Who Are This Year's Top NFL Head Coaching Candidates?

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2019

Who Are This Year's Top NFL Head Coaching Candidates?

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    As the 2019 regular season nears its end, the NFL once again heads toward a massive turnover at head coach, much like it did last offseason. 

    Known faces such as Adam Gase got opportunities. Lesser-known names such as Zac Taylor and Matt LaFleur arrived on the scene.

    With Jay Gruden and Ron Rivera fired already and likely more to come, it's clear the next batch of qualified candidates will have ample chance to snag a job. 

    And for teams, it's a good time to need a coach. These candidates are a mix of old and new. They're leftovers from the last hiring cycle (which isn't as bad as that sounds), fresh arrivals to the scene and even mainstays back on the stage. They offer promises of elite offensive upside or a way to counteract it—and largely bring new ideas.

    They're ranked in order of attractiveness to pro teams based on a blend of their accomplishments and upside as organization-changing leaders. 


7. Eric Bieniemy

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Eric Bieniemy was prominent in the hiring process last year, and it was strange teams didn't gobble him up based on his success with the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Granted, not every offensive coordinator has a chance to work with Patrick Mahomes. And before his ascension to coordinator, Bieniemy spent his biggest chunk of coaching time with running backs.

    And yet, Bieniemy's offense keeps chugging along. Even though defenses had a full offseason to adjust to his 2018 success and despite a knee injury to Mahomes, his offense has averaged 384.7 yards and 29.0 points per game with a month left.

    The NFL may have figured out Sean McVay-esque offenses a bit, but that may help Bieniemy's case as teams look to keep pace in the offensive-minded league.

6. Ron Rivera

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers saw enough of Ron Rivera after a Week 13 loss to Washington, which had already fired its head coach, Gruden.

    But Rivera will attract plenty of interest in the same way Marvin Lewis would—though the latter seems content at Arizona State while advising Herm Edwards. Rivera has a reputation as a leader of men, which is something a team in need of that trait (ahem, Cleveland) might flock to this offseason.

    On the field, Rivera still has a record above .500 (76-63 over nine years in Carolina) and had to deal with some brutal circumstances this year, including the loss of quarterback Cam Newton to a foot injury. 

    Rivera might be fresh on the market, but if he wants, he might not be long for it.    

5. John DeFilippo

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    One could point out some of the Philadelphia Eagles' current problems under center to discredit John DeFilippo's candidacy. 

    But during his time with the Eagles as quarterbacks coach in 2016 and 2017, DeFilippo helped retool Carson Wentz's mechanics before the sophomore went on to have the best year of his career, throwing 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also helped mold Nick Foles into a Super Bowl-winning player. 

    DeFilippo did have the odd brief stay in Minnesota but hasn't needed long to regain his top-tier status. Since becoming the Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator this year, DeFilippo had to deal with a Foles injury (clavicle) but immediately got notable production out of sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew II. 

    In short, teams will gobble up the 41-year-old before others can because of the way he seems to adapt and get the best out of his quarterbacks. 

4. Kris Richard

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Kris Richard has an interesting role: He's the Dallas Cowboys' defensive backs coach and defensive passing game coordinator.

    Richard is also young by coaching standards (40) and happens to have helped run Seattle's Legion of Boom in its glory years. Now he's in Dallas and working wonders with guys such as Byron Jones for a top-10 defense that's allowing 19.7 points per game.

    Perhaps the biggest knock on Richard is his background as a defensive guy, but that didn't stop him from getting the attention of teams such as the New York Jets last offseason, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.

    Richard will likely be one of the most qualified guys out there when organizations start seeking defensive coaches to counteract the league's offensive trends.      

3. Robert Saleh

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Robert Saleh isn't a household name, but don't expect that to last. 

    Saleh is another former Pete Carroll understudy who gained additional experience under Gus Bradley in Jacksonville before branching off as the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. 

    And Caroll sees a big chance coming up for Saleh. 

    "He's a very bright coach," the Seahawks head coach said, according to NBC Sports' Matt Maiocco. "He's a really first-class individual. He's got really good strength of character, and his leadership qualities are obviously on display now. There's no doubt."

    Character aside, Saleh has blossomed this year with a superb Cover 3 scheme and his exotic third-down looks, forging the NFL's top-ranked defense (250.9 yards per game), which permits just 15.2 points per game. 

2. Greg Roman

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    The architect behind a breakout such as Lamar Jackson's is bound to get attention.

    Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman is that architect, which isn't much of a surprise based on his history. Largely a pro coordinator since 2011, Roman looked somewhat ahead of his time while spurring breakouts from Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo.

    His latest triumph? Jackson's MVP bid, which features a 66.5 completion percentage, 25 passing touchdowns, five interceptions and 977 rushing yards with seven more scores.

    Roman's ability to stay ahead of the curve and get the most out of quarterbacks in varying areas will be attractive not only to franchises that are trying to groom rookies, but also others who hope to squeeze value out of veterans at the most important position.

1. Lincoln Riley

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    As unlikely as Lincoln Riley's departure from Oklahoma might seem, one can't reasonably have a candidate list without him.

    The 36-year-old Sooners coach might hold more NFL value than ever as the offensive surge continues and the McVay tree struggles. Riley hasn't sounded interested in the NFL in the past and has a year-old extension that makes it seem like he wants to build a Sooners dynasty.

    And yet, if a team like Dallas calls, it could change things.

    Riley led the Sooners to a 24-4 mark and two semifinal College Football Playoff berths over his first two seasons. He has them at 11-1 this year, and the offense ranks first in college football at 564.3 yards per game. 

    With Riley's reputation as an offensive savant, presumably more than one NFL team would love to roll the dice on his collegiate schemes.