quarterbacks to passing game coordinator.

Kellen Moore, offensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys

His first season as a coordinator was a good one: The Cowboys were sixth in points, first in yards, fifth in rushing yards, fifth in passing touchdowns and first in net yards per attempt. Dak Prescott solidified himself as a top-four quarterback in the NFL (arguably deserving of MVP votes last year). If he manages to find success with Mike McCarthy as well, it’s an added bonus. Thriving under two respected head coaches should inevitably boost his credentials.

Tim Kelly, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks, Houston Texans

Kelly, who is 34, is on one of the industry’s two pipeline fast tracks: offensive line to tight ends to offensive coordinator. The argument for coaches who have had a similar background is that they’ve seen the totality of the offensive scheme develop and have a more intimate understanding of the blocking scheme. If Houston succeeds with its pieced-together receiving corps this season, Kelly will be getting attention.

Arthur Smith, offensive coordinator, Tennessee Titans

Smith’s modern interpretation of the throwback wide-zone rushing scheme powered the Titans and Derrick Henry deep into the playoffs last year. Smith’s emergence, from Oh bummer we didn’t get Ryan Day to rising head coaching candidate has been fast but well-deserved. Another strong showing from the Titans will earn Smith, who has been with the Titans in various capacities since 2011, some broader attention.

Jerrod Mayo, inside linebackers coach, New England Patriots

The nebulous defensive play-calling structure in New England aside, Mayo could follow the Brian Flores path out of New England at some point and become a successful head coach in his own right. It will be fascinating to see how Belichick’s players (now that we’ve seen so many understudy coaches) might do on the sidelines. Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona is technically the first, but Mayo has been steeped in the defensive mastermind’s philosophies for a long time.

DON’T COUNT OUT

Joe Woods, defensive coordinator, Cleveland Browns

Woods was the defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator in San Francisco last year, a unit that produced a resurgent year from Richard Sherman and gave rise to a group of young stars in their secondary. Woods has recent stints with Wade Phillips and Vance Joseph on his record. He now gets a chance to put his stamp on a talented group in Cleveland that could have success right away.

Dave Toub, special teams coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

We profiled Toub ahead of the 2018 coaching cycle, and he could still be a great fit with the right organization. I think at some point the idea of having a coach who is a technician and teacher will become popular in NFL circles (see: the main reason the Giants hired Joe Judge). If and when that idea takes off, Toub will be among the first people recommended. He is a revered coordinator from the defending Super Bowl champions who has interviewed for head-coaching gigs in the past and served as an interim head coach.

John Fassel, special teams coordinator, Dallas Cowboys

The son of former NFL coach Jim Fassel, John has carved his own path in the special-teams realm, most notably transforming the Rams into one of the best special teams units in football. I’ve put Toub on this list year in and year out and still believe he should have a significant role in the interview process. Special teams coordinators have a hand in all aspects of the roster and are charged with immediately making the bottom third of the roster better. It’s an experience that lends itself to a strong CEO approach as a head coach. Just ask Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh.

Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley

Lincoln Riley

THE COLLEGE CROWD

Lincoln Riley, head coach, Oklahoma

The Oklahoma head coach was a hot name heading into the 2019 season and will continue to rise, assuming he keeps pumping out NFL-ready quarterbacks and an electric offense. Riley’s blend of different NFL philosophies has been duplicated at a dizzying rate in the NFL.

Brent Venables, defensive coordinator, Clemson

If I were an NFL team looking to make a gigantic, outside-the-box, home-run hire, it would be Brent Venables. While he shows no signs of interest in leaving, despite heavy pursuit from the outside, Venables’s defensive schemes have been among the most impressive in the era of so-called offensive revolution. At some point, just as the urge for teams to hire offensive visionaries produced the Kingsbury experiment, so too will the desperation for a defensive mastermind to counter. Venables would be my selection.

Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern

The Packers were not the only ones who wanted a piece of Fitzgerald, the 45-year-old head coach of the Wildcats. Fitzgerald has done an incredible job transforming a rudderless program into a consistently difficult opponent with bowl aspirations. Since becoming the team’s head coach in 2006, Fitzgerald has been to nine postseason bowl games and won almost 100 games total.

Dan Mullen, head coach, University of Florida

Mullen should have been a dark-horse candidate for the Cowboys’ job, but for now remains at Florida. Like Fitzgerald, he is a known program builder who might end up being the model for the next generation of football players. At some point, there will be a seismic shift in the way players want to be coached and how they might dictate who gets to coach them. Could we begin to see a rise in the more well-liked and established collegiate coaching minds?

FUTURE NAMES TO WATCH

A few final names to keep an eye on:

  • Patrick Graham, defensive coordinator/assistant head coach, New York Giants
  • Press Taylor, passing game coordinator/QB coach, Philadelphia Eagles
  • Scott Turner, offensive coordinator, Washington Football Team
  • Brandon Staley, defensive coordinator, L.A. Rams
  • Kevin O’Connell, offensive coordinator, L.A. Rams
  • Brian Callahan, offensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
  • Shane Waldron, passing game coordinator, L.A. Rams
  • Rich Scangarello, offensive analyst, Philadelphia Eagles
  • Jake Peetz, quarterbacks coach, Carolina Panthers
  • Joe Brady, offensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers
  • Josh McCown, quarterback (practice squad), Philadelphia Eagles
  • Matt Campbell, head coach, Iowa State University
  • Richard Hightower, special teams coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
  • Phil McGeoghan, wide receivers coach, L.A. Chargers