Ranking the NFL's Top Head Coaching Candidates for 2022 Job Openings

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2022

Ranking the NFL's Top Head Coaching Candidates for 2022 Job Openings

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    Right now, the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are the only teams that have head-coaching vacancies. Surely, though, more jobs will open up over the next few weeks as teams opt to go in a new direction following the regular season.

    In recent years, hot-name coordinators have generated a lot of buzz. Budding head coaches such as Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan have lost assistants because of their success leading Super Bowl-caliber teams with innovative offenses. Still, retreads will garner interest because of their experience and solid resumes. 

    Last year, seven teams hired first-time head coaches with one (Urban Meyer) coming from the collegiate ranks. 

    In the upcoming hiring cycle, teams may be hesitant to dip into the college pool after Meyer's one-and-done year, but a big name could return to the pro ranks.  

    With that in mind, we've ranked the top seven head-coaching candidates for 2022. The list below features top coordinators and former pro head coaches. 

    Each candidate is ranked with an emphasis on their head-coaching resume or the production of their (offensive or defensive) units in recent seasons.

7. Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator

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    Despite a rough start to his coaching career, Byron Leftwich makes the list because of his recent success under head coach Bruce Arians.

    In 2018, Leftwich called plays for the Arizona Cardinals with quarterback Josh Rosen under center, and his unit finished with the fewest points and yards.

    The Cardinals fired Steve Wilks and his staff after one year, and Leftwich joined Arians' group in the same role for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Before quarterback Tom Brady arrived in Tampa Bay, Leftwich helped guide a top-three scoring offense with Jameis Winston, who threw for a career-high 5,109 yards, 33 touchdowns and a league-leading 30 interceptions. 

    Leftwich has a more efficient offense with Brady under center, though during an interview on The Rich Eisen Show (h/t JoeBucsFan.com), Arians praised his offensive coordinator for calling the plays.

    "Byron's been the middle guy that's just done all the work. I mean, people give me way too much credit because I don't do [bleep], really. He does it all. He calls the plays. I'm really upset he didn't get a head coaching interview. … Byron didn't even get a call, and I think people give Tom Brady and Bruce Arians way too much credit and not enough credit for Byron Leftwich."

    Skeptics will find it difficult to separate Leftwich's influence from Arians' oversight and Brady's brilliance in the pocket, but he can take a lot from his experience in Tampa Bay and implement some of those principles elsewhere.

6. Kellen Moore, Dallas Cowboys Offensive Coordinator

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    We don't hear questions about who runs the Dallas Cowboys offense or deserves the credit for its production, which pushes Kellen Moore ahead of Byron Leftwich in the rankings.

    In 2019, former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett pointed out that Moore called the plays. In that year, Dallas led the league in offensive yards and ranked sixth in scoring.

    With those results, head coach Mike McCarthy made the right choice to keep Moore on staff. In an interview on NFL Network (h/t The Athletic's Jon Machota), the club's lead skipper made it clear that his young offensive coordinator would handle play-calling duties.

    "...my sole responsibility is to make sure I can help Kellen be the best play-caller possible. He’s still young at it. He has a great mind. I’ve been extremely impressed with him every step of the way, from building the installs, the way he’s delivered it in the meetings to players, and his on-the-field coaching. So it’s the best decision for this football team." 

    Quarterback Dak Prescott earned Pro Bowl nods in 2016 and 2018, but he recorded career highs in passing yards (4,902) and touchdowns (30) in 2019. After an injury-riddled 2020 campaign, he's in contention to win Comeback Player of the Year with 4,154 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. 

    Moore's work with Prescott, who's made strides from a 2016 fourth-rounder to arguably a top-10 quarterback, makes him one of the rising candidates in this hiring cycle.

5. Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Coordinator

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    Eric Bieniemy has the same issue as Byron Leftwich in that he's connected with an offensive-minded head coach (Andy Reid) who's called plays for most of his career and one of the league's best quarterbacks (Patrick Mahomes). 

    How much impact has Bieniemy had on the Kansas City Chiefs' explosive offense?

    Back in 2019, Bieniemy said he had "input" on the offense. Last year, the Chiefs assistant brushed off questions about his role and spoke about the play-calling chain of command as a collaborative effort via Herbie Teope of The Kansas City Star.

    "We have an operation in how we do things and we have a communications system," Bieniemy said. "I mean, coaches communicate with me, I'm communicating to the quarterback. To be honest with you, I think people are making something out of nothing."

    During the 2020 playoffs, cameras picked up Bieniemy relaying calls to the players, so he's clearly involved in the process. Also working in his favor over Leftwich and Moore, the 52-year-old has served as a coach on the collegiate and pro levels over the past two decades. The other two assistants have fewer than seven years of coaching experience.

    Bieniemy generated some buzz during previous hiring cycles, so he has a good chance to land a head-coaching job for the 2022 term with the Chiefs still among the top teams in yards (third) and scoring (fourth). 

4. Jim Caldwell, Free Agent

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    This is a bit of a shocker because Jim Caldwell hasn't held an NFL position since serving as an assistant coach and quarterbacks coach for the Miami Dolphins in 2019.

    However, Caldwell should rank atop the list of candidates for teams that need an immediate culture shift such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, who interviewed him Tuesday, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. He has a solid resume, going 62-50 in seven seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions. 

    Caldwell led the Colts to double-digit wins and the playoffs in 2009 and 2010. Then Peyton Manning underwent neck surgery, which sidelined him for the 2011 term and doomed Indianapolis to a 2-14 record and marked the end of Caldwell's tenure.

    After a three-year stint with the Colts, Caldwell finished with a winning record in three out of four campaigns with Detroit between 2014 and 2017. He also led the club to two playoff berths in that stretch. The Lions haven't won more than six games in a single term since they fired him. 

    One can argue Caldwell deserved a head-coaching job much sooner because of his work with the Lions, who have struggled to stay competitive in recent years. Perhaps he can turn another downtrodden franchise into a playoff contender in a short window. 

    Though his age (66) may work against him, Caldwell has a proven, winning resume as a head coach, which moves him into the fourth spot over hot-shot coordinators, Byron Leftwich, Kellen Moore and Eric Bieniemy.

3. Brian Daboll, Buffalo Bills Offensive Coordinator

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    The Buffalo Bills offense relies heavily on quarterback Josh Allen, who's tied for sixth in touchdown passes (34) and ranks seventh in passing yards (4,168) leaguewide while listing second on the team in rushing yards (700). With that said, no one can deny the signal-caller's growth under Brian Daboll.

    Between the 2019 and 2020 campaigns, Allen made an impressive leap from an inaccurate passer who completed fewer than 60 percent of his attempts to an MVP candidate with a 69 percent completion rate.

    Despite the lack of rushing production from the Bills' running backs, teams will covet Daboll's work with Allen considering the NFL is a quarterback-centric league.

    Unlike Bieniemy, Daboll receives most of the credit for his quarterback's progress because he doesn't share play-calling responsibilities with his head coach, Sean McDermott, who has expertise on the other side of the ball.

    Secondly, at 46 years old, Daboll has a lengthy resume that dates back two decades, which elevates him above candidates with much less coaching experience such as Byron Leftwich and Kellen Moore. Yet at his age, he's a more attractive candidate than Jim Caldwell, who didn't have a job within the league over the past two terms and may not have many career years left.

    In 2020, Daboll's offense ranked second in scoring and yards. Going into Week 18, his unit lists third and fifth in those respective categories. With a top-10 quarterback and a potent offensive attack, he'll likely interview with multiple teams and have the option to leave Buffalo for a head-coaching job.

2. Josh McDaniels, New England Patriots Offensive Coordinator

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    In 2018, Josh McDaniels agreed to take over the Indianapolis Colts' head-coaching position but backed out to stay with the New England Patriots. 

    While his indecision may have rubbed some people the wrong way, he's earned serious consideration for another job on the market.

    Though McDaniels went 11-17 as the Denver Broncos head coach between the 2009 and 2010 terms, he's fielded nine top-10 scoring offenses since his return to New England. Sure, quarterback Tom Brady made it easier for him, but the Patriots have the eighth-ranked scoring offense with rookie Mac Jones under center. 

    Jones isn't lighting up defenses with gaudy passing numbers, but he's efficient and looks most impressive among this year's rookie quarterbacks, throwing for 3,540 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a 67.6 percent completion rate.

    Clearly, McDaniels isn't just a good coordinator with one of the best quarterbacks in league history. In 2021, he built a balanced offensive attack with a first-year signal-caller leading the huddle, which will appeal to teams that have an inexperienced quarterback or plan to draft a rookie in April.

    On top of McDaniels' ability to prop up Jones, his head-coaching experience and time spent alongside Bill Belichick, who's the NFL's most successful lead skipper in terms of Super Bowl wins, vault him to the No. 2 spot over Brian Daboll.

1. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Head Coach

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    On Tuesday, The Athletic's Bruce Feldman dropped a rumor that caused a stir and may have some validity going into the 2022 hiring cycle. He sourced individuals at Michigan and within NFL circles who believe Jim Harbaugh may consider a return to the pros.

    "I think it's real," one person said to Feldman.

    In the 2021 term, Harbaugh finally hurdled the Ohio State hump in the Big Ten, beating the Buckeyes for the first time since he accepted the job in Ann Arbor about seven years ago. He also led the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff for the first time in the program's history.

    Despite a blowout loss to Georgia in the CFP semifinal, Harbaugh may believe his stock remains high after Michigan won its first conference title since 2004.

    Feldman listed the Las Vegas Raiders and Chicago Bears as potential landing spots for Harbaugh, and both make sense. He started his coaching career with the Silver and Black, leading the quarterback room between 2002 and 2003. The Bears selected him in the first round of the 1987 draft, and he played seven seasons with the club. 

    Harbaugh tops the list of head-coaching candidates because of his resume. He's had some success on the collegiate level, turning San Diego, Stanford and Michigan into winning programs. During his four-year stint in the NFL, he led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.


    Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.