Who Are the NFL's Top Head Coaching Candidates for Next Season?

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterNovember 27, 2018

Who Are the NFL's Top Head Coaching Candidates for Next Season?

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    The Cleveland Browns have already opened one head coaching job in the NFL, and many more are expected. NFL sources expect as many as nine jobs to open up this offseason, which begs the question of if there are enough quality head coaching candidates to fill those openings.

    The NFL has become isolated when it comes to hiring new head coaches. The best way to get a job is to be an offensive coordinator, ideally under 50 years old, on a winning team. That paved the way for Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy in the last several years of openings. In a copycat league, who will be next?

    The NFL may have to be creative. That means going after college coaches to find innovative leaders, looking into retired coaches anxious to get back into the game, and checking out the fired coaches to see if they can jump-start a new franchise after growing stale in their current job.

    With the hiring cycle quickly approaching, these are the top coaching candidates as recommended by NFL owners, general managers and scouts. The coaches are listed alphabetically.


Bruce Arians, Retired

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    Bruce Arians was retired with a nice gig in the media doing pregame analysis for CBS when he threw a curveball and told NFL.com he is interested in the Cleveland Browns' head coaching job. He recently doubled-down and said the Browns' job is the only one he would come out of retirement for.

    Is Arians serious or just trying to get his name back out in the market?

    Arians, according to league sources who know him, is serious. And Browns general manager John Dorsey would be wise to consider the 66-year-old offensive mastermind to develop a scheme for quarterback Baker Mayfield.

    The Browns finally have a franchise quarterback in Mayfield, so ownership and the front office should do everything possible to build a staff that can maximize his talents. That means the idea of hiring Arians, keeping offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens and adding a wide receiver in the draft or a big-money signing in free agency.

    Given his comments, Arians isn't a candidate for every job, but he has to be considered one of the top options for the Browns. With a resume that includes working with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer, Arians has the background to prove he can install a system that will work for Mayfield. If the Browns want to win quickly, Arians is the best option.


    Best Fits: Cleveland Browns

Dan Campbell, Tight Ends Coach, New Orleans Saints

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    NFL owners who want to go the route of the former player will be very excited by Dan Campbell. The current tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints, Campbell has the support of Bill Parcells and Sean Payton—two of the league's elite coaches of the last 30 years.

    A third-round pick in the 1999 NFL draft by the New York Giants coming out of Texas A&M, Campbell lasted a decade in the league before immediately becoming a coach with the Miami Dolphins under Tony Sparano. He would eventually become the interim head coach there when Joe Philbin was fired, going 5-7 in his time as the head man.

    Campbell has seen interest from the NFL as a head coaching candidate, as he interviewed for the Indianapolis Colts job last season before the team decided on Frank Reich. It's expected by league sources that he'll see plenty of interviews this offseason due to his reputation and the Saints' success.

    Campbell was described by one peer as "tough, and a player's coach, but he knows how to reach guys and that's what's most important." If he can bring some of the juice that Payton has created offensively, Campbell could be a hot candidate for teams that miss out on top-tier offensive candidates like Lincoln Riley.


    Best Fits: Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns

Matt Campbell, Head Coach, Iowa State

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    The top head coaching candidate on my own list, Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell brings a diverse background and a proven method of building a program to the table.

    As a defensive lineman in college (Mount Union), Campbell was twice an All-American. That speaks to his ability as a player, and why his current players rave that he can relate to them and understand what they're going through. He was described by one senior on the team as "a leader. He's one of those guys you just want to be around and not disappoint."

    Campbell's playing days ended at Mount Union, and he quickly got into coaching—first as an intern at Bowling Green. What's most interesting is that after playing defense throughout college, Campbell started working on the offensive side. He's held jobs as an offensive line coach, run game coordinator and offensive coordinator before becoming a head coach. That's something NFL owners and general managers should love. He's balanced, versatile and smart.

    The sell with Campbell is that he's disciplined, smart, detail-oriented and can connect with his players. That works in college, and it would work in the NFL. If the Browns decide to go young, Campbell is the kind of coach whom general manager John Dorsey will be drawn to.


    Best Fits: Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets

John DeFilippo, Offensive Coordinator, Minnesota Vikings

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    The son of a coach, right out of the Cradle of Coaches in Youngstown, Ohio, John DeFilippo has established a good reputation in NFL circles as a smart, if only a little conservative, offensive mind who will get serious looks this offseason as a head coaching candidate.

    After working with Carson Wentz in Philadelphia and helping the team win a Super Bowl as quarterbacks coach, DeFilippo took the offensive coordinator job in Minnesota and has helped that offense quickly acclimate and come together under free-agent signing Kirk Cousins at quarterback. His West Coast roots might not be as exciting as the spread offenses seen in Los Angeles and Kansas City, but it works, and the 40-year-old DeFilippo has seen success at every stop along the way in his 18 years as a coach.

    As an offensive coordinator, DeFilippo will benefit from the trend in the NFL of teams going toward offense when hiring coaches. It also helps his reputation that the Eagles offense has struggled since he and Frank Reich left.

    Teams set on hiring a coach who will be focused on either developing or finding a quarterback should give DeFilippo an interview.


    Best Fits: New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos

John Harbaugh, Head Coach, Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    After a decade as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens—including one Super Bowl win—John Harbaugh could be looking for a new job this offseason as the team shifts to a new coach with a fresh message. It would surprise no one if new general manager Eric DeCosta wanted to pick his own head coach after inheriting Harbaugh from former top man Ozzie Newsome.

    Harbaugh will have options if he's fired in Baltimore. It was reported by NFL Network's Ian Rapoport over the weekend that he would be a favorite for the USC job if Clay Helton were fired (USC later refuted the report and announced Helton would return). Other top colleges could come calling if Harbaugh isn't quickly hired by an NFL team.

    For pro clubs, Harbaugh offers an excellent CEO-type candidate. He has winning experience and has handled himself and his teams with class, and he can bring a steady hand to any organization. A young team looking for experience and a culture builder would like what Harbaugh offers. Whether that's in the NFL or NCAA, we'll know soon enough.


    Best Fits: New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Mike McCarthy, Head Coach, Green Bay Packers

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Now in his 13th season as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, all signs point to a divorce between Mike McCarthy and the team this offseason. If so, his name will be a hot one for head coaching jobs given his work with Aaron Rodgers and his background as a top offensive mind—even if Packers fans would argue they haven't seen that in ages.

    McCarthy is a controversial figure among NFL sources. Some see him as handed an impossible task of building a team around a high-priced quarterback with a former general manager (Ted Thompson) who didn't want to give him the pieces needed around Aaron Rodgers to win. Others, as one source put it, see him as a failure. "One Super Bowl in 13 seasons with the most talented quarterback in the game is amazing," the source said.

    The best news for McCarthy might be the weak crop of candidates in his hiring cycle. If enough jobs open up, there will be interest for a coach who has won 125 games and has a Super Bowl ring.


    Best Fits: Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys

Josh McDaniels, Offensive Coordinator, New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Josh McDaniels has become synonymous with the New England Patriots—especially if you can't remember his two-year stint as head coach of the Denver Broncos in the 2009-2010 seasons. He agreed to become the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts last offseason before getting cold feet and returning to New England, where many league sources assume he's in line to replace Bill Belichick.

    McDaniels might be ready to try getting back on the head coaching carousel again, but he will likely be looking for a near-perfect situation in terms of ownership and players. That would seem to rule out the Cleveland Browns or Dallas Cowboys, where ownership might be too hands-on for a Belichick disciple.

    If the Baltimore Ravens were convinced that McDaniels isn't a product of Tom Brady and Belichick, the team could be an interesting option. McDaniels would get an exciting young quarterback to work with (Lamar Jackson), a very well-respected general manager (Eric DeCosta) and an owner in Steve Bisciotti, who gives his team what they need but isn't overly involved in the day-to-day process of running the team.

    If the Ravens have an opening and McDaniels will take interviews, it's almost too good of a match to be true.


    Best Fits: Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers

Lincoln Riley, Head Coach, Oklahoma Sooners

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    Ray Thompson/Associated Press

    Perhaps the hottest name in the 2018 coaching cycle is only in his second season as head coach at the University of Oklahoma.

    Lincoln Riley, at 35 years old, has taken the Oklahoma program to new levels since replacing Bob Stoops when he suddenly retired in June 2017. In his first season, Riley guided quarterback Baker Mayfield to a Heisman Trophy and Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff. In his second season, with Mayfield gone to the NFL, Riley has first-year starter Kyler Murray looking like a Heisman finalist and the team in the Big 12 title game.

    Riley is exactly what owners are looking for if they want the energetic, exciting, innovative offensive mind. He's coached under Mike Leach, Ruffin McNeill and Stoops. His offense at Oklahoma dominates with speed and space, and he's proven he can work with quarterbacks.

    It's almost too easy to connect Riley to the Browns, where he could resume working with Mayfield, but NFL sources maintain the only job he would leave Norman for is right down the road in Dallas.


    Best Fits: Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers

Jim Schwartz, Defensive Coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    In a year dominated by offensive coaches, Jim Schwartz is the best true defensive candidate on the board.

    Schwartz, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, was the head coach of the Detroit Lions between 2009 and 2013, but many in the league feel he didn't get a fair shake there. Said one top-level front office member, "I think you can look at the lack of success after [Schwartz] there and realize a lot of the issues weren't his." 

    After strong stints with the Bills (2014) and the Eagles, Schwartz is once again a viable candidate. And at only 52 years old, he's still considered young enough to have the energy for a rebuilding process. That's actually one thing potential employers like about him. "If you want a tough SOB to come in and run out the weakness on your roster, he's the guy to do it," said one former general manager who now helps consult with owners for new hires.

    Schwartz will have to prove that his time in Detroit isn't representative of his abilities, but in a year without a go-to candidate with a strong defensive background, he could benefit from being the most likely option.


    Best Fits: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals

Dave Toub, Special Teams Coach, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Dave Toub is the lone coach on the list without a background in either offense or defense. You aren't hiring him because of the system he'll install for your quarterback or his ability to draw up a defense to stop the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints.

    Instead, teams will interview Toub for his ability to run a team. His organizational skills and attention to detail are what his contemporaries rave about. The 56-year-old Toub is currently the assistant head coach for the Chiefs as well as special teams coordinator, and anyone watching his work with Tyreek Hill and how successful Kansas City has been transitioning from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes will want to talk to Andy Reid's right-hand man.

    Toub might be a hard sell given his lack of experience outside of special teams—he was a strength and conditioning coach before getting into the NFL as a special teams assistant in 2001—but owners who want a leader will like what he brings to the table.

    Best Fits: Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers