Early 2021 NFL Coaching Carousel Predictions
It has been clear for a long time the NFL coaching carousel was going to be active this offseason.
Three teams have already shown head coaches the door this season. There are at least three more obvious upcoming vacancies, which sets the table for some league-altering movement.
Several teams with vacancies either desperately need to groom a potential franchise passer or onboard one to pair with a new head coach. Others continue to want to straddle the contention-rebuild tightrope and might seek out veteran coaches to do so.
The following teams have either opened up the spot already or are strongly expected to do so (Matt Nagy and Vic Fangio are among the coaches who are not safe, but they weren't included because there are fewer vultures circling around them than those included here). Each vacancy receives a suitable coaching candidate based on the trajectory of the franchise and its needs, whether it is rebuilding around a quarterback, boosting a specific unit and/or rebuilding a culture.
Atlanta Falcons: Raheem Morris
The Atlanta Falcons pulled the plug on the Dan Quinn experiment after the team fell to 0-5 this season, also showing general manager Thomas Dimitroff the door.
Atlanta perplexingly held on to hope Quinn could get things back on a contention track despite consecutive 7-9 seasons. The Falcons handed things over to interim coach Raheem Morris after making the move.
Morris has since guided them to a 4-4 mark, winning his first game on the job and four of his first six. It hasn't been perfect, but as far as midseason coaching changes go, the boost was probably even more than Falcons brass had hoped for.
It's clear the locker room has responded to Morris, and he's the type of veteran coach capable of keeping the Falcons' pursuit of contention going. He had a rough 17-31 record as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009 to 2011, but he's only 44 and has done a little bit of everything over the course of a career that started in 1998 at Hofstra.
Rolling with Morris and trying to win with 35-year-old Matt Ryan and the current core would make more sense than blowing everything up. This team didn't need a new, trendy head coach—it needed a veteran shake-up to jolt things, and the Falcons can now use the offseason to build the roster around Morris' leadership.
Houston Texans: Robert Saleh
The Houston Texans also dragged their feet on the obvious, waiting until the first week of October to fire head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien.
No wonder, as O'Brien had drummed up an 0-4 record this year (52-48 overall in Houston) while odd-looking moves like trading away DeAndre Hopkins backfired on the field and potentially spoiled the prime of quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Odds are Houston gets back to a more traditional structure, and it would make sense to bring in a coach with a defensive background—Watson doesn't need development, but better decision-makers at the controls.
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh fits the bill, to say the least. His Cover 3 schemes in Seattle were superb and seemingly played a role in Richard Sherman following him to a division rival. Even this year, his defense is in the top five in yards allowed per game despite losing Dee Ford in Week 1 and Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas in Week 2, among other injuries.
Saleh's connections run deep, from Pete Carroll's coaching tree to being an understudy of Kyle Shanahan. He fits nicely in Houston, where he could run the defense as it transitions out of the J.J. Watt era while the offensive coordinator he hires gets the pleasure of working with Watson.
Detroit Lions: Marvin Lewis
Another procrastinator on the obvious, the Detroit Lions waited until November 28 to fire head coach Matt Patricia.
Patricia started 4-7 this season to land at 13-29-1, and his advertised defensive strength didn't show up on the field often while veteran Matthew Stafford directed the offense.
Instead of blowing everything up, though, Detroit could look for a veteran coach with a proven track record.
And it doesn't get much better than Marvin Lewis.
Lewis, a defensive stalwart who coached up Ray Lewis-led defenses in Baltimore, spent 2003 to 2018 as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. And while he went 0-7 in the playoffs, hindsight has done his tenure wonders considering the Bengals have since gone 4-24-1 without him.
While Lewis' record in the postseason is a little concerning for a team that might like to contend around the veteran Stafford, the fact that he was getting there says it all—these Lions have three postseason appearances since 2000 with no wins. Lewis has a history of making something from nothing and is a superb defensive mind with a history of employing stellar offensive coordinators to handle that side of the ball (like Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson).
Stafford or not, Lewis is the type of culture-builder who could get the Lions on the right path.
New York Jets: Brian Daboll
The New York Jets don't figure to take long to end the wild Adam Gase era after a 7-9 season in 2019 and the regression to winless status so far this year.
Gase has even admitted he hasn't done a good job of developing 2018 third overall pick Sam Darnold, so it isn't hard to see what the Jets will look for once the vacancy likely opens up.
And the Jets won't have to look far for inspiration. Elsewhere in the AFC East, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has done an excellent job with Josh Allen.
Daboll quietly has a superb lineage, having coached under Bill Belichick and Nick Saban and worked with many levels of offenses. Allen was in the MVP conversation this year after a breakout start, and through 12 games he had completed 69.9 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Darnold will enter his fourth season in 2021, and the Jets need somebody in-house to decide whether he's going to be worth a big-money extension—or if the team should use a top pick on a new potential franchise passer.
No matter which way that goes, Daboll is an ideal candidate to work with their top quarterback in 2021.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Joe Brady
The Jacksonville Jaguars are nothing if not loyal, sticking it out with Doug Marrone since 2017 despite that 10-win season and an appearance in the AFC title game clearly being an anomaly.
Since, the Jaguars have gone 5-11, 6-10 and currently sit at 1-12, and it is hard to envision Gardner Minshew II as the long-term solution under center.
All signs point to the Jaguars looking for a younger offensive mind to help along a new passer, whether it's Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields, the presumed top two picks of the 2021 draft.
And when it comes to offensive minds, few are more exciting than Carolina Panthers coordinator Joe Brady. He's the man responsible for the X's and O's behind Joe Burrow's history-making season at LSU, and then he made the leap to the pros this season.
There, Brady has helped Teddy Bridgewater return to form (a 70.2 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions entering Week 14) despite major names like Christian McCaffrey and Russell Okung suffering injuries.
If nothing else, Brady projects well into an offense with a top-tier quarterback prospect surrounded by weapons like breakout running back James Robinson, DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr., plus he actually has meaningful play-calling experience in the college and pros.
Los Angeles Chargers: Eric Bieniemy
The Los Angeles Chargers just haven't received enough from Anthony Lynn, who hopped aboard in 2017 and peaked at 12-4 in 2018 before regressing to 5-11 and 4-9 this season.
Elsewhere in the AFC West, Eric Bieniemy has been one of the hottest names out there for years in head-coaching circles, largely because of his work with Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.
It would make sense that the Chargers seek out an offensive mind to help out first-rounder Justin Herbert, who has flashed immense upside (potentially the best in his class) this year.
Bieniemy would help ensure the Chargers have another strong franchise passer for the next decade. There are inherent risks, as Reid runs the show and Bieniemy hasn't called all the plays since his days at Colorado, but it's hard to argue he doesn't know how to develop quarterbacks.
Whoever he hires as defensive coordinator would inherit a defense with foundational pieces Joey Bosa and Derwin James. To say calling the plays with him and Herbert on the offensive side would be an attractive job is an understatement.
The Chargers have seen enough of Bieniemy-led offenses to know what he's capable of and could want that for themselves. Other teams have taken more bigger risks (including some of the teams that have fired or are projected to fire coaches on this list), and few have presented as much upside with a proven first-round passer already on the roster.