Predicting Who Will Fill Each Open NFL Head Coaching Vacancy in 2021

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2021

Predicting Who Will Fill Each Open NFL Head Coaching Vacancy in 2021

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    One of the more predictable details of an otherwise unpredictable 2020 NFL season was the large number of coaching vacancies set to reside on the carousel this offseason. 

    Three teams didn't wait long to make this apparent enough, as interim coaches took over in Atlanta, Detroit and Houston before long. Those openings, plus a few others, make for a league-altering offseason with big names like Marvin Lewis and Urban Meyer entering the fray. 

    The teams with openings are an interesting mix, too. Some have a young quarterback to build around. Others need to find that quarterback. And while all would surely like to contend immediately, some are much better positioned than others. 

    The following teams have openings after a dramatic Week 17 and Monday filled with moves. Here's a projection for who will land where based on team need, the state of the franchise and fit with current and/or future team vision. 

Atlanta Falcons: Robert Saleh

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    For a moment, it looked like the Atlanta Falcons might roll with interim coach Raheem Morris. 

    Morris took over after the Falcons fired head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff amid an 0-5 start. 

    And Morris, who went 17-31 as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009 to 2011, started 4-2. It seemed like he righted the ship and players responded to the culture shake-up. But the idea of him as the permanent head coach has since cooled, with the Falcons finishing the season with five straight losses.

    It would make sense for the Falcons to take another shot on a defensive-minded coach, though, as the current core around Matt Ryan on offense doesn't need grooming. San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is both one of the hottest names on the carousel and an ideal fit. 

    Saleh, after all, is the type of culture-changer that likely helped encourage Richard Sherman to follow him to a divisional rival. His defensive schemes spoke for themselves in Seattle's secondary for years, and his 49ers unit, despite season-ending injuries to Nick Bosa and others, still ranked among the top five against the pass. 

    The Falcons have some cap issues to sort out this offseason but will likely avoid rebuilding. Saleh's leadership and schemes could be the push the franchise needs. 

Detroit Lions: Marvin Lewis

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions did what most everyone seemed to expect by firing Matt Patricia near the end of November after a 4-7 start, bringing his record to 13-29-1. 

    Like Atlanta, the Lions might be in win-now mode around veteran passer Matthew Stafford, which opens the door to taking another shot on a defensive-minded coach who can rebuild the culture. 

    That would, at least in part, seem to explain why the Lions interviewed former Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Tom Pelissero and Mike Garafolo.

    Lewis accomplished a similar feat in Cincinnati, turning a miserable franchise into a playoff regular. He went 0-7 in the postseason, yes, but the Bengals have since gone 6-25-1 without him. 

    A proven defensive guru who helped get elite Baltimore defenses in shape before leading defensive-minded teams in Cincinnati, Lewis would likely excel where Patricia underwhelmed. He also has a deep coaching tree of great offensive names who could join his staff, highlighted by Hue Jackson and Jay Gruden. 

Houston Texans: Eric Bieniemy

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans also pulled the plug on a head coach midseason, albeit like the rest, too late. 

    Head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien started 0-4 this year after taking heat over the offseason for trading away wideout DeAndre Hopkins, bringing his record to 52-48. 

    After not doing the obvious for so long, it sure feels like Houston will start doing the obvious. According to NFL Network, "the focus immediately shifted to Eric Bieniemy" after the firing of O'Brien, which was easy to predict. 

    Bieniemy is one of the architects behind the elite Patrick Mahomes-led attack for the Kansas City Chiefs. Not that Deshaun Watson needs developing—he completed better than 70 percent of his passes this year with 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. 

    But the previous regime left a mess around the quarterback position that needs some vision. Ruining a franchise passer at the age of 25 right in the middle of his prime is arguably just as big of a sin as ruining a rookie who has the chance to reach those same heights. 

    In an effort to right those wrongs, Houston will probably go with Bieniemy and look for instant playoff contention. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Urban Meyer

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars let Doug Marrone finish out the season before announcing his firing Monday. 

    But even the day before the season finale, Rapoport reported the Jaguars would not only move on, but that the front office would also target former Florida and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. The report noted that Meyer had "been lining up a staff and telling people he's close to in the football community that he expects to land in Jacksonville."

    That would seem to settle that, right? 

    Jacksonville stuck with Marrone despite the 10-6 sprint to the AFC title game in 2017 clearly being an anomaly. The Jaguars went 5-11, 6-10 and 1-15 in the next three seasons, securing the top pick in the 2021 NFL draft in the process. 

    The Jaguars figure to have the pick of whichever available coach they want given their ample cap space, a roster ripe for rebuilding and multiple first-round picks, including the No. 1 that figures to be Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Given Meyer's powerhouse name and reputation at college stops, if he wants the job, it makes plenty of sense. 

    Meyer's track record and deep coaching tree should produce a staff ripe with roster-rebuilding and developing capabilities in Jacksonville.

New York Jets: Arthur Smith

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    A ho-hum hire by the Jets in 2018 after going 23-25 in Miami, Adam Gase went 7-9 twice before starting this year 0-13—before winning two games and managing to lose out on the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft. 

    According to Rapoport and Pelissero, the Jets planned to part ways with Gase right after the season finale, and Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was one of the names listed as a candidate. 

    And if the Jets lose out on a Bieniemy or can't go in the division and get Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Smith would make a ton of sense. 

    Smith, just 38 years old, is an emerging name thanks to his fast ascension in Tennessee. He switched to the offensive side of the ball in 2012 as a quality control coach and has since worked his way to coordinator starting in 2019, replacing Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur in Tennessee and spurring the career renaissance for Ryan Tannehill. 

    Owners of the second overall pick and still sitting on a potential franchise passer in Sam Darnold, the Jets could be the latest to go with a trendy, younger offensive-minded coach like Smith while attempting to rebuild. 

Los Angeles Chargers: Joe Brady

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    Brian Westerholt/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers were arguably the most surprising team to pull the plug on their coaching staff and the last team to make things official on that front. 

    Anthony Lynn, after all, led the Chargers to a 12-4 record in 2018 before regressing to 5-11 in 2019 and then posting a 7-9 record this year. But the 7-9 mark included four straight wins to close the season. 

    It seems the Chargers want to make the most out of rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, especially while he's on his first contract, so they are likely looking for an offensive-minded head coach. 

    Which means it's time for the Chargers to look at Joe Brady. 

    Brady, the Carolina Panthers offense coordinator, earned his way into the pros by calling the historic LSU Joe Burrow-led offense in 2019. This year, he helped a Teddy Bridgewater-led offense boast four different players with 1,000 or more yards from scrimmage (Robby Anderson, DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel and Mike Davis).

    The prospect of Brady orchestrating the same sort of system with a booming Herbert (4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns), Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler and others is hard to pass up. Add in $22 million in projected cap space and defensive centerpieces like Joey Bosa and Derwin James, plus the 13th overall pick for good measure. 

       

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