One of the great privileges of this job is when an obsession gets tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged. My itineration of the future head coaches list began a few years ago as a banal short list of buzzy candidates to prime the sorts of readers who may have lived in a football-resistant cave all season long. Since then, with great patience from our editors and assistance from the coaching world at large, it has grown into a list that can not only round up the candidates who will likely get introduced as head coaches in January 2022, but also the ones who will take their place on the list next year and the year after that.
My goals each year are multifaceted. One is to introduce you to some people you may not know. Two is to introduce you to—and help you see beyond—the often inconsistent and wildly gladhanding world of coach hiring, which sometimes, unfortunately, doesn’t reward the person who works the hardest or contributes the most to their teams’ success, but the one who is connected the right way or “looks the part” according to some owner or search firm. Search firms hired by passive owners, agents, co-owners, friends of co-owners … there are so many variables here, not to mention the underlying idea that almost all of these teams are chasing what is popular and successful right now in a league that is perpetually cyclical (meaning that, by the time they get what they want, it is often already outdated). Because of all this, we like to include a rising position coaches section for those who deserve some recognition but may not always receive it. Some head coaches prefer that the assistants remain in the background, thus preventing them from getting adequate media exposure.
Some in the coaching community last year expressed optimism that diversity woes at the head coaching level would begin to eradicate as owners observed how coaches from minority backgrounds could better navigate a world that requires a broader understanding of complex societal issues. That optimism has somewhat faded, though more than half of our preseason top candidates this year happen to be coaches of color.
Keep in mind: Our “top” candidates are those we’re hearing the most positivity about right now. That changes throughout the course of the year as teams come on and falter, respectively. Amid the shifting landscape last December, we made it a point to spotlight Brandon Staley, who emerged after just one year as Rams defensive coordinator to take the cycle by storm and land the Chargers’ head coaching gig, and put out a coaching carousel primer that had a few new names.
That’s enough of a preamble for now. Let’s get to the candidates …
Nathaniel Hackett, offensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers
When Hackett quietly interviewed for the Falcons’ job last year, it was a head slap moment for the rest of the league, which had spent years turning over every rock to find smart, offensive coaches but largely ignored one that had been available all along. Hackett, whom we wrote about in much more depth Thursday, has a trajectory includes massive offensive turnarounds at nearly every stop. At Syracuse, he turned a downtrodden program’s offense into one of the nation’s leaders and established quarterback Ryan Nassib as a draft prospect. In Buffalo he helped turn a sub-.500 team into a 9–7 outfit with a respectable offense, despite its lack of firepower. In Jacksonville, he designed an offense for Blake Bortles that finished fifth in points per game and sixth in yards.
While the assumption is that he is the product of a system in Green Bay, it is Hackett’s combined expertise in both the trendy outside zone system and his roots in the West Coast offense (where Aaron Rodgers’s basis of understanding lies) that help the engine go. The Packers’ offense has been particularly dominant since his arrival (Week 1 notwithstanding), and he has the ear of one of the NFL’s most demanding quarterbacks, proving that he can run the gamut between reclamation project and established star.
Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills
Daboll continues to cement his status as an offensive mastermind capable of creating mismatches anywhere on the field. His role in the development of Josh Allen has been overlooked, though the football world got a small taste in his QB acumen after watching current pupil Mitch Trubisky carve up his former team in the preseason. Having an eye for matchups that can transcend scheme is a gift few offensive coaches possess, which makes Daboll’s skill set all the more valuable. Some in coaching circles were surprised to see him miss out on the cycle last year, especially with some obvious fits with the Texans or Chargers.
Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Perhaps the Buccaneers’ locking up Bowles to a three-year deal foreshadows long-term plans for the defensive coordinator to ultimately succeed the 68-year-old Bruce Arians, though every head coaching situation in the NFL is fluid. Bowles’s winning 10 games with a Ryan Fitzpatrick–led Jets team seems all the more impressive in hindsight now that a second regime came in and struggled with a similarly threadbare roster. Bowles still has the only winning season by a Jets head coach over the last decade. It was his mastery in the Super Bowl that placed him firmly back atop the coaching map. Bowles’s vision for a linebacker-centric defense changed schemes around the league and set off a ripple effect that altered plans for the previous two drafts. Having this kind of coach, who has a proven ability to adjust to offensive trends, is sometimes more valuable than an offensive coach simply riding a trend.
Patrick Graham, defensive coordinator, New York Giants
Graham turned down an opportunity to interview for the Jets’ vacancy last year and instead took an extension with the Giants. While some of their statistical numbers looked a tad pedestrian, Graham had a middling unit playing near top-10 football. The Giants were 11th in net yards per passing attempt allowed, despite having, on paper, one of the more dismal sets of coverage linebackers in the league and a secondary that revolved around one very good player in James Bradberry. Should the Giants contend for the division this year, Graham will be at the top of many lists for interviews. The Yale graduate has an impressive résumé, with stops in both New England and Green Bay, as well as a brief stint as the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator in 2019.
Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs
Bieniemy has become the coaching carousel’s Rorschach test. It all seems to be in the eye of the beholder as to why he’s not an NFL head coach right now. It’s not responsible to sit here and disseminate some anonymous tidbits about how certain interviews may have gone and why that justifies an owner’s decision, but the reality is this: At some point, some team will give him a chance. Until then, he’ll be on the list. Bieniemy is, at the moment, the face of the NFL’s racial hiring disparity. Each time a report emerges about why he may not be a head coach, there are white coaches who seem to get jobs in spite of those same perceived drawbacks. The issue is, and seemingly always will be, ownership’s not reflecting the diverse makeup of the league and its coaches. Regardless, he continues to have the loud and emphatic recommendation of Andy Reid, whose previous loud and emphatic recommendations have resulted in the expedited hiring of other assistants like Matt Nagy and Doug Pederson.
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Raheem Morris, defensive coordinator, Los Angeles Rams
Morris stepped into a difficult situation last year, spelling the popular Dan Quinn, who was fired after an 0–5 start with the Falcons. In that time, the team went 4–7, avoiding a meltdown while ticking off some respectable wins in the process. Atlanta also came within four points of beating the Buccaneers and three points of beating the Chiefs down the stretch. Both of those teams reached the Super Bowl. Morris received his first chance at the NFL early in his career, taking over for Jon Gruden in Tampa. Morris went 3–13, 10–6 and 4–12 before moving to Washington and then Atlanta. He also had a stint as the Falcons’ receivers coach, which, at a time when many Kyle Shanahan assistants are getting poached, seems to be somewhat overlooked.
Now, he’s landed in Los Angeles, the place that launched Staley to head coaching heights. Being in Sean McVay’s orbit has been a boost for talented coaches in the past. What about Morris?
Mike McDaniel, offensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
You can follow the path of offensive evolution over the past 10 years, and it’s not hard to see McDaniel quietly in the background, a Where’s Waldo of sorts for some of the most significant leaps the game has taken since the days of Robert Griffin III in Washington. For the previous three years, McDaniel has been the run-game coordinator for Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, as integral a role as any for Shanahan given that the run game sets up all aspects of their offense. McDaniel is soft spoken but cerebral and could fit with the right team and situation that doesn’t need a kneecap-biter to juice the fan base. With Mike LaFleur in Florham Park coordinating the Jets’ offense, McDaniel will have a chance to bite off a larger chunk of San Francisco’s much-copied offense and stand out. An owner bringing him in for an interview should be prepared for a crash course on the future of offense.
Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts
The Texans pursued Eberflus aggressively this offseason, though he was wise to let the situation play out with other candidates. The Colts’ defensive coordinator since 2018, he’s led a somewhat talent-starved defense to a pair of top-10 weighted DVOA seasons. Last year, the Colts were top-10 in points allowed, yards allowed, turnovers caused, first downs allowed, interceptions, rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per attempt, the last two of which had the Colts No. 2 in the league. The presence of DeForest Buckner has allowed Eberflus’s creativity to shine. He’s been instrumental in the development of star inside linebacker Darius Leonard.
Joe Woods, defensive coordinator, Cleveland Browns
As one coaching insider put it, this could be “his time,” assuming Cleveland continues its ascent in the AFC North. Woods has been in the NFL since 2004 and coaching professionally since 1992, with valued internships under the great Monte Kiffin (Buccaneers), Leslie Frazier (Vikings) and Wade Phillips (Broncos). Woods also spent a year with new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, helping coordinate the pass defense of the 49ers’ recent Super Bowl team. Despite a unit riddled with injuries in key spots, the Browns, in Woods’ first season, were a top-10 rushing defense and finished 10th in turnover percentage. With a personnel overhaul this offseason, Woods could enjoy the same benefit as former coaching mate Saleh—a team and defense too good to ignore.
Kellen Moore, offensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys
Because of Dak Prescott’s injury last year, some of Moore’s forward momentum stalled, though not enough to stop him from interviewing with the Eagles last year. The 33-year-old former Boise State quarterback will be a head coach at some point, though a lot may depend on how the Cowboys fare at a transition point for their roster. Dallas finished first in yards during Moore’s first season as offensive coordinator, and Prescott was the most efficient quarterback in football before his injury last year. There’s no doubt his system brought much-needed change from the somewhat pedestrian Jason Garrett system before it. A young coach recently removed from the game who can handle the rigors of a star quarterback and design a top-flight offense checks a lot of boxes for owners and the search firms that sometimes head up their process. Expect his name to be bandied about quite a bit if Dallas is in the mix this season.
Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Leftwich was a bit of a forgotten part of Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl run last year, with many incorrectly assigning all the credit to quarterback Tom Brady and “quarterback whisperer” head coach Bruce Arians. The story of that season, though, came down to someone’s ability to combine what Brady was comfortable with, what Arians was comfortable with and what the league’s defenses were susceptible to. That wouldn’t have happened without Leftwich. Bruce Arians was livid that Leftwich didn’t receive any head coaching interviews last year and, like Reid with Eric Bieniemy, has made it clear to those in need of a head coach that Leftwich was instrumental in the process. The former Jaguars quarterback and first-round pick has seen an expedited rise since breaking into the coaching circle as a quarterbacks coach in 2017.
Joe Brady, offensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers
Brady interviewed with a handful of teams last year, likely as an appetizer for a far more active cycle in 2021. He has a difficult but golden opportunity ahead of him this year, to assist in the saving of Sam Darnold. Brady had a stint with noted offensive guru Sean Payton on his record before transforming LSU’s passing game and future first-round pick Joe Burrow in the process. While his stock could ebb with the Panthers’ performance this year, any tangible progress from Darnold should be noted. This may be a bigger overhaul than the lay fan might think. Brady received interest from the Jets, Falcons, Chargers, Eagles and Texans during last year’s cycle.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England Patriots
Here’s my sense of what’s going on with McDaniels: Like a former vice president mulling a run for office, he has an idea of what the entire operation would look like if he chose to go all in. I think McDaniels would know, for example, who he’d like to poach as a defensive coordinator. I also think Bill Belichick’s pivot to Mac Jones shows he has no signs of slowing down. It would not surprise me to see him on the sidelines for at least another four or five years. So, with that, it’s irresponsible not to put McDaniels on this list
Keep an eye out if the 2021 season goes well
Don Martindale, defensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens
Martindale has been brilliant throughout his time as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, with the second-, third- and second-ranked defenses in terms of points allowed each year since 2018. He reminds us a bit of Rex Ryan or Mike Zimmer in the fact that, there will be a place for him in the NFL, but it will take time for that market, that roster, that owner and that GM to materialize together. Martindale’s age, 58, shouldn’t be a deterrent given how long current head coaches are remaining effective in the league. He was identified during the Giants’ ’19 head coaching search, which, despite the team’s recent shortcomings at head coach following a string of bad hires, is often looked at as a gold standard in terms of process.
Shane Waldron, offensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks
Waldron was a quality control coach during the infamous Mike Shanahan Washington years, which has already produced a slew of head coaches and promising coordinators. After three seasons as Sean McVay’s passing-game coordinator, he gets a big opportunity to step out on his own with Russell Wilson as the muse. If Seattle’s offense undergoes a renaissance despite Pete Carroll’s run-first fever dream, Waldron will sky to the top of the list.
Kevin O’Connell, offensive coordinator, Los Angeles Rams
O’Connell is someone whose football intellect has been celebrated since his days as a Patriots and Jets quarterback. Now the sole offensive coordinator for the Rams, he gets the chance to ride a potential Matt Stafford boon.
Shane Steichen, offensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
While Anthony Lynn and Pep Hamilton were rightly credited with the rise of Justin Herbert, Steichen was a bit of a forgotten castoff who landed on Nick Sirianni’s staff in Philadelphia. Like Brady in Carolina or Tim Kelly, the next name on our list, there are obvious challenges from a roster standpoint, but a gigantic opportunity if the quarterback plays above expectation.
Tim Kelly, offensive coordinator, Houston Texans
Had the Texans not taken an incredible, rapid, nosedive, there’s a good chance we could have been talking about Kelly as a head coaching candidate last year. All of that changes now. But … can he salvage something offensively without Deshaun Watson, on a roster that is made to be sold for spare parts?
DeMeco Ryans, defensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
Ryans will skyrocket through the coaching ranks and should dazzle during the interview process this offseason. While much has been made about the sometimes-laughable rise of recently retired NFL quarterbacks through the coaching ranks, Ryans, now 37, likely won’t make it to age 40 before getting some serious looks as a head coach, or getting a job outright. The former linebacker for the Texans and Eagles has been with the 49ers since 2017, rising from the quality control room to defensive coordinator, where he’s taken over for new Jets head coach Robert Saleh.
Jerod Mayo, linebackers coach (possible co-defensive coordinator), New England Patriots
Mayo factors prominently into the New England coaching power structure behind Bill Belichick and, like any highly thought of defensive coordinator from that tree, should begin to see his profile rise. Mayo already interviewed for the Eagles’ head coach vacancy and, following a year in which the Patriots should feast on the division’s corral of substandard quarterbacking beyond Josh Allen, will get plenty of attention this winter.
Matt Campbell, head coach, Iowa State
I’ve heard Matt Campbell would possibly leave for the NFL at some point, but that he is enjoying his current situation. Like P.J. Fleck at Minnesota or Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, there is a huge appeal to being somewhat of a big fish in a medium-sized pond. The salary is still good but the job security is incredible and the resources are sometimes better than that of an NFL program. But if Matt Rhule and Urban Meyer succeed, it will create a buyer’s market for collegiate coaches with upside. He may get an offer he can’t refuse.
The same can essentially be said for any of the following candidates, all of whom have, at one point, garnered significant or passive interest from NFL teams:
• Lincoln Riley, head coach, Oklahoma
• Dan Mullen, head coach, Florida
• Ryan Day, head coach, Ohio State
• Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern
• Dabo Swinney, head coach, Clemson
• Tony Elliott, offensive coordinator, Clemson
• P.J. Fleck, head coach, Minnesota
Special teams coordinators
We’ll group some names in this section like we did with the college coaches, since we’ll be making a similar, somewhat blanket-style argument. But we’ll again choose one name to highlight.
Jeff Rodgers, special teams coordinator/assistant head coach, Arizona Cardinals
If Joe Judge succeeds with the Giants and John Harbaugh continues to succeed with the Ravens, all it’s going to take is some NFL bigwig to take ownership over the idea that has been percolating in league circles forever: Special teams coaches are valuable because they touch almost the entire roster and often are more focused on active player development than almost any other coaching position in the NFL. Special teams coaches historically have made good head coaches for these reasons.
Rodgers, in particular, has been instrumental in setting the table for Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona after Kingsbury came into the process extraordinarily green. If we see the Cardinals succeed this year, Rodgers will deserve a great deal of the credit.
Others in the role now:
• Dave Toub, Kansas City Chiefs
• John Fassel, Dallas Cowboys
• Richard Hightower, San Francisco 49ers
• Bubba Ventrone, Indianapolis Colts
Position coaches on the rise
Anthony Weaver, defensive line coach and defensive run-game coordinator, Baltimore Ravens
A promising coach in a bad situation last year, Weaver can command a room and was on a head coaching trajectory before the Texans fell apart in 2020. He was a key influence in Houston’s matchup defensive line, which helped produce some of J.J. Watt’s finest late-career work and three straight Pro Bowl seasons for Jadeveon Clowney.
Mike Kafka, quarterbacks coach/passing-game coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs
Kafka’s name has surfaced and remained airborne for the past two seasons. He’s Patrick Mahomes’s right-hand man and part of the two-man team helping design Andy Reid’s offense, and there will always be considerable interest in any coach with ties to Reid and that system.
Zach Azzanni, wide receivers coach, Denver Broncos
Azzanni has the sensibilities of a head coach already, according to some who know him. He’s someone who has been given tough assignments throughout his time in the NFL and flourished. From taming a veteran receiving room in Denver to developing young talent, Azzanni, a former Urban Meyer assistant, has coordinated big-time college football offenses as well. A neat tidbit: He personally identified and developed Trinity Benson, whom the Broncos traded for a pair of draft picks. His players always seem to get markedly better, and with some owners trending toward teachers and developers over schematic wunderkinds, his name could start to bounce around.
Adam Stenavich, offensive line coach, Green Bay Packers
In a piece on the shortage of NFL offensive line coaches, we mentioned Stenavich as one of the league’s most desired position coaches at the moment; an integral cog in making the outside zone/Kyle Shanahan offense run. In that piece we also mentioned that offensive line coaches will be able to soon wield this power more forcefully, translating to more coordinator-type roles and, eventually, head coaching roles. Stenavich, just 38, could become the first breakout candidate.
Stump Mitchell, running backs coach, Cleveland Browns
Mitchell has been a head coach at every level save for the NFL, but has previously held an assistant head coach title in Washington. Mitchell has been with Browns star Nick Chubb since his first NFL carry and has played a critical role in developing one of the NFL’s best backfields. However, those who know him say his strength lies in managing people and understanding how the whole puzzle fits together. He was a key voice of reason during Todd Bowles’s tenure with the Jets.
Ejiro Evero, secondary/pass-game coordinator, Los Angeles Rams
Evero has made a name for himself in his own right, but has also worked with some fantastic coaches during his time on Sean McVay’s staff, including Wade Phillips and Brandon Staley. Evero prominently figured into Green Bay’s most recent defensive coordinator search, and won’t be one of the league’s best kept secrets for much longer.
Rich Scangarello, quarterbacks coach, San Francisco 49ers
As offensive coordinator of the Broncos back in 2019, Scangarello led Drew Lock to a 4–1 run to finish his rookie season … and no one has been able to get that kind of production since. Scangarello has a reputation for identifying, and getting the most out of quarterbacks, including Nick Mullens’s Thursday Night Football debut victory. He was a key cog in scouting some of the 49ers’ most critical core players and now gets his hands on Trey Lance, the No. 3 pick. If Lance succeeds, Scangarello’s rise back to offensive coordinator and beyond will be a quick one.
Chris Harris, defensive backs coach, Washington Football Team
Described as a “star in the making,” Harris, a seven-year NFL veteran, is in his second year as defensive backs coach in Washington. Ron Rivera’s defense finished second in passing yards allowed, second in passing touchdowns allowed and second in net yards per passing attempt surrendered last season. If that dominance continues, Ron Rivera’s tree will begin to bear fruit once again.
Larry Foote, outside linebackers coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Foote has been with the Bruce Arians clan since 2015 and is embedded in one of the most innovative linebacker rooms in football right now. The 12-year NFL veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion could ride the trend of express veteran player-to-head-coach appointments, especially if Mike Vrabel’s staying power in Tennessee continues.
Jeff Howard, defensive passing-game coordinator, Cleveland Browns
After spending a long stretch as one of Mike Zimmer’s most valued assistants, Howard arrived in Cleveland with high expectations. The Browns’ secondary held up reasonably well against a Chiefs onslaught in Week 1, with rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II’s only surrendering 18 yards of turf on 97% of his team’s snaps. Newsome’s development was critical to a team with Super Bowl aspirations and Howard seems to be delivering early. Also of note: In his first game as defensive passing game coordinator, Cleveland held the Chiefs to just 10 first-half points and no passing touchdowns from Patrick Mahomes.
Second-chance head coaches
In addition to Josh McDaniels, Raheem Morris and Todd Bowles in our “top candidates” section above, here are some other former head coaches who could return to the top post for a new team.
Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills
A coach many thought would be gone quickly into the 2021 cycle, Leslie Frazier was deep into the interview process in Houston, a job that eventually went to David Culley. The former Vikings head coach is beloved in Buffalo and, while he heads a talented defensive staff with plenty of brain power, Frazier is the one pulling the levers on game day. As PFF astutely pointed out, his defense could peak this season with two rookie quarterbacks and Tua Tagovailoa accounting for six of its games.
Dennis Allen, defensive coordinator, New Orleans Saints
Allen was targeted by the Eagles at the end of last year’s hiring cycle and will continue to be a strong candidate so long as the Saints’ elite defense continues its string of top-10 finishes. While Sean Payton will always receive a majority of the credit for New Orleans’s consistency, Allen has had an incredible run in the post–Rob Ryan era.
Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs
Spagnuolo’s career saw new life in Kansas City after he took over for Bob Sutton and transformed the Chiefs into an amoebic, turnover-hungry secondary. Much like his work with the Giants during their first Tom Coughlin Super Bowl run, the overhaul nudged him toward head coaching consideration. Spagnuolo was 10–38 over three years as head coach of the Rams.
Marvin Lewis, former head coach, Cincinnati Bengals
Lewis continues to field interviews since his dismissal in Cincinnati and appeared on the radars of the Jets, Lions and Texans last year. While his future may be in personnel—Lewis’s track record of finding and developing talent with the Bengals was quite strong—teams looking for a CEO with years of experience will be drawn to him.
Vance Joseph, defensive coordinator, Arizona Cardinals
Word is, Joseph could be primed and ready to hit the cycle this year if Arizona performs well. The former Broncos’ head coach was derailed by an unholy trinity of quarterbacks—Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian—that would sink even the savviest of coaches. Before the appointment in Denver, Joseph’s stock as a budding head coach was sky high. He could be worth another look.
Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys
A lot of coaches in Quinn’s shoes—those who have reached, but not won, a Super Bowl as a head coach—tend to get second chances. Had Quinn been let go in 2019 before the ’20 Falcons started 0–5, there’s a decent chance he’d be the head coach of another team by now. Quinn will be integral in culture creation for the Cowboys and could use this as a quick springboard back into the big chair.
Think I forgot someone who should be included? Feel free to send me an email.
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