Who Are the NFL's Top Head-Coaching Candidates for 2018?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 1, 2018

Who Are the NFL's Top Head-Coaching Candidates for 2018?

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    Black Monday has arrived. NFL head coaches will lose jobs, and several hot candidates will quickly emerge—in some cases in multiple spots—as potential replacements.  

    Those potential replacements are typically renowned coordinators or position coaches. Sometimes, they're retreads who have moved on to other gigs. And other times, they're identified in the college ranks. 

    On what is the first day of the 2018 offseason for 63 percent of the league's 32 teams, here's a look at some of the notable names who are already receiving buzz for head-coaching opportunities. 

New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels

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    It's only a matter of time before New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gets another shot as a head coach. The 41-year-old has spent the vast majority of his career under Bill Belichick's wing, and he continues to experience immense success with one of the most accomplished organizations in professional sports. 

    McDaniels took three interviews for head-coaching gigs last January before removing himself from contention for the San Francisco 49ers job. He isn't rushing into anything, possibly because he won just 11 of 28 games during his first stint as a head coach with the Denver Broncos in 2009 and 2010, and possibly because he might one day have a chance to take over for Belichick. 

    "We'll just see what happens, like always," McDaniels said on a conference call last week, per Ryan Hannable of WEEI. "It's happened in the past, and that's something that will take care of itself once the season is over."

New England Patriots Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia

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    McDaniels isn't the only buzzed-about Patriots coordinator entering the offseason. Matt Patricia's defense was once again one of the best units in football this season—despite a putrid start and the loss of star linebacker Dont'a Hightower. 

    No defense in football has allowed fewer points since the start of last season than the Pats, who went to five Super Bowls in Patricia's first 13 seasons with the organization and have a good shot at getting back there this year.

    According to former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, Patricia was included alongside McDaniels on a list of recommended head-coaching candidates by the league's Career Development Advisory Panel in December. And that shouldn't be surprising, because the 43-year-old has experienced plenty of success while learning from the best, and he interviewed with both the Rams and Chargers last January.

    So yeah, Belichick's coaching tree could expand very soon. 

Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz

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    It also wasn't surprising to see Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz on that panel's list provided by Lombardi, because the 51-year-old might be ready for a second kick at the can after failing to experience much success during a five-year stretch as head coach of the Detroit Lions. 

    Since being fired from that job following the 2013 season, Schwartz has delivered as a defensive coordinator. Under his tutelage in 2014, the Buffalo Bills defense ranked in the top four in terms of yards and points allowed as well as takeaways. And after a year away and a transition year in Philadelphia, the Eagles defense entered the final week of the 2017 regular season ranked in the top six in all three of those categories. 

    The Bills defense was substantially worse the year after Schwartz departed, while the Eagles defense was substantially worse the year before he arrived. He's got the touch, and he might be due for a second opportunity to run things from the top. 

Philadelphia Eagles Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich

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    Record-wise, the Eagles were the best team in football this season. Thus, Schwartz isn't the only Philadelphia assistant expected to attract attention in the new year. 

    Offensive coordinator Frank Reich's unit has taken major steps forward this season, ranking in the top five in terms of yardage and scoring. And while offensive-minded head coach Doug Pederson deserves plenty of credit for that as well, Reich's impact on emerging franchise quarterback Carson Wentz can't be denied. 

    After a tough rookie season, Wentz looked like a completely different quarterback in 2017. His touchdown-to-interception ratio of 33-to-7 was tops in the NFC, and he was one of just five qualified quarterbacks with a triple-digit passer rating. 

    So this might be the perfect time for the 56-year-old to get his first shot as a head coach, and he'll likely get a strong endorsement from his current boss. 

    "He's got the right demeanor," Pederson said in November, per Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times. "He's a players' coach. He relates well to the players. He does a great job with the offensive staff, and he's got the right demeanor. He's got the mindset, the mentality, the leadership qualities that you see. I think it is a matter of time."

Los Angeles Rams Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur

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    On the other side of the country you'll find another potential 2018 head-coaching candidate who made a tremendous impact on a second-year quarterback in 2017.

    Obviously first-year Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay is a big reason why 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff has taken off as a sophomore, but some of that credit should go to Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. 

    "He's as responsible as anybody for the success our offense has had," McVay said of LaFleur in October, per the Associated Press. In terms of organizing the game plans, being able to run the meetings, making sure that everything is in alignment on the same page, he does it all. Can't say enough about the contribution he has made to our team."

    It's worth noting that LaFleur was the Washington Redskins quarterbacks coach when Robert Griffin III put together one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history in 2012, and the Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks coach for Matt Ryan's MVP season in 2016. He's helped get the most out of Griffin, Ryan and Goff, which could tempt a team with a young signal-caller to hand the keys to the 38-year-old this offseason. 

New Orleans Saints Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr.

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    Few coordinators around the league appear more "due" for a head-coaching gig than Pete Carmichael Jr. In his nine seasons running the New Orleans Saints offense, New Orleans has never ranked below sixth in terms of yardage or 11th in terms of scoring. 

    During the 46-year-old's tenure, the Saints have averaged 6.1 yards per play. No other NFL offense has averaged more than 5.8.

    Having Drew Brees helps, but Carmichael has been working with Brees since the future Hall of Fame quarterback made his first start with the San Diego Chargers in 2002. He helped develop Brees. That's worth something, and that experience could be quite valuable in a new setting. 

Minnesota Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards

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    Not only did the NFL's Career Development Advisory Panel recommend Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards as a potential head-coaching candidate, but Edwards also made the Fritz Pollard Alliance's list of recommended NFL head-coaching candidates, per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

    Minnesota's defense is head coach Mike Zimmer's baby, but the results under his and Edwards' tutelage—they've ranked in the top 11 in terms of points allowed in all four of Edwards' seasons there, and in the top six in each of the last three years—reflect well on both. 

    Plus, both Zimmer and Vikes general manager Rick Spielman have strongly recommended Edwards, according to Tomasson. 

    "According to Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer, he's moved into a position where he's very, very much involved in the game-day operation of calling the plays and runs the defense room," Fritz Pollard Alliance chairman John Wooten told Tomasson. “We think the Vikings have done a heck of a job of moving forward, and we think (Edwards) deserves the opportunity.'' 

    While the 50-year-old has never been a head coach at any level, he did act in that role at last year's East-West Shrine Game. With his contract expiring, this could be a natural opportunity for him to make the transition. 

Houston Texans Defensive Coordinator Mike Vrabel

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    Mike Vrabel's playing career ended just seven years ago, but he's quickly been climbing ladders as a coach. 

    The 42-year-old spent three years coaching front-seven defenders at his alma mater, Ohio State, spent three more years coaching linebackers with the Houston Texans and is now the subject of buzz regarding potential head-coaching gigs after just one season as Houston's defensive coordinator. 

    This is somewhat intangible. The defensive numbers have been ugly in Houston this season, but injuries, suspensions and free-agent losses factor in significantly. One year ago, that unit ranked No. 1 in football despite not having three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt for virtually the entire season. 

    That was enough to land Vrabel an interview with the Rams for their head-coaching vacancy in the 2017 offseason. Don't be surprised if he attracts even more attention this winter.

ESPN Analyst Jon Gruden

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    Excluding Jon Gruden from a list like this would be grounds to have my sports media license revoked. He's essentially been a perennial head-coaching candidate since being fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and joining ESPN as a color commentator in 2009, and that won't likely change until Gruden finally takes a job or retires from football altogether. 

    The latest? Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported last week that there was "a growing sense in league circles" that Gruden would return to the Bucs in 2018. 

    Soon after that report surfaced, the team told current head coach Dirk Koetter that he'll be back for the 2018 season, according to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. But as Florio points out, the timing of that news could indicate Gruden was or continues to be on the radar. 

    "So what happened to cause the Buccaneers to decide on Friday afternoon to keep Koetter?" Florio wrote. "Based on the fact that they often know who they’ll hire before they fire their current coach, it's very fair to speculate that they were talking to someone else (Gruden) and that, for whatever reason, the talks fell apart."

    Could that job remain a possibility? Could other teams convince Gruden to abandon the broadcast booth for the sideline? Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen of ESPN reported on the weekend that the Oakland Raiders were preparing to pursue him with an offer that could include an ownership stake, and he was reportedly in talks with the University of Tennessee about their opening last month.

    So it appears there's a chance the 54-year-old could consider a wide range of opportunities. 

Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh

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    After three good-not-glorious years as head coach at the University of Michigan, former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh could be more tempted by NFL opportunities this offseason than in years past. 

    Naturally, he's been linked to the Indianapolis Colts, who are quarterbacked by former Harbaugh disciple Andrew Luck

    "Harbaugh knows (Andrew) Luck well after coaching him at Stanford, and familiarity with Luck would help if the quarterback is adjusting to a new offensive coordinator," wrote ESPN.com's Mike Wells recently. "Harbaugh, who played four seasons at quarterback in Indianapolis, is also the type of flashy name that would draw (owner Jim) Irsay's attention."

    According to MLive.com's Aaron McMann, the 54-year-old recently called that talk "warmed up oatmeal," whatever that means. 

    Harbaugh is obviously indicating he doesn't plan on leaving Michigan, but we've seen coaches jump ship after making much more definitive and less obscure statements. 

Kansas City Chiefs Special Teams Coordinator Dave Toub

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    The only special teams coach to make the Career Development Advisory Panel's list of recommended head-coaching candidates was Dave Toub of the Chiefs, who has served in that role each of the last five years after doing so for nine years in Chicago. 

    The 55-year-old has never been a head coach at any level, but he wouldn't be the first special teams coordinator to make the jump into a head honcho role. Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh won a Super Bowl just a few years after undergoing the same transition. 

    Toub's units in Chicago and KC have experienced a ton of success. He interviewed for the Bears' vacant head-coaching job in 2013, and last month former Bear Olin Kreutz called Toub "a leader who gets it."

    "He's a combination of Harbaugh and John Madden," one of Toub's former colleagues told Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports in 2016. "He is the real deal. This guy can coach. Period. He's a big guy, physically, who can take over a room when he has to. He gets people to buy in. These guys love playing for him. He comes from a great [coaching] family tree. Look at Andy Reid's assistants over the years. This guy is ready. All he needs is a chance."

    Might that chance come this month? 

Philadelphia Eagles Quarterbacks Coach John DeFilippo

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    How 'bout one more Eagles coach for the road? We've already given you both of their coordinators, but quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo is also getting plenty of attention for potential head-coaching opportunities. 

    DeFilippo certainly deserves some credit for Carson Wentz's maturation, which could explain why SiriusXM's Adam Caplan says the 39-year-old will "be targeted by several teams" including Chicago, Indianapolis and the Arizona Cardinals. 

    "I think the sky is the limit for him," Eagles backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld said of DeFilippo in December, per NJ.com's Matt Lombardo. "I think the world of him. I don't know how much my word means, but he has a very bright future and he'll be around the game for a long time."

    "He's a great teacher, No. 1," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson told NJ.com's James Kratch last month. "He understands the offense, he knows what we're trying to get across. He's a great teacher, not only in the classroom, but the drill work and what he puts the quarterbacks through. It's all game-specific drill work and he really does a nice job preparing the guys, the quarterbacks, during the week. Very exhaustive in the film study and is showing them every look, every blitz and for the entire season. Plus, it's just the way he prepares these guys and he's done a great job with them. Great communicator."

    DeFilippo is young but extremely experienced, having worked with a wide range of young, talented quarterbacks in a variety of schemes. He's tireless and energetic, and he just might be next in the line of young head coaches taking the league by storm.