The 2018 NFL season has been defined by the “trickle up” of trends from college football. The offenses from Kansas City to Houston to Los Angeles (Rams) to Chicago have shown the heavy influence of spread and pass-happy concepts that have defined the college game the past 15 years. In terms of schemes, it’s arguable that it’s been decades since college football and pro football were this closely intertwined.
That’s the first of a confluence of circumstances that makes this coaching cycle the most probable in years for the NFL to pluck a college head coach. Combine the merging schematics with a dearth of qualified NFL candidates and a particularly intriguing list of college candidates, and there’s a strong expectation for the NFL to poach at least one college coach during this cycle.
“[The NFL pool] is a smaller sample than it’s been in a while,” said former NFL executive Mike Lombardi, who writes for The Athletic and hosts the GM Street podcast. “You’ve got one-third of the work force that gets turned over every year. Bill Walsh always said, ‘If you want to be a head coach, go be a head coach.’ There’s something to be said for guys who’ve run a program.”
There are already openings at Cleveland and Green Bay. The New York Jets are also certain to need a new coach, and then there’s a crew of teams that will have difficult decisions down the stretch – Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals.
Who is the NFL looking for? Here’s a list of the 10 most-coveted college coaches who may get a chance at the next level.
1. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
He’s the quintessential hot coach, as his quarterback and play-calling expertise draw inevitable comparisons to Sean McVay in Los Angeles. The Cleveland opening has drawn buzz because he coached Baker Mayfield at OU and is adored by the quarterback. The lingering issue is his program’s defensive ambivalence.
2. Matt Campbell, Iowa State
He’s an Ohio native, which makes the Cleveland talk intriguing. He’s resuscitated Iowa State into a relevant program, which has the NFL intrigued. Don’t underestimate the power of Mount Union ties, even in the NFL.
3. David Shaw, Stanford
He’s always been the most coveted, but never shown a burning desire to leave Stanford. He’s coaching at his alma mater, believes in the place deeply and his family loves living there. He’ll always been considered, but nothing likely imminent here.
4. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
There are ties to the Dolphins through owner Stephen Ross, one of the school’s most powerful donors. Harbaugh has decreased his antics at Michigan recently after wearing out his welcome in San Francisco, making the NFL seemingly more viable again. Does Urban Meyer’s departure from Ohio State change any dynamics? His NFL record of winning speaks for itself.
5. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
The new $270 million facility on Lake Michigan makes any departure in the near future highly unlikely. The Bears will also be tied to Fitzgerald the next time that job opens. But for now, it remains difficult to see him leave.
6. Chris Petersen, Washington
There’s a feeling in the industry that Petersen may never leave Washington. He loves athletic director Jennifer Cohen, the relative anonymity in Seattle and has built up the culture and recruiting there. But NFL general managers have long been intrigued by his clean-cut ethos.
7. Kirby Smart, Georgia
It would take a lot to pull Smart from his alma mater, especially now that he’s starting to get the recruiting and development operating at Alabama-like levels. But the style of play and a year as an assistant in Miami make him an intriguing name down the line.
8. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
This appears a logical window for departure, with an undefeated season and the program humming. He interviewed with the Eagles when Chip Kelly got the job in 2013. Could Tampa be intrigued?
9. Jeff Brohm, Purdue
We’ve already had enough Brohm drama this year, so there’s no chance he’d leave Purdue this winter. But down the road, he fits the new NFL paradigm – play-caller and quarterback guru – that franchises will inevitably try and replicate in the wake of the Rams’ success.
10. Matt Rhule, Baylor
This spot was a coin flip between Rhule and his old friend from their AAC days, Texas coach Tom Herman. I went with Rhule because he interviewed in Indianapolis last year and has NFL experience. Herman is also locked in for a few more seasons at Texas, which is better than many NFL jobs. Rhule is out of region in Waco and had a season with the Giants that helps in the eyes of NFL executives.
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