Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Harbaugh continues his will-he-won’t-he dance with pro football. Last year, he said after interviewing with the Minnesota Vikings that it would be the “last time” he spoke to an NFL franchise, before inserting an exit clause into his Michigan contract that allowed him to skedaddle from the college game to the pros whenever he sees fit.
It’s worth remembering that before he returned to Michigan to guide his team to a national championship, before his (multiple) NCAA infractions and a sign-stealing scandal, Harbaugh thought he was on his way back to the NFL for good. Harbaugh was sizing up drapes in Minnesota after interviewing for the Vikings job in 2022’s cycle. A miscommunication meant that Harbaugh thought he had agreed to take the Vikings gig, before Minnesota turned to then-Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell.
With his work complete at Michigan, Harbaugh will once again be at the top of the candidate lists. The 60-year-old has been linked to the Los Angeles Chargers job, where he would be tasked with unlocking Justin Herbert’s potential. The Las Vegas Raiders and Washington Commanders have also expressed interest. Some owners will have no interest in dealing with Harbaugh’s peculiarities. But he remains at the vanguard of offensive football – and everywhere he goes, he wins.
Predicted next move: Los Angeles Chargers head coach
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Belichick is out in New England. But the 71-year-old has given no indication that he plans to retire. If the greatest to ever do it says he still wants to coach, someone will take a chance on him rediscovering some of the old magic. The question is who? And how much power will an owner devolve to Belichick? Will they insist that Belichick works with a general manager or will they hand over the franchise to the finest architect of the modern era?
New Owner Syndrome dictates that Washington will entertain the idea of a blockbuster name to kick off a new era for the franchise. And you cannot rule out Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper chasing the shiniest toy on the shelf. The Chargers have also been mooted as having some interest – so long as Belichick is a free agent and a trade is not required to secure his services. Given what he’s done for the Patriots, it’s likely the team’s owner, Robert Kraft, will let Belichick out of his contract so that he’s free to pick where he works without having to worry about the conditions of a trade.
Belichick could also sit out the first round of the hiring season, waiting to see which playoff performers decide to part ways with their coach. If the Dallas Cowboys crash and burn early on, Jerry Jones could look to Belichick to get over the championship hump.
Predicted next move: Atlanta Falcons head coach
Brian Flores, Minnesota Vikings
“Innovative” is overused in football. Some coaches find subtle ways to iterate. Others hop on trends at the right time. Most “innovations” are simply part of the game’s cyclical nature; what’s old becomes new again.
Flores is different. He is coaching on a different planet, different atmosphere, different gravity from everyone else. His latest doozy: turning a lackluster Vikings defense into a Top 10 unit by DVOA, the kind of achievement that should see him receive some sort of presidential honor, never mind a head coaching nod.
What the former Miami Dolphins head coach has done in Minnesota this season has been groundbreaking. He’s fused two discordant styles in a way nobody has ever seen before – at any level. If the role of a coach is to give his team an on-field advantage, few do it as consistently as Flores.
Still: Flores’s time in Miami was rocky. He has a gruff personality that rubs some players, colleagues and executives the wrong way. He walks around with an I-know-best bluster, typically because he does. In 2022, he sued the league and three teams alleging racism in their hiring practices. After filing the suit, it looked like any shot he had at becoming a head coach again had ended – the case is still making its way through the courts. It may have even ruled him out from any high-profile job. But once he was handed the keys to a unit again, Flores did what he does best: he coached championship-level defense.
Flores is deserving of a second shot. Whether someone will grant him one is another matter.
Predicted next move: Stays with the Vikings
Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys
Quinn has topped the head-coaches-in-waiting charts for successive cycles but has decided to sit out the carnival in favor of sticking with the Cowboys. In Dallas, he has been the chief constructor of the team’s suffocating defense.
Barring a postseason failure, Quinn will probably take the leap back into the head coaching ranks this year. Some worrisome signs dotted his last go around in the top job, in Atlanta. Quinn too often fell foul of the classic coordinator-to-head-coach trope: thinking he needed to play a cartoon capital-C coach rather than getting on with managing the game. His in-game management was poor; once Kyle Shanahan left his side, he couldn’t manufacture a decent offense.
Quinn will get another stab at the top job. But he may be destined to be a great defensive coordinator who never cracks it as a head coach.
Predicted next move: Elevated to Cowboys head coach
Raheem Morris, LA Rams
The Rams’ defense has been this season’s happiest surprise. There were some analysts (you may be reading one) who were calling for congressional hearings in the preseason for the hand the franchise had dealt Morris. The Rams entered the season with only four day one and day two draft picks on their defensive depth chart.
Morris, who did a good job the year before in tricky circumstances, was handed another dud. But, as ever, he squeezed the most out of the least. The Rams finished the season 20th in EPA per play on defense, an achievement that should rank alongside Michelangelo’s David or blasting a dog into space.
Morris is savvy, ultra-confident and comfortable in his own skin, the typical trademarks of head coaches who hit the ground running. He turned a barren defensive roster into an effective unit, helping coax a league-average level out of a batch of rookies. He is also unique in having experience coaching on both sides of the ball and past head coaching experience.
Morris will not be a splashy hire. He’s not an A-list name. For any team staring down a hard reset, though, Morris will be the ideal candidate to coach a young team.
Predicted next move: Stays with the Rams
Mike Macdonald, Baltimore Ravens
Still only 36, Macdonald is to defensive football what Sean McVay was to the offensive side of the ball six years ago. He is likely to be the No 1 option for a bulk of teams this cycle. He has lived in the Harbaugh orbit for most of his coaching career. He worked under Jim Harbaugh at the Baltimore Ravens before joining Jim at Michigan and overhauling the team’s defense – setting them on a path to their national title bid. After completing his work there, he was called back up to the Ravens by Harbaugh Sr.
Macdonald has been the champion of the meta-defensive trends that have sprung up throughout the game to slow down an era of offense. Unlike other defensive czars, though, Macdonald is not doctrinaire. What he built with Baltimore has not been a revolution, but more about tweaking what worked before. He’s shown an ability to toggle his scheme to whatever is required, depending on the talent available and the opposition he’s facing. If there’s an organizing principle that governs Macdonald’s defensive philosophy, it’s intelligent chaos.
A smart franchise will look to the DeMeco Ryans-CJ Stroud model the Houston Texans have struck gold with: pairing one of the most intelligent defensive coaches with a hot-shot young quarterback.
Predicted next move: Matt Eberflus will be out in Chicago; Macdonald takes his spot
Ben Johnson, Detroit Lions
In Detroit, Johnson has been the author of one of the league’s most impressive offenses. He’s helped curb some of Jared Goff’s worst instincts and has built an idiosyncratic run game that has fuelled much of the Lions’ success. Johnson turned down head coach interviews last season to stick with the Lions, and seems intent on waiting on the right job (read: the right quarterback) rather than jumping at the first or biggest offer.
In a year with few candidates with strong backgrounds on the offensive side of the ball, Johnson will probably be the most in-demand coach in the league.
Predicted next move: Washington Commanders head coach
Frank Smith, Miami Dolphins
When Miami hired Mike McDaniel, they pinched away Kyle Shanahan’s run-game guru. So who will pinch the guru’s guru? Smith is the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator, and has helped oversee the team’s offensive explosion over the past 24 months.
In a recent poll by the NFLPA, Smith was voted the No 1 offensive coordinator in the league by 1,700 players. If you’re looking for wackadoo offensive designs – *cough* the Falcons *cough* – then Smith is the guy.
But the difference between the coordinator’s chair and the head coach’s office is huge. You go from thinking about play designs and gameplans to worrying about flights, building out a staff, and figuring out how to appease a guard who’s upset because your center is making more money.
Smith has proven himself as a gameplanner and play designer, but, as with the other coordinator candidates, it’s an open question whether he has the chops to run an entire team.
Predicted next move: Stays with the Dolphins
Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots
Sometimes you just know a coach has it. When DeMeco Ryans was rising through the ranks, it was clear he had the secret sauce. Likewise for Dan Campbell. The same is true of Mayo. He oozes charisma and bravado.
The young linebacker coach has worked in concert with Belichick to build a competent defense while the rest of Foxborough has fallen into decline. Belichick still takes a strong lead on all things defense, but players rave about Mayo’s attention to detail and his day-to-day coaching of technique. Throughout his time with the Patriots, Mayo has consistently turned down overtures for jobs elsewhere.
Some will be put off by the flops from Belichick’s coaching tree of yesteryear, and there are some warning signs: Mayo hasn’t worked outside the Belichick ecosystem; he played for the team for eight seasons; there has been tension inside the building that he demands too much from players. There may no stronger embodiment of the Patriot Way than Mayo – and it’s a philosophy that hasn’t exactly worked well when transported elsewhere. But for a franchise looking for a refresh, Mayo will be exactly what’s ordered.
If Mayo isn’t coveted outside New England, he may assume Belichick’s throne if the Kraft family decides to keep the Patriots job within the franchise.
Predicted next move: Mike Vrabel takes the Patriots head coaching job; Mayo replaces him in Tennessee
Bobby Slowik, Houston Texans
Up next on the Kyle Shanahan conveyor belt: Bobby Slowik. Slowik worked on the famed Washington staff of 2011-13 that included Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, Mike McDaniel and Shanahan. He moved outside the Shanahan vortex to buffer his own reputation this season, landing in Houston with Ryans (who he worked with in San Francisco) and helping pilot Stroud through his rookie season.
Given the lack of available, young offensive-minded coaches on the market this year, Slowik may well get a look – the success of McDaniel in Miami will certainly help. But Slowik has had one year of running an offense in Houston, and did so with a brilliant prospect in Stroud. Together, the two formed the shrewdest offense in the NFL. But how do you separate Slowik’s early success from Stroud?
Predicted next move: Stays with the Texans
Eric Bieniemy, Washington Commanders
Perhaps the best case for Bieniemy is not what happened with the Commanders this season, but what happened to the Chiefs’ offense once he left town. The Chiefs’ struggles are mostly to do with a lack of talent at receiver and some iffy personnel choices along the offensive line, but it has at least armed Bieniemy with some interesting stats for his PowerPoint.
The likeliest outcome is that Bieniemy returns to KC after the playoffs. Yet despite a miserable year in Washington, he could still receive some head coach shine after spending a year away from Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid – the biggest blemish on his on-field résumé in past cycles.
Predicted next move: Returns to the Chiefs as assistant head coach
Aaron Glenn, Detroit Lions
Glenn is a timely reminder that whatever alchemy makes a great head coach is not the same as that which makes a top coordinator. Glenn has been excellent in Detroit, building a coherent, fiery defense despite some weaknesses at all three levels. But he’s not a schematic maverick. He concentrates on the details, drills them into his unit and wrings every ounce of talent out of his players as possible. Glenn has drawn more out of the Lions roster by decluttering; he recognized he was demanding too much schematically in his early days in Detroit and scaled it back.
That sense of self-awareness, of being able to build something that fits your roster rather than what showcases your own intellect, of being able to teach it, with repetition, over and over until your players are mumbling the keywords in their sleep, is what prepares someone to be a head coach.
Culture is a vague term that is more easily recognized than defined. The Dan Campbell Show is fun, but the true essence of the Lions’ culture comes from the team’s willingness to sharpen habits – and Glenn has been the driver of that success on defense.
The Commanders have already requested an interview with Glenn. With a young, rebooted roster, Glenn would be an ideal fit.
Predicted next move: Stays with the Lions