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Coaching Vacancy Draft: Picking the best candidates based on the best available jobs

NFL coaching hires operate in a (relatively) free market. Anyone can sign anywhere for a head coaching job. But what if we treated it like a fantasy draft? We ranked the best head coaching vacancies and picked the best coach available.

Divisional Round - Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs
Eric Bieniemy looks like the top coaching candidate for available jobs in 2021.
Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Brad Childress coached the Minnesota Vikings and Mike McCarthy joined the Green Bay Packers because the Minnesota brass wouldn’t let Childress leave without a deal. Were the Vikings a better opportunity? Or did they just offer him the job first and he couldn’t risk saying no? The coaching carousel in the NFL often doesn’t reward the best coaches with the best opportunities, though the top candidates can be persnickety about where they take interviews, narrowing the potential destinations. But what if looked more like your fantasy draft, or the NFL draft?

In an attempt to reward the best coaching candidates with the best opportunities, we put together a draft of potential head coaches based on which situations would be best, not who is offering the most money the earliest.

Who is eligible for the draft? Here’s the list of teams.

Locks

  • Lions
  • Texans
  • Jaguars
  • Falcons
  • Jets

Likely

Possible

Let’s stick with the top two groups for now just for ease, though the Vikings roster would make them a particularly appealing option for coaching candidates. Unlike most seasons, it seems, the depth of quality coaching candidates looks awfully appealing. We may even see some surprise firings simply because there are so many ascending coaches available.

Here’s an extensive, but by no means comprehensive list. This is our pool from which each team will draft. They might have different boards in their war rooms, so these are not a pure rankings, but will be our best available list.

Offensive gurus

  • Eric Bieniemy — Chiefs OC
  • Arthur Smith — Titans OC
  • Joe Brady — Panthers OC
  • Brian Daboll — Bills OC
  • Nick Sirianni — Colts OC
  • Greg Roman — Ravens OC
  • Mike Kafka — Chiefs QB Coach
  • Mike LaFleur — 49ers Passing Game Coordinator
  • Mike McDaniels — 49ers Run Game Coordinator

Defensive gurus

  • Matt Eberflus — Colts DC
  • Robert Saleh — 49ers DC
  • Brandon Staley — Rams DC
  • Wink Martindale — Ravens DC
  • Kris Richard — UFA
  • Anthony Weaver — Texans DC

College Names

  • Pat Fitzgerald — Northwestern HC
  • Matt Campbell — Iowa State HC
  • Lincoln Riley — Oklahoma HC
  • Brent Venables — Clemson DC
  • Jim Leonhard — Wisconsin DC

Retreads

  • Josh McDaniels — Patrios OC
  • Todd Bowles — Buccaneers DC
  • Raheem Morris — Falcons DC
  • Leslie Frazier — Bills DC
  • Dennis Allen — Saints DC

1. Los Angeles Chargers — Eric Bieniemy

If the Chargers move on from Anthony Lynn, Southern California boasts the best job because it features everything a top coaching candidate could want: a young star quarterback, talent on both sides of the ball, cap space to add talent, and a proven (even underrated) GM. Add in a brand new stadium in a beautiful part of the country and this is a no-brainer. By all accounts, Bieniemy will be the jewel of this coaching class, which sends him to Los Angeles to unlock the full power of Justin Herbert, potentially leading to a decade of Chargers-Chiefs rivalry games. Hell. Yes.

In terms of candidate and landing spot there are the clearcut No. 1’s in their respect areas.

2. Houston Texans — Josh McDaniels

This one feels almost too easy. There are deep Patriots ties within the organization, even without Bill O’Brien. If they allow the next coach to also bring along his preferred GM, then a candidate like McDaniels would have to consider jumping ship from under the Bill Belichick wing to try to win with an elite quarterback like Deshaun Watson. They don’t have picks or cap space, but give a coach a culture-setting quarterback like Watson, weapons there, and what could be a wide-open division for the foreseeable future, this is an appealing options. A McDaniels-Nick Caserio pairing here would be a home run, and pairing Watson with the chance to pick a GM offers an attractive set of qualities. If McDaniels is leaving to go anywhere, Houston could be that spot.

3. New York Jets — Joe Brady

I’m not sure Brady is truly the third-best coaching candidate on the market, but this match fits with the trajectory of the Jets franchise and he’s going to have his pick of jobs sooner or later. Pair a coach who just coaxed the greatest college season from a quarterback in modern history with the best prospect at the position since Andrew Luck (and maybe longer). Sometimes it’s that easy. We have no idea if he’s going to be capable of establishing a culture or handling the sort of CEO duties a head coach has to handle, but all the focus for the Jets will be on the development of Trevor Lawrence assuming they get the No. 1 pick. That caveat also drives this spot. If they somehow win a couple games and wind up at say No. 3 in the draft, they may well be at the bottom of the list. Lawrence is that good.

4. Atlanta Falcons — Robert Saleh

Dan Quinn no longer coaches the Falcons precisely because they have too much talent to lose as often as they do. Defensively, injuries and underperforming draft picks undercut a dynamic collection of skill talent, but even with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and a good enough offensive line, this offense hasn’t been good enough either. Though Arthur Smith may be the more popular name, Saleh gets the call here because he could still bring that Shanahan play-action offense (with McDaniel or the other LaFleur), while also re-setting the culture. I’m even more impressed with him this season than I was last season when the 49ers boasted a historically good defense because of the injuries they’ve had, proving he’s not simply the product of a major talent influx. The biggest problem with this team is they can’t get stops. Saleh can fix that, while bringing someone to run a version of the offense they’d get from Smith.

Smith may end up being in higher demand, but I’m more convinced Saleh will be able to handle the full scope of duties as a head coach.

5. Detroit Lions — Arthur Smith

They have a quarterback. That’s the best thing we can say about the Lions at this point, but it’s more than can be said for the last two teams on the list, which is why this job winds up here. When the analytics community started to realize football teams don’t need a good run game to kill defenses with play-action, Matthew Stafford’s offenses always provided convincing evidence. So why not give them a play-action master, someone who turned Ryan Tannehill into chicken salad, and would get to dial up shot plays for Matthew Stafford instead? They’ve invested in the backfield and have weapons with Kenny Golladay and T.J. Hockenson. The defense needs an overhaul, but Detroit has to get the most out of Stafford ASAP.

6. Chicago Bears — Brian Daboll

This isn’t to say the Bears would be a bad head coaching destination, but they have no quarterback and no viable path to getting one. The defense offers talent, but it’s expensive, and the offense still has to pay Allen Robinson. Investing in an offensive mind makes sense, and grabbing one who turned Josh Allen into an above-average NFL quarterback fits with this franchise’s history. With Nick Foles slated to start in 2021 if healthy, Chicago needs a coach to maximize their short-term window while helping them build for the future with the next quarterback. Daboll offers the offensive-minded pedigree, working under Nick Saban, as well as Bill Belichick multiple times. If the Bears don’t want to go down the offensive route again, Matt Eberflus looks like the best guy for the job.

I considered Pat Fitzgerald here too because he clearly understands what the Bears mean to Chicago, would get to stay near home (his kids are Bears fans which is why he wouldn’t interview with the Packers) and he’s done a hell of a job at a difficult spot to win. Daboll offers more NFL experience and provides a diverse background in multiple areas of coaching.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars — Matt Campbell

Big splash college names tend to come from new owners like David Tepper in Carolina and while Shad Kahn is no longer “new” as the Jaguars owner, but he’s yet to make the big splash coaching hire new coaches tend to make. Campbell lacks the offensive or defensive resume that usually draws, but he’s a proven program builder who regularly gets more than his talent says he should. The Jaguars don’t have much talent at all on the roster, which won’t make them particularly appealing as a destination, but if they get the No. 2 pick and Justin Fields, it could be the ideal situation for a coach like Campbell to grow along with his franchise.