Six NFL teams kicked off 2021 shopping for a new head coach.
Multiple candidates are expected to interview for more than one opening — including Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy and Tennessee Titans play-caller Arthur Smith, plus San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
Which job rates as the most attractive opening?
Here’s our take on the best available situation for a head coach:
6. Detroit Lions
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2016
BIG PICTURE: With two seasons left on his contract, QB Matthew Stafford is 74-90-1 as a starter, with no NFC North titles, no playoff wins and little hope of turning things around for a team that has one playoff victory since 1957. The Lions haven’t won more than nine games in a season since 2014 and have finished last in the division in each of the last three years, averaging less than five wins a season during that span. Defensively, the Lions allowed 519 points, second only to the 1981 Baltimore Colts in NFL history, in addition to yielding a franchise-record 6,978 yards, this season.
IN THE COFFERS: Eighteen of Detroit’s 53 players — more than a third of team — could become unrestricted free agents this offseason, so the new coach and new GM have plenty of decisions to make. The list includes a few of the team’s bigger names, including WR Kenny Golladay, DE Romeo Okwara, K Matt Prater and the team’s leading receiver, Marvin Jones Jr. (978 yards receiving, 9 TDS). The team has the seventh overall pick in the draft.
RED FLAG: It is not a given a coach would even accept this job without a GM in place. It’s also unclear what new owner Sheila Ford Hamp’s vision is for the downtrodden franchise. The team has experienced nothing but losing for decades and it could turn out to be a career-killing position.
5. New York Jets
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010
BIG PICTURE: The Jets are 9-23 the past two years and have an active run of five years without a winning record. It is perhaps the biggest rebuilding job of the six openings since 15 of the Jets’ 23 losses were by double digits and the team was outscored by 214 points in 2020. The Jets’ 243 points were 37 fewer than the next-worst team, the New York Giants. By comparison, Jacksonville was outscored by 186 points and scored 63 more points than the Jets. Quarterback Sam Darnold, drafted third overall in 2018, is last in quarterback rating among qualified passers and the team finished least in the league in yards per game in each of the past two seasons.
IN THE COFFERS: This is what makes the job attractive. The Jets own two first-round picks in each of the next two drafts, beginning with picks No. 2 and No. 26 this spring. The Jets have nine total picks, including five in the first three rounds, this year. The team also has roughly $80 million in cap space for next season, so a new coach has plenty of options for molding the team’s future.
RED FLAG: Unlike the other five franchises looking for a head coach, the Jets are the only one that hasn’t made the playoffs in the past five years. The Jets also are in a division in which Buffalo has made huge strides with a young, talented roster and a star at quarterback in Josh Allen, while up-and-coming Miami and Tua Tagovailoa came within a win of making the playoffs this year. As for New England, Bill Belichick and the Patriots likely won’t be down for long. They’ve also beaten the Jets in 10 straight meetings and in 13 of the past 14.
4. Atlanta Falcons
2020 RECORD: 4-12
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2017
BIG PICTURE: Has any NFC team fallen more swiftly than the Falcons? Since losing to Philadelphia in the divisional playoff round in 2018 — a year after squandering a 28-3 lead late in the third quarter to the Patriots to lose to the Patriots in overtime of Super Bowl LI — they have gone 18-30 and finished last in the NFC South Division this season. Despite having a former MVP at quarterback (Matt Ryan), a two-time All-Pro receiver (Julio Jones) and a two-time All-Pro running back (Todd Gurley), the Falcons went 1-5 in divisional play. The offense remains prolific. The Falcons’ problem is defense. Atlanta allowed 414 points this season, 43 more than any team that made the playoffs in the NFC. Why is this relevant? The Falcons lost eight games by seven points or less.
IN THE COFFERS: Here comes the sticky part. Projected to be $24 million over the salary cap, with Ryan and Jones combining for a cap number of $64 million next season and both players under contract past next season. The Falcons own the fourth overall pick in the draft and one in each of the first six rounds. The Falcons could use it to bolster a defense that finished 29th in total defense (398.4 ypg), trade down and stockpile picks or trade Ryan or Jones for a combination of players who can contribute immediately and draft picks. Owner Arthur Blank is committed to winning. His team has one of the newer stadiums and he won’t hesitate to spend money on star players, such as Ryan, Jones and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (four years, $68 million).
RED FLAGS: The team is searching for a GM after firing Thomas Dimitroff in October. Whoever takes this job has to decide if the team’s stars have had their best days behind them, which may not play well with Falcons fans. The roster has an average age of around 27, which is quite old. Ryan will be 36 the next time he takes a snap and hasn’t been to a Pro Bowl since 2016. Jones turns 32 next month and injuries limited him to nine games and just 51 catches for 771 yards and three touchdowns. Gurley averaged 3.5 yards per carry over 195 attempts.
3. Houston Texans
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2019
BIG PICTURE: The Texans, who had made the playoffs in three of the previous four seasons before the bottom fell out this year, need a savior, according to $156 million quarterback Deshaun Watson. “We just need a whole culture shift. We just need new energy. We just need discipline. We need structure. We need a leader so we can follow that leader as players.”
IN THE COFFERS: Rarely does a new coach inherit a franchise quarterback coming off a season in which he led the NFL passing yards (4,823), threw a team-record 33 touchdown passes and who is signed to a long-term deal. DE J.J. Watt, a three three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has one $17.5 million season left under contract in Houston, but that money is not guaranteed. He’s also been public about his disappointment in his teammates’ effort, without specifically calling them out. WR Brandon Cooks has $39 million remaining on his contract over the next three years, but none of it is guaranteed. WR Will Fuller was having a productive season while playing on his fifth-year option before being suspended for six game for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substance.
RED FLAG: The Texans don’t have a first- or second-round pick in this year’s draft and are projected to be more than $15 million over the salary cap, so there’s not a lot of roster fluidity. Houston empowered Bill O’Brien as head coach and general manager before he was fired following an 0-4 start in October and will a candidate take a job without a GM in place? Or demand on getting both titles?
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
2012 RECORD: 1-15
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARNCE: 2017
BIG PICTURE: The Jaguars lost their last 15 games of the season to fall to 23-43 in four-plus seasons under Doug Marrone. The team is in total rebuilding mode and it all starts with who will be quarterback. Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon and Jake Luton all failed to produce, as the offense finished in the bottom five in yards (326.1 pg) and scoring (19.1). However, whoever takes this job has some solid building blocks, most notably in rookie James Robinson (1.070 yards rushing, 7 TDs), WR DJ Chark (706 yards, 5 TDs) and LBs Joe Schobert (141 tackles) Myles Jack (118 tackles).
IN THE COFFERS: What makes this job so intriguing is the new head coach has largely a blank slate. The Jaguars hold the first pick in the 2021 draft, plus three more picks in the first two rounds and 11 total. The Jaguars are projected to be around $100 million under the salary cap in 2021, so the possibilities are endless. If the Jaguars’ hit on quarterback – namely Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence – the rebuilding process will be expedited. If they take another Blaine Gabbert or Blake Bortles, they will become accustomed to picking high in the draft.
RED FLAG: Owner Shad Khan has failed to bring front-office stability, which is evident in the firings of Marrone after earlier dismissals of president of football operations Tom Coughlin and general manager Dave Caldwell. The Jaguars are making a concerted effort to also be London’s team, as they have played at least one “home” game in the British capital since 2013 and would have played back-to-back “home” games there in 2020 had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic. Does a new coach really want another distraction? Detroit, Houston and Atlanta all have established franchise quarterbacks San Diego has a budding star in Justin Herbert, all of which improves a first-year coach’s chance to win immediately.
1. Los Angeles Chargers
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2018
BIG PICTURE: The Chargers are perhaps the easiest fix. Seven of nine losses this season were by no more than eight points and the team has one area that has to be a point of emphasis for whoever takes this job: special teams. The Chargers missed 12 kicks — three extra points and nine field goals — had three punts blocked (two returned for touchdowns) and had a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown.
IN THE COFFERS: QB Justin Herbert, only 22, is a star in the making after starting 15 games and throwing for 4,336 yards and setting NFL-rookie-records with 31 touchdown passes and 396 completions. The defense, which features LB Kenneth Murray, could be formidable, especially if emerging stars DE Joey Bosa and S Derwin James can start 2021 healthy. The Chargers also have a pick in each of the first five rounds, including the 13th overall. The Chargers are projected to have about $30 million in cap space, but they have several impending higher-profile free agents, including TE Hunter Henry, DE Melvin Ingram, CB Michael Davis and S Rayshawn Jenkins. The team’s offensive line needs to be addressed after Herbert was sacked 32 times, as only eight QBs were sacked more.
RED FLAG: What happened to Lynn could scare candidates. He guided the Chargers to a 9-7 record in 2017 in their first season after making the move from San Diego before taking them to a 12-4 record and a first-round playoff victory in the 2018. But he went 12-20 the past two seasons, including having to start a rookie quarterback this year, and is now out of a job despite going 33-31 in the regular season. Lynn’s lone playoff victory equaled the team’s total number of postseason wins since 2010.
–By Jon Gallo, Field Level Media