2021 NFL Head Coach Openings – Rankings and Predictions

1. Los Angeles Chargers 

Pros – Young franchise quarterback, talented roster, cap space to be aggressive in free agency

Cons – Ownership, lack of fanbase

The Chargers are one of the only two teams on this list with the most valuable asset in the NFL, a young franchise quarterback, Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Justin Herbert. However, unlike the other team the Texans, the Chargers have talent on the rest of this roster as well and, because their franchise quarterback is on a cheap rookie deal, they have the financial flexibility to add more talent this off-season, entering the off-season with the 9th projected most cap space in the league. 

There are concerns about the ownership and the lack of fanbase (once fans are allowed back in stadiums), but all of the available jobs have their warts and the Chargers’ job looks to be the clear best of the bunch. That is likely to be the consensus among head coaching candidates as well, so the Chargers could have their pick of the bunch. 

No head coaching candidate has been more popular than Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who has interviewed for every available position after three seasons coordinating the league’s most explosive offense in Kansas City with Pat Mahomes and Andy Reid, so he could have his pick of jobs. A pairing between him and Herbert and the Chargers would make a lot of sense.

Prediction: Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Coordinator

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

Pros – #1 pick, tons of cap space

Cons – Weak roster

The Jaguars may seem like an unattractive opening, given that they finished with the worst record in the league last season, but this was always part of a long-term rebuild and the Jaguars are armed with an extra first round pick and a lot of cap space to build their roster and, of course, because they were the worst team in the league last season, they get the right to draft Trevor Lawrence, once of the top quarterback prospects in decades. 

This could be a quick rebuild and any head coach who takes this job will have relatively low expectations to start. Compared to the other options, there is a lot to like here. Multiple reports suggest the Jaguars are locked onto former college championship winning head coach Urban Meyer and are waiting on his decision to come out of retirement, at age 56.

Prediction: Urban Meyer, Former Ohio State University Head Coach

3. Philadelphia Eagles

Pros – Good players on both sides of the ball, ownership/front office, #6 pick, quarterback?

Cons – No financial flexibility, likely need to cut players, quarterback?

The Eagles are late to the game after somewhat surprisingly firing Doug Pederson earlier this week and they’re a complicated case overall. Probably more than any team on this list, the Eagles are a well-run organization from top to bottom and, despite their record last season, they have a lot of individually talented players. They also have a premium draft pick by virtue of their record last season, picking 6th overall. However, they’re already far over next year’s cap before re-signing free agents and may need to let some very talented players go, or further sacrifice depth on a top-heavy roster.

Then there is the matter of their quarterback situation, which could be viewed as either a positive or a negative depending on the incoming coach’s view of this team’s quarterback options. Some may see Carson Wentz as an exciting reclamation project who, prior to last season’s disastrous performance, had always been a capable starter and at times an MVP candidate, and some may see 2020 2nd round pick Jalen Hurts as an exciting young quarterback prospect, but the Eagles don’t seem to have a clear plan at the position and wouldn’t be able to get appropriate value for either quarterback if they were to move on right now. 

The Eagles may be a little behind, but they can still get a good offensive coach to help resolve this situation, with Arthur Smith or perhaps Joe Brady looking like strong early options. I have Brady going elsewhere, but Smith would still be a strong hire. In two seasons as the Titans’ offensive coordinator, Smith unlocked Derrick Henry as a feature back, coaxed a mid-career breakout out of Ryan Tannehill, and orchestrated one of the best offenses in the league in back-to-back seasons. Only 38, Smith is an exciting young candidate that is in high demand this off-season.

Prediction: Arthur Smith, Tennessee Titans Offensive Coordinator

4. Houston Texans 

Pros – Deshaun Watson

Cons – Weak roster, no first round pick, lack of financial flexibility, ownership/front office, Deshaun Watson?

I alluded to the Texans’ situation earlier, but I didn’t include the added wrinkle that the Texans don’t have their own first round pick this year and that star quarterback Deshaun Watson may want out. Add in the questions around their front office and ownership, their cap situation (7th least projected cap space in the league), and a roster that is arguably the league’s worst outside of the quarterback position and there are a lot of concerns about this opportunity.

So why do they rank ahead of other opportunities with so many cons and just one pro (who may want out)? Because Watson is that good. When you have a superstar quarterback like that in the prime of his career, other things tend to fall into place much more easily. Even if the Texans are forced to trade Watson, he would command a king’s ransom including multiple premium picks, which, along with the cap space freed up by moving Watson, would allow the Texans to adequately rebuild the rest of this roster long-term.

The Texans seem to be focused on the short-term in their coaching search, interviewing several older former head coaches like Jim Caldwell, Leslie Frazier, and Marvin Lewis. They seem more likely to hire a steady hand that has experience being in playoff races to assure their veterans they plan on continuing to try to compete, rather than rebuilding with a young head coach. 

Caldwell is reportedly the favorite for the job. He’s an unexciting hire who has never really moved the needle as a head coach in his first two opportunities with the Colts and Lions, but he’s guided talented teams and has a winning record overall, including playoff appearances in 4 of 7 seasons (2-4). 

A football lifer, Caldwell, 65, coached in some capacity at the NFL or collegiate level for 41 straight seasons from 1977-2017, including a stint as Wake Forest’s head coach and pair of Super Bowl victories, as the Colts quarterbacks coach and then as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator. Caldwell unretired for a year to be an assistant in Miami in 2019, before sitting out 2020, and seems likely to be willing to return a third time in 2021, for the right opportunity.

Prediction: Jim Caldwell, Former Detroit Lions Head Coach

5. Atlanta Falcons

Pros – More talented than 4-12 record, #4 pick

Cons – Aging roster, limited financial flexibility

The Falcons went just 4-12 last season, but their four losses in which they had a 95% chance to win in the 4th quarter, their 2-8 record in one score games, and their -18 point differential suggest this is a team that is a lot more talented than that record. That record also gets them the 4th overall pick. However, they have a relatively old roster without a lot of financial flexibility (3rd least cap space in the league) and might max out as a .500 team with this roster. 

The Falcons seem committed to keeping highly paid stars Matt Ryan and Julio Jones as they go into their mid-30s, so the incoming head coach will be expected to compete relatively quickly, which is possible, but not given, with this roster. The Falcons can add to this roster with their high draft pick, but they could also use the pick on a quarterback with an eye on the future, as Ryan is going into his age 36 season and isn’t getting cheaper. 

Hiring a young offensive coach may make that more likely and reports suggest they’re down to either Arthur Smith or divisional rival Joe Brady, who coordinated an overachieving Panthers offense in his first season as an NFL offensive coordinator, after coordinating a record setting offense at the college level with LSU in 2019. Also experienced as an assistant with fellow division rival New Orleans, Brady has an impressive resume for a 31-year-old and seems likely to get a shot at a head coach job, if not this off-season then within the next couple years.

Prediction: Joe Brady, Carolina Panthers Offensive Coordinator

6. New York Jets 

Pros – #2 pick, cap space

Cons – Ownership, weak roster, quarterback situation

This job would have been a lot more attractive had the Jets held on to the #1 overall pick and had the rights to select Trevor Lawrence. The Jets still have the #2 pick and the cap space to add to this roster this off-season, but they have an unfavorable ownership situation and they have the kind of roster where the cap space they have and the #2 overall pick don’t seem like enough to turn this around quickly. 

The #2 overall pick plays into the uncertainty at quarterback, where the Jets will have to decide between keeping 2018 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold, guaranteeing him 25 million for injury in 2022, and trading away the #2 pick for more draft assets, or using the #2 pick on his replacement and trading Darnold for lesser draft assets. Darnold is only going into his age 24 season and could still develop into a starter somewhere else, while any quarterback they take #2 overall would not be a sure thing, but Darnold’s contract situation is much less favorable than a rookie’s and passing on a franchise quarterback in the draft could easily come back to haunt them as well. Whoever the quarterback is, the Jets will undoubtedly have to do more to support them in 2021.

The Jets may be passed over by some of the best coaching candidates, but they could still get a good candidate from division rival Buffalo. Daboll has only interviewed with the Chargers aside from the Jets and, though the Chargers seem to like Daboll, I have them going elsewhere in this scenario, leaving the Jets to get the guy responsible for helping develop Josh Allen into a franchise quarterback. The Jets would be hoping he could do the same in New York, either with Darnold or a rookie like Justin Fields or Zack Wilson. Daboll, 45, also has experience on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England and on Nick Saban’s staff at the University of Alabama, winning championships in both spots.

Prediction: Brian Daboll, Buffalo Bills Offensive Coordinator

7. Detroit Lions

Pros – Some good players, #7 pick

Cons – Ownership, mediocre roster, limited financial flexibility

The Lions aren’t the worst team on this list, but it was hard to find big pluses for them. They do have some talented players in Matt Stafford, DeAndre Swift, TJ Hockenson, Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, and Trey Flowers, as well as pending free agent Kenny Golladay and they have the 7th overall pick to add to this team, but they don’t have a lot of financial flexibility, even before re-signing or franchise tagging Golladay, and they may be maxed out with their current roster. 

Injuries were a big part of the problem for this team in 2021, most notably Golladay and Flowers, leading to a 5-11 finish, but, even with better health in 2021, it’s hard to see this as much better than a middling team. They could opt to rebuild, using the 7th overall pick on a quarterback and either sitting him for a year or trading Stafford to get draft compensation and financial flexibility to build around their rookie quarterback, but it wouldn’t be a quick rebuild. 

Robert Saleh, 41, is one of the most in-demand young head coaching candidates, coordinating a dominant 49ers defense to a Super Bowl appearance in 2019 and then arguably doing a better job in 2020, when the 49ers still finished in the top-10 in most defensive metrics, despite missing half of their roster. He could probably get a better job than this, but he’s been rumored to Detroit because he’s from the area and they could certainly use his defensive minded coaching after fielding arguably the worst defense in the league last season.

Prediction: Robert Saleh, San Francisco 49ers Defensive Coordinator

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