An Early Look at NFL's Next Wave of Head Coaching Candidates
The template for top NFL coaching candidates is obvious: organizations want young, offensive-minded head coaches to keep up with the game's evolving passing concepts. Preferably, candidates have some experience either developing quarterbacks or playing the position.
Or, they just need to know the Los Angeles Rams' Sean McVay in some way.
A handful of upcoming candidates qualify.
Not every individual fits neat little boxes, though. Some of the game's best coordinators and/or position coaches aren't in their 30s and don't teach quarterbacks. This doesn't make them any less of a candidate.
Every owner and front-office member has preferences, but the goal remains the same: find the right person for the job. NFL head coaches are CEOs, not glorified coordinators. The right personality is needed to lead professional athletes and handle game-day pressure.
The New England Patriots' Bill Belichick never played at the professional level (or even at a major collegiate program), has a defensive background and failed at his first stop. Yet, he's the most successful head coach of all time.
The following eight coaches are counted among the best and brightest options. Retreads need not apply.
Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Minority candidates don't receive the same recognition as other coaches in today's NFL, because opportunities are lacking on the offensive side of the ball.
Byron Leftwich is one of only two African-American offensive coordinators (along with the Kansas City Chiefs' Eric Bieniemy) in the league. Leftwich's pedigree aligns perfectly with what many teams want in their next head coach, though; he simply needs more experience.
The 39-year-old former NFL quarterback didn't enter the professional coaching ranks until 2017. Mike McCoy's midseason firing thrust Leftwich into the Arizona Cardinals' offensive coordinator role after a year and a half as a quarterbacks coach.
Bruce Arians hired Leftwich to serve as his coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Arians is grooming his protege to become an NFL head coach.
"He'll be a head coach early and fast," Arians said after originally hiring Leftwich in Arizona, per NFL.com's Chris Wesseling.
Two years later, Arians brought Leftwich along to call plays and mentor quarterback Jameis Winston. Leftwich's career will turn based on how he handles the 2015 No. 1 overall pick.
"I have to learn him first. I have to learn Jameis. I have to learn how he thinks, how he executes, what he does well, what he maybe doesn't do so well and then I have to get those things better as a whole," Leftwich said, per Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams.
If Winston secures his status as a franchise quarterback by protecting the football and consistently making good decisions, Leftwich will be well on his way toward a head coaching opportunity. If the quarterback falters, his path becomes far more difficult to navigate.
Duce Staley, Philadelphia Eagles
Duce Staley continues to bide his time and work his way up the proverbial ladder.
Staley is a former NFL running back and Super Bowl champion (as a player and coach) with eight years of coaching experience at the highest level. Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson promoted Staley to assistant head coach last offseason.
Eventually, the 44-year-old running backs coach should receive a chance to lead a franchise, even if he never takes the natural step of becoming an offensive coordinator.
"Crazy league. Crazy situations. You talk about being at the right place at the right time," Staley said, per Philly.com's Marcus Hayes. "Sometimes things are slotted, and they may not be slotted for you. Sometimes something may just pop up on you."
Staley isn't afraid to state his intentions: He wants to be a head coach.
"Yeah, definitely," he said before last season, per NBC Sports Philadelphia's Reuben Frank. "I think as coaches, when you get into this business you're always looking to climb the ladder. Not looking to maintain that certain position."
As assistant head coach, the Eagles expanded Staley's input into the offense. He helps devise the running game while handling a crowded running back room with plenty of talent. His playing experience coupled with a growing role in Philadelphia allows Staley to coach his players hard and expect the most from them.
"Duce is a guy who wants to win a lot of football games and he'll do whatever it takes to win those games," former Eagles running back LeGarrette Blount said. "So, as a head coach I think he'd be a perfect candidate for a lot of teams."
Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid's shadow looms large over Eric Bieniemy's status as a top head coaching candidate. Reid calls the Kansas City Chiefs' offensive plays, as he's done throughout his career.
Thus, coordinators don't receive as much credit because it's Big Red's offense.
But the perception needs to change considering the success both Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy experienced after serving in the role and becoming head coaches.
Bieniemy is still viewed differently because his background doesn't quite align with league preferences.
"I think the big thing is teams are looking for quarterback guys," a source told Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. "Matt, Doug are both former quarterbacks and former quarterback coaches."
The reasoning is shortsighted since Bienemy played a large part in last year's offensive onslaught.
"Coach Bieniemy brings a fierce, aggressive mentality to the offense," tight end Travis Kelce said. "Kind of a gritty, punch-you-in-the-mouth-type of mindset, and I think that has rubbed off on everybody, from Pat [Mahomes] throwing the ball aggressively downfield. The play calling is a little bit more aggressive and, sure enough, everybody getting the ball has been a north runner."
A coordinator's mentality is as important for his candidacy as Xs and Os acumen. The 49-year-old Bienemy played nine seasons in the NFL and understands the players' mindset.
"I love him—he's the best coach that I've ever been around," fullback Anthony Sherman said, per Yahoo Sports' Terez Paylor. "He believes in you, and it helps you believe in yourself, and he’s not a bulls----er—he's straight-forward. He’s going to tell you how it is, like it or not."
Reid's presence isn't a hindrance. Bieniemy is being prepared by one of the best to become a head coach.
Kevin Stefanski, Minnesota Vikings
Kevin Stefanski nearly became an NFL head coach this offseason, but the Cleveland Browns decided to elevate Freddie Kitchens instead. Stefanski returned to the Minnesota Vikings as their offensive coordinator and now has a full season to prove he's ready for the next step.
"Kevin's proven over many years in the Vikings facility that he's a great coach, a great leader, carries himself well and is the right person to lead our offense going forward," quarterback Kirk Cousins said, per Vikings social media.
Stefanski served as a Vikings assistant since 2006 before taking over as coordinator midseason in 2018 for the fired John DeFilippo.
Head coach Mike Zimmer made the move because he wanted a more balanced attack. Stefanski immediately changed the scheme's approach by doubling the rate of two-tight end sets and became a far more efficient passing offense, according to Sharp Football Analysis' Warren Sharp.
The formation plays to Cousins' strengths since he excels in the play-action passing game. The Vikings plan to expand the package after Gary Kubiak's hire as assistant head coach and offensive advisor.
"It's no secret Kirk came up under both coach Shanahans and had some success in that system," the 37-year-old Stefanksi said, per Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper. "There are a lot of similarities, then, to what we are doing moving forward. ... Obviously you evolve, I would hope, year-to-year and I hope really week-to-week that our offense looks different."
The chance to maximize Cousins' value (after signing a three-year, $84 million deal last offseason) can significantly raise Stefanski's profile.
Analytics serve as another selling point. Most franchises want to be on the cutting edge. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Stefanski is "big into analytics." A forward-thinking organization should highly value the coach's approach.
Kris Richard, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Kris Richard is destined to become an NFL head coach. The 39-year-old's charisma, pedigree and record of success can't be denied.
"I don't think he has another level," safety Xavier Woods said of Richard's intensity after their first training camp together, per the Dallas Morning News' David Moore. "He's already at 10."
What Richard already achieved in Dallas will be critical to his candidacy. Richard became a primary architect of the vaunted Legion of Boom secondary as the Seattle Seahawks' cornerbacks coach, defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator from 2011-17. But Seattle was loaded with talent.
The assistant meshed the concepts he learned in Seattle and implemented them in Rod Marinelli's Dallas scheme. The new approach turned cornerback Byron Jones from a first-round disappointment to a second-team All-Pro performer.
His teaching skills translate.
"The preparation is just totally different," Cowboys cornerback Kavon Frazier said. "The fieriness, he makes everybody believe, and we're just going out there and playing."
The Cowboys organization knows Richard is on track to become an NFL head coach, and Dallas head coach Jason Garrett already endorsed his assistant.
"Just a really, really good football coach." Garrett said of Richard, per Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams. "Then, he's brought other things—some of nuances and the details that he's brought that maybe are different than what we've brought in the past have been positive additions. He's a great teacher. He's got great enthusiasm. Very knowledgeable. Very detailed."
Matt Eberflus, Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus did a better job developing his unit last season than any other coordinator.
On paper, the Colts defense looked to be the league's worst. Castoffs and unproven young players littered the lineup. Yet, Eberflus took the motley crew and turned it into a disciplined, relentless and cohesive unit.
Indianapolis finished 11th overall in total defense and allowed 27.7 fewer yards per contest compared to the group's 2017 effort.
Amazingly, Eberflus wasn't even head coach Frank Reich's choice. Josh McDaniels hired the coordinator before the previous head coach candidate flaked and went back to the New England Patriots.
"[General manager Chris Ballard's] endorsement was really strong," Reich said, per ESPN.com's Mike Wells. "... It really couldn't have worked out any better. I know it's crazy. It's really an odd way for it to come together, but it literally couldn't have come together any better."
Eberflus is a Rod Marinelli disciple and proponent of a Cover 2-heavy scheme with numerous fire-zone blitzes. The Colts forced opponents into being patient even when the offense wanted to drive the ball downfield.
Furthermore, the staff tweaked the system to best fit its talent. Cornerback Pierre Desir thrived. Denico Autry and Margus Hunt became full-time defensive tackles and created havoc. Most importantly, Eberflus unleashed Darius Leonard, and the linebacker led the league with 163 total tackles on his way to becoming the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
"If you're coaching the right way and doing the right stuff, guess what? Everything is going to rise," Eberflus said. "It's going to rise where it's supposed to rise. The good players we have on our defense. All the guys that buy into the fundamentals and are coached correctly all rise up."
Shane Waldron, Los Angeles Rams
Sean McVay's stardom lost a little bit of its luster after the Los Angeles Rams scored only three points in their Super Bowl LIII loss to the New England Patriots.
Still, every team seemingly wants the next McVay, even though no one else can replicate the 33-year-old's brilliance, with the humbleness to to lead a team where certain players are the same age or older.
What's the alternative? Pluck candidates from McVay's coaching tree.
The Cincinnati Bengals did so when they hired Zac Taylor to replace Marvin Lewis. The Green Bay Packers hired Taylor's predecessor, Matt LaFleur. Shane Waldron's elevation to head coach status is the next logical step.
Waldron now serves as the Rams' pass game coordinator and quarterbacks coach after Taylor's departure.
"He's such a good communicator," Jared Goff said, per the Boston Herald's Kevin Duffy. "He's able to convey what he's trying to say in many different ways to many different people."
Taylor, a collegiate quarterback, brought more personality. Waldron is more reserved and calculating in his approach.
"I think Shane has given us a whole lot more than a passing game coordinator," McVay told reporters in November. "I think the leadership that he provides, the steady force as far as just a great demeanor, a great presence, (he's) somebody that I can certainly learn from."
The McVay experience is already a major selling point. Waldron's candidacy is doubly exciting because he comes from the Bill Belichick tree as well. The 39-year-old coach started his NFL career as a New England Patriots quality control then tight ends coach.
Todd Monken, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns bandwagon is filling up quickly, and the team's coordinators becoming head coaching candidates will be a byproduct of any success the talented squad experiences.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken chose the Cleveland Browns despite other opportunities and not being the primary play-caller (head coach Freddie Kitchens is).
"When you start looking at taking jobs, at least for me, in order of what I was looking for was opportunity to win and potentially a franchise quarterback, the right people and third was calling the plays," Monken told reporters during his introductory press conference.
Monken took over as an NFL play-caller last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and devised the NFL's top-ranked passing attack. The former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator is an Air Raid disciple. His scheme is aggressive and cutting-edge. Tampa attempted the fourth-most deep passes last season, according to Pro Football Focus' Brian Spoon. In fact, Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick ranked first and second in percentage of passing yardage through the air, per Sharp Football Analysis' Warren Sharp.
The 53-year-old coach plans to implement more run-pass options into the Browns offense and take advantage of the team's available talent in quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb and wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
"Sometimes we get way caught up in run yards/pass yards," Monken said, per Jeff Risdon of USA Today's Browns Wire. "It is efficiency of what you do, being explosive, not turning it over and scoring touchdowns. That is what it is really about.”
Unlike the other candidates, Monken does bring head coaching experience, albeit at the collegiate level. Southern Miss went 1-11 in his first season before going 9-5 and then earning a bowl bid in Year 3.