It’s the most wonderful time of the NFL year. Hope is in the air for those looking for a new job – the coaching carousel is almost here.
This year’s carousel brings with it plenty of intrigue. The NFL is bursting with young, innovative coaches ready for their first shot at the top job. As of now, five jobs have already opened, or are certain to open by the end of the season, with three or four other potential openings on the board (there is always a wildcard) depending on how the playoffs unfold.
Here is a ranking of how the potential vacancies stack up in terms of attraction for the candidates.
A job opening is only as good as the team’s starting quarterback – or the ability to get one. Over time, a team can work itself out of a bad defense or an insufficient offensive line. Some teams have even managed to work around meddlesome, bad owners to achieve sustained success. But you cannot build a long-term winner without a good quarterback.
In taking the Chargers job, a coach is betting on Justin Herbert being the best quarterback to coach at teams with a job vacancy, in terms of raw talent, ability and age. A league-average to great quarterback on a cheap rookie deal is the best market inefficiency in the sport. Herbert has four years left on his contract and is already playing at a league-average level with flashes of superstardom.
There are issues in LA. The team’s cap situation is iffy. The age profile of the roster isn’t great. Even before Covid, the Chargers struggled to attract fans. But, if in doubt, bet on the quarterback. And while no young quarterback is a sure thing, Herbert is as close to a safe bet that it doesn’t matter.
Why take the job? Justin Herbert.
Yes, the Jets are the Jets. Yes, the culture is rotten. Yes, the team’s issues are likely to persist under the current owners. But the Jets’ new coach should have the assets in place to build something in their own image.
The top prize: the No 1 overall pick (caveat: the Jets could still fluke a win and gift this to the Jaguars). Whichever coach walks through the door will be able to pick between Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Or they could trade the pick. Or they could take someone else. Or they may believe in resurrecting Sam Darnold’s career. Regardless, whoever takes the job (and it may be dependent on them selecting Lawrence given the noises out of the Jets), they’re probably going to have the highest-value asset in football waiting for them.
And there’s more: the Jets are set to have $76m in cap space this offseason.
Now, the Jets have wasted money before, but new GM Joe Douglas has shown savvy during his short tenure controlling the team’s purse strings. If they’re smart, the Jets will be able to manipulate the cap to front-load deals this offseason to preserve cap space in the future by the time they’ve figured out the quarterback situation and they’re competitive.
The Jets are essentially a blank canvas with the best asset in football, a ton of maneuverability in free agency and the trade market, some good young players (Mekhi Becton, Denzel Mims, Quinnen Williams and Ashtyn Davis), four first-round picks in the next two years (thanks to Jamal Adams’s trade to the Seahawks), and the ability to add further talent – perhaps by shipping Darnold.
Why take the job? Cap space and (probably) the first overall pick.
The Texans are a mess: the roster is aging; the power struggle between Bill O’Brien and Jack Easterby, the team’s pastor/shadow GM, has robbed the franchise of a whole host of high-end draft picks, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney, and sown divisions throughout the organization; heading into the offseason, the team is $13m over the ‘effective’ salary cap, meaning that unless trades are involved, they’re automatically over the cap with this wretched roster.
Simply: no team has lacked more vision than the Texans in recent years.
But then there is Deshaun Watson, a premier quarterback who is gifted enough to prop up even the most in-over-his-head coach for a year or two. Watson will make a bad coach look like a decent one and a good coach look great.
Perhaps the Texans could get creative in the market and offer up some of their older stars, like JJ Watt, in the hope they can bring down the average age of the team’s starters and add more pieces, if not better ones.
Whatever the new vision for the franchise is, it will be a tough slog. But for the head coach: if in doubt, bet on the quarterback. And, in Watson, a coach would be betting on one of the best in the sport.
Why take the job? Deshaun Watson provides job security.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars are expected to call time on the Doug Marrone era once the season has played out. Like the Jets, the Jaguars represent a blank canvas for whoever walks in. They could still end up with the No 1 overall pick, have oodles of cap space, and in Gardner Minshew there will be a quality bridge to whichever quarterback the team select in the upcoming draft.
The only downside: the coach probably won’t get to pick his preferred quarterback with the Jets likely to select No 1 overall.
Why take the job? The freedom to build from the ground up.
5) Detroit Lions
Unless the Lions plunk for a candidate from the New England Patriots school of coaching (and that’s hard to envisage given the Matt Patricia Experience) this will be a tough roster to sell to a coaching candidate. It has been built in a specific way to a specific ideology – an ideology that is unlikely to gel with whatever hot-shot, offensive-minded coach the Lions inevitably pursue.
There are only two saving graces. At his best, Matthew Stafford is an outstanding quarterback, and the team has the ability to get out of a lot of its current contracts and open up cap room.
Why take the job? Things cannot get much worse.
6) Atlanta Falcons
There are two ways the next 24 months in Atlanta can go: the Falcons engage in a tear-it-down rebuild or they go all-in for one final ride with the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones-led core.
There is no in between. Heading into the offseason, the team will be $37m over the salary cap, a ghastly figure given the output of the past two seasons. It gets even worse when you consider $104m of the cap is tied up in four players: Ryan, Jones, Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews.
That leaves the new head honcho in Atlanta with a couple of different road maps. They can either move on from Matthews, Ryan, and Jones (the latter two being more difficult contract-wise) and begin a rebuild in earnest. Or, they rework those players’ present deals (Jarrett’s is already locked in) and create a modicum of space to add reinforcements this offseason for a (much less sexy) Falcons edition of The Last Dance.
Why take the job? A choice between two road maps.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the Bucs fail to reach the playoffs with their all-in approach or Tom Brady declares that the fit with Bruce Arians’ system is too funky, then the coach will likely be out. And although the Bucs roster is old and Brady is approaching 45, it would still be among the most coveted jobs on the market.
- Philadelphia Eagles. Philly may move on from Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson after a disastrous year. But who will want the job? Carson Wentz’s shift from potential MVP to contract albatross has made the Eagles one of the most despondent franchises in the league. Wentz will command 18% of the Eagles’ cap in 2021; no player – not Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers – has led their team to a Super Bowl while gobbling up that percentage of the cap. Wentz is unlikely to do so from the bench. Any coach eyeing an opening in Philadelphia will want to be the man after the man. As in, once the Wentz contract is off the books.
- Chicago Bears. If the Bears move on from Matt Nagy, expect this job to top many of these lists. They have an outstanding non-quarterback depth chart, the theory goes. But be cautious. The Bears only have 35 players under contract for next season, are already slated to be $10m over the cap, and the not-having-a-quarterback situation is a big deal. Defense is unreliable year-to-year, so as good as the Bears non-quarterback rooms are now, the attrition of the league could ding those groups as soon as next season.