Matching Top NFL Head Coaching Candidates with New Job Openings
The NFL head coaching carousel has begun to turn. With two more coaches getting axed on Black Monday—joining the handful who lost their jobs before the 2022 regular season even finished—there are now five official openings this offseason.
Fortunately for teams with vacancies, there are plenty of viable candidates.
Some of the most well-known options bring a wealth of experience to the table, including taking their former teams to a Super Bowl. There are also promising coordinators who appear to be ready to make the leap up the ranks and former players who are primed to make quick transitions to head coach.
Teams will be doing their due diligence as they prepare to make hires that will alter the course of their franchises for at least the next few years, if not decades. Ideally, they will land on a candidate who not only is a great fit for their current makeup but also has the ability to lead them to sustained success.
With that in mind, here is the head coach who best fits with each current job opening.
Arizona Cardinals: Jonathan Gannon
The Arizona Cardinals parted ways with Kliff Kingsbury on Monday following an underwhelming 2022 campaign, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. The team was ravaged by injuries this year, but Kingsbury went just 28-37-1 in his four seasons at the wheel and saw his team blown out in its lone playoff appearance.
Arizona's next head coach will be tasked with maximizing the talents of quarterback Kyler Murray, who has been a polarizing signal-caller despite making a pair of Pro Bowls and winning the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Even though he has led one short-lived playoff run and posted a 25-31-1 record as a starter, the 25-year-old is under contract through 2028 after signing a massive $230.5 million extension last offseason.
The next coach will also need to drastically improved a defense that ranked second-to-last in points allowed in 2022. That could lead the team to go with a defensive-minded head coach this time around, significantly changing gears following nearly a half-decade under offensive guru Kingsbury.
SI.com's Albert Breer believes that former Denver Broncos head coach and current Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will be a lead candidate for the vacancy, but Arizona would be better served by looking outside of the organization.
Jonathan Gannon could be the ideal replacement for Kingsbury. The Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator interviewed for head coaching jobs last year before returning to his post for a second season.
Philadelphia's defense improved from the league's No. 10 unit to No. 2 in yardage allowed this year and went from giving up 22.6 points per game in 2021 to just 20.2 in 2022, a top-10 mark.
After he "knocked it out of the park" and "crushed" his interviews with three organizations last year, according to Aaron Wilson for Click2Houston.com, Gannon should be a popular candidate following Philly's defensive improvements this season.
With the Cardinals in a state of transition but still talented enough to make it back into the playoffs next year, they would benefit heavily from hiring a sharp mind like Gannon to right the ship.
Carolina Panthers: Steve Wilks
The Carolina Panthers will have a tough decision to make regarding their next head coach, but they may not have to look far to find the right hire.
After the organization mercifully ended the Matt Rhule era, interim coach Steve Wilks was able to right the ship and lead the squad to a .500 record during a 12-game stint.
More impressively, he did this while the front office decided to stockpile assets, shipping both superstar running back Christian McCaffrey and impact receiver Robbie Anderson off before the November trade deadline.
Wilks turned Carolina into one of the most surprising playoff contenders in recent memory—with a chance to win the wide-open NFC South until a Week 17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—despite inheriting a 1-4 squad that deployed a revolving door of veteran castoff quarterbacks.
The 53-year-old helped morph Carolina's ground game into one of the league's more dangerous units. The Panthers posted over 100 rushing yards in seven of his 12 games at the helm and even set a franchise record of 320 rushing yards in Week 16. The talent-laden defense made strides as well, holding foes to 15 points or fewer in five matchups under Wilks.
While Wilks unquestionably deserves serious consideration, it is worth noting that he struggled the last time he took over as a head coach. He went just 3-13 with the 2018 Arizona Cardinals, getting fired after just one season.
However, those Cardinals had a projected win total of just 5.5 games and had their draft marred by the selection of wildly ineffective quarterback Josh Rosen at No. 10 overall.
The Panthers locker room also appears to be united in its desire for Wilks to remain in his current role, with linebacker Shaq Thompson stating that he and his teammates will "keep fighting" for their coach by lobbying team owner David Tepper.
Given the solid play of Carolina since taking over and the love he has in the locker room, Wilks appears to be the right man for the job. He deserves at least a full year to show he can take this team to the postseason, especially if it lands a much-needed franchise quarterback in April's draft.
Denver Broncos: Sean Payton
The marriage of quarterback Russell Wilson and head coach Nathaniel Hackett looked doomed from the start. It was clear that Hackett had to go just 15 games into his much-maligned tenure, leaving Denver Broncos ownership searching for a new head coach for the second time in as many years.
The person they choose will inherit a roster that has the talent to win now, especially under center. While Wilson is coming off his worst year as a professional, the 11-year veteran is only a season removed from the last of his nine Pro Bowl selections and could easily return to form in the right offense.
It seemed Hackett was in over his head from Week 1, when he called for a questionable 64-yard field-goal attempt with the game on the line. Rather than take a chance on another unproven coordinator who may not be cut out for head coaching duties, Denver should instead tap one of the most experienced candidates available: Sean Payton.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the Broncos have already received permission from the New Orleans Saints to interview Payton, who retired after the 2021 season and is still under contract with the team.
Under Payton, the Saints were one of the most consistent franchises in football. He went 152-89 during his 15 years in the Big Easy, leading the club to nine playoff appearances. He was 9-8 in postseason play, including winning the organization's lone Super Bowl title in 2009.
Payton's stewardship helped Drew Brees become a future Hall of Fame quarterback as well. The signal-caller came over to the Saints in 2006, the year that Payton took the reins, and threw for over 68,000 yards and 490 touchdowns during his 15 years in New Orleans.
Brees remained a highly effective quarterback into his late 30s, including six Pro Bowl nods from his age-34 season (the age Wilson is now). With Wilson having stated his desire to play for at least another decade, the Broncos could find sustained success with a Wilson-Payton pairing.
While Payton will be an expensive hire, the deep-pocketed Denver ownership group has spared no expense—including signing Wilson to a blockbuster five-year extension—since paying a record $4.65 billion for the franchise last summer.
Getting Payton in place could instantly transform the Broncos into a contender, something the playoff-starved organization has been desperate for since Peyton Manning retired following a Super Bowl 50 victory after the 2015 season.
Houston Texans: DeMeco Ryans
The Houston Texans have been in a funk since firing Bill O'Brien in 2020. They have churned through three head coaches in the last three seasons, winning just 11 games in that span.
With Lovie Smith's tenure now over following a 3-13-1 showing, which included a Week 18 win that ultimately cost the club the No. 1 overall pick, the Texans will once again try to find someone who can bring stability to the flailing organization.
They could wind up making one of the more unconventional hires of the 2022 offseason. According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the team was set on naming former NFL quarterback Josh McCown as its head coach in 2022 before Brian Flores filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL and its teams.
Rather than hiring a white candidate with no real coaching experience—something the Indianapolis Colts would later try by naming Jeff Saturday the interim head coach this year, a move that failed by nearly every measure—the Texans ultimately went with an experienced candidate.
While McCown may still be in the running this time around, Houston could be better served by bringing aboard someone who has a bit of experience under his belt. DeMeco Ryans, a former Texans linebacker and the current San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator, fits that bill.
NFL insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported that Ryans should "get a long look" from general manager Nick Caserio.
The 38-year-old has done a sterling job during his short stint in the coaching ranks.
After ending a 10-year playing career in 2015, the two-time Pro Bowler joined the 49ers in 2017 as a defensive quality control coach. He rose through the ranks to become the team's defensive coordinator following Robert Saleh's departure in 2021 and has kept San Francisco's defense in the top five in each of the past two campaigns.
While the Texans have been nothing short of disastrous in recent years, they do have a clear path to becoming relevant again.
Ryans, the man currently overseeing the league's No. 1 defense in both yards allowed and scoring, could sharpen a young defense that showed flashes of promise under Smith. He'd also be able to mold an offense that could improve drastically following the 2023 draft.
Houston not only holds the No. 2 pick this year—a spot at which it could land one of the top quarterback prospects—but also has several additional Day 1 and 2 selections over the next two years stemming from the Deshaun Watson trade.
This is one of the toughest of the available openings, but it is a role that would allow Ryans to put his stamp on the organization he first became a star with.
Indianapolis Colts: Jim Harbaugh
After failing to live up to expectations for much of the Frank Reich era, the Indianapolis Colts decided replace him with a franchise legend in the back half of the 2022 campaign. Jeff Saturday's tenure as the interim head coach was even more disastrous, resulting in seven straight losses to end the season
It's apparent that he isn't a long-term solution.
While there are plenty of candidates who could conceivably help turn around an organization that has plenty of talent on the books, Jim Harbaugh stands out as a cut above the rest.
He has led his squads to great heights at every stop during his head coaching career. He first went 29-6 at the helm of the San Diego Toreros and then molded Stanford into a national championship contender, leaving the Cardinal following a 12-1 season in 2010.
His first foray into professional football was immensely successful as well. Harbaugh went 36-11 with three NFC Championship Game berths and a Super Bowl appearance during his first three seasons with the 49ers. Even his fourth and final campaign saw the team finish with a respectable .500 record.
After flirting with a return to the NFL by interviewing with the Minnesota Vikings last year and taking Michigan to the College Football Playoff in two consecutive seasons, it seems Harbaugh may be ready to make the move for real this time.
The possibility of NCAA sanctions for the Wolverines could make Harbaugh's decision to return to the NFL even easier despite him saying he plans to remain in Ann Arbor in 2023.
There is reportedly no shortage of interest on Indianapolis' side either. According to The Athletic's Zak Keefer, multiple league sources are "convinced" that Colts owner Jim Irsay has Harbaugh at the top of his shortlist for the vacancy.
The job represents a great opportunity for Harbaugh to win a Super Bowl, one of the few accomplishments still eluding the 59-year-old. The team has a quality defense in place along with 2021 rushing champion Jonathan Taylor and an up-and-coming receiving corps led by Michael Pittman Jr.
Factor in Indianapolis having the No. 4 overall pick and a real chance to finally get another franchise quarterback—the squad's biggest need since Andrew Luck's retirement in 2019—and it's one of the more intriguing jobs out there.
Harbaugh would be the ideal coach to bring along a young signal-caller while quickly taking this team back into contention.