Barnwell: Ranking NFL’s potential coaching openings from worst to first

With the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks playing Thursday night, it seemed like a good time to get to our annual look at which possible head-coaching openings might be most appealing this offseason. When I went through this exercise last year, the top two teams were the Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns, who didn’t change their coaches. The Browns have caught up since. The No. 3 team was the Chicago Bears, who made the right hire in Matt Nagy and find themselves atop the NFC North with seven games to go.

As you can tell by the Texans mention, there’s no guarantee that these coaches will all lose their jobs. I’m not suggesting that the 10 coaches I get to here even should lose their jobs. It’s no fun rooting for people to get fired. In the case that these jobs do come open, though, I think these are the spots that would be most enticing to coaches on the open market.

Let’s begin by starting with the jobs that narrowly missed out, either because they’re not likely to come open or because they aren’t exciting enough to make the top 10.

Honorable mention

There are a bunch of teams that might consider firing their coach if they go on a long losing streak to end the season. Among 2018 playoff teams, I think Sean McDermott is safe in Buffalo, but the Jaguars might consider moving on from Doug Marrone if their season continues to go down the tubes. The Texans have a new general manager in Brian Gaine, and while Houston is comfortably in first place in the AFC South, a second-half collapse could inspire Gaine to look for his own coach to replace Bill O’Brien. Adam Gase is doing his best with Brock Osweiler in Miami, and I think the Dolphins would only look to replace Gase if Jim Harbaugh batted his eyes toward South Florida.

On the NFC side, I think Pat Shurmur will get at least one year with a young quarterback in New York before the Giants consider any big changes. Daniel Snyder’s track record suggests he would fire Jay Gruden if Washington doesn’t make the playoffs for the third straight season in the NFC East, but it is two games up with seven to go. The Falcons also have had a disappointing season and haven’t developed defensively under Dan Quinn, but it’s more likely that they move on from coordinator Marquand Manuel before making any decisions about their head coach.

That leaves us with 10 hot seats. Their relative desirability comes down to a combination of a few factors: the presence of a viable starting quarterback, the talent across the rest of their roster, their cap situation, and the track record of the team’s ownership in dealing with coaches and personnel decisions. We’ll start with the least desirable position by working our way out to the desert:

10. Arizona Cardinals

Biggest strength: Ownership stability
Biggest weakness: Roster talent

The Cardinals might be in line for a reboot. The Bidwill family has traditionally been conservative with coaches, as every single Cardinals coach since the family took over sole ownership has been given a minimum of two years to prove their worth. I would guess that Steve Wilks, who is at 2-7 in his first year as coach, won’t be the first one to break that trend.

The only reason I might wonder whether the Cardinals make a move is the status of general manager Steve Keim. After a run of success between 2013 and ’15, Arizona has collapsed under the weight of subpar drafting and decision-making from their GM. After Deone Bucannon leaves this offseason, the Cardinals won’t have a single player left on their roster from the 2013 and 2014 drafts. The 2015 draft was better, but the Cards haven’t found a single viable starter from their 2016 haul, led by disappointing defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche. Keim was also arrested for an extreme DUI in Arizona in July and spent two days in jail.

If the Cardinals hire a new GM, it will be tough to justify keeping Wilks. The Cardinals’ defense has remained effective on his watch, ranking sixth in DVOA through 10 weeks, but the future of the organization hinges on developing new quarterback Josh Rosen. If a new GM wants to hire an offensive-minded coach to take over, I’m not sure Wilks has done enough to stand in the way. The most likely scenario is that Arizona keeps Wilks and new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich to develop Rosen into 2019, but at 2-7, all options should be on the table.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest strength: Cap flexibility
Biggest weakness: QB situation

Barring a miracle, the Buccaneers will miss the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season since firing Jon Gruden after the 2008 campaign. Even worse, what looked like a team that might be on the upswing after basically playing its second half to a draw last season — the Bucs went 3-5, but with a point differential of minus-7 over eight games — looks to be in significantly worse shape than it was a year ago. Quarterback Jameis Winston violated the league’s personal conduct policy and was suspended three games, and the former first overall pick was benched after 10 interceptions in three starts when he came back. The Bucs seem set on sitting Winston before releasing him this offseason to avoid his fifth-year option in 2019.

The Bucs do have a core of young talent — wideout Mike Evans, tight end O.J. Howard, guard Ali Marpet, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker Lavonte David all have credible cases to perennially sniff the Pro Bowl over the next several seasons — but their defense remains a failure in progress. Tampa’s defense has technically improved from 32nd in DVOA a year ago to 31st this season, but its actual DVOA percentage has fallen. Its secondary has been a disaster for years, but unlike seasons past, Brent Grimes & Co. can’t blame their woes on an absent pass rush.

The Glazer family might be distracted by Jose Mourinho’s season-long temper tantrum at Manchester United, but the Bucs are likely going to fire coach Dirk Koetter and GM Jason Licht at the end of this season. Whoever comes in will inherit a clean cap, as the Bucs have consistently structured their veteran deals to avoid significant signing bonuses. Tampa is projected to have $15 million in cap space next year, but that could easily approach $47 million by releasing Winston and DeSean Jackson without incurring any dead money.

Having cap space is great, but the new coach will need to fight battles on multiple fronts, which makes it difficult to identify an appropriate skill set. Teams usually opt to replace a coach with someone whose strengths are the previous coach’s weakness, and while that’s usually in terms of skill set, it can also be in terms of temperament. Gruden was replaced by players’ coach Raheem Morris, who was swapped for disciplinarian and kneel-down attacker Greg Schiano. Schiano gave way to Lovie Smith, whom the Bucs regarded as another players’ coach. Smith was fired so the Bucs could retain Koetter, whose skill set is diametrically opposed to that of his former boss.

So, history suggests the Bucs will be looking for a defensive mind. That’s good, because Tampa Bay needs help in finally fixing its defense. The Bucs also have a black hole at quarterback and nobody to develop a passer. Can a team hire two head coaches? And if it can, why would either of them want to work with the perennially disappointing Buccaneers? This is going to be a tough sell.

8. Dallas Cowboys

Biggest strength: Roster talent
Biggest weakness: Ownership meddling

It seemed like the Cowboys job was about to become available as early as this week, but Jason Garrett shockingly found a victory in Philadelphia on Sunday night to keep alive Dallas’ playoff hopes and extend his job security. The 4-5 Cowboys have a 34.6 percent shot of making the postseason per ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), but it seems likely that Garrett’s nine-year reign in Dallas will have to come to an end if they fail to make it.

Before Garrett, no Cowboys coach under Jerry Jones had managed to make it past five seasons in charge. You might chalk this up to the more enlightened approach of his son Stephen Jones, who presumably has more of a say in the day-to-day operations than in years past. Jones reportedly pressured his father to pass on Johnny Manziel in the 2014 draft for Zack Martin, but he also suggested before the 2018 season that Tavon Austin would be in line for 12 to 24 touches per game. (Austin racked up a total of 13 touches in six games before going down with a groin injury.) Win some, lose some. Regardless of who’s in charge, it’s clear that the role of head coach on the Cowboys is part-coach and part-actor in a reality show built around the Jones family.

Outside of ownership, there’s a lot to like about this opportunity. The Cowboys are finally out of their cap woes and have $47.5 million in space in 2019, although much of that will need to go toward re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence and locking up Byron Jones and Dak Prescott. Prescott will inspire a range of opinions from possible coaches; I suspect some will see him as a franchise quarterback and others as a possible albatross about to get paid more than he deserves. Rod Marinelli’s defense might be a bit overrated after that Eagles game — it ranks 19th in DVOA — but the Cowboys have young pieces in Lawrence, Jones, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.

If anything, the Cowboys would be smart to retain Marinelli and hire an offensive-minded coach to get the most of Prescott and new wide receiver Amari Cooper. The team’s missing a first-round pick from the Cooper trade, and whoever takes over the job will have to contend with the Jones family having more of a say in personnel than just about any other ownership group in the league. Historically, that hasn’t been an appetizing opportunity for hot coaching candidates, with Bill Parcells, who retained personnel power for at least a period of time, as the lone exception.

7. Denver Broncos

Biggest strength: Roster talent
Biggest weaknesses: Uncertain ownership, QB situation

The Broncos aren’t as bad as they seem. Denver ranks ninth in DVOA after 10 weeks, ahead of teams like the Patriots, Panthers and Texans. They’ve played the second-toughest schedule in football and held fourth-quarter leads over the Chiefs and Texans. It’s great on paper, and it suggests that the Broncos will be a bounce-back team in 2019, but Vance Joseph is still likely to lose his job after the season. It might be more appropriate to blame years of subpar draft picks from John Elway, but you don’t need me to tell you Elway isn’t getting fired by the Broncos.

There’s no clear path to a long-term solution at quarterback, and it’s difficult to trust Elway is going to suddenly find one. Case Keenum has been passable behind a below-average, beat-up offensive line, but if the Broncos want to eat $10 million in dead money and dump Keenum after the season, the free-agent market doesn’t offer many inspiring alternatives. Are the Broncos a significantly better team with Joe Flacco or Nick Foles under center?

Elway passed on several of the quarterbacks in this year’s class to draft Bradley Chubb, and while Chubb has eight sacks, the Broncos aren’t well-positioned to grab Justin Herbert or any of the other top passers in the 2019 draft. FPI projects them to finish with the 10th pick, and with teams like the Raiders and Giants picking ahead of Elway, it’ll be tough for the Hall of Famer to move up and grab a franchise passer.

So, whoever comes on board might be stuck with Keenum for another year. The Broncos are projected to have $48 million in cap space and can get over $60 million by releasing Ronald Leary and Brandon Marshall, but they’re also looking at free agency for Matt Paradis and Bradley Roby, two of the few successful development stories on Elway’s résumé. Even they have asterisks, though: Roby has been extremely inconsistent this season, while Paradis just went down with a season-ending fractured fibula. And in the wake of longtime owner Pat Bowlen ceding control of the team as he battles Alzheimer’s, the team’s ownership council is fighting among itself for power. Elway and his Super Bowl rings can be charming, but this will be a tough sell.

6. New York Jets

Biggest strength: Cap space
Biggest weakness: Roster talent

The coach who replaced Garrett on the midseason plank was Todd Bowles, whose defense followed solid performances against the Bears and Jets by allowing 41 points to Matt Barkley and the Bills in Week 10. The 3-7 Jets have lost four straight, and with rookie Sam Darnold struggling, the natural logic is that the Jets will look for a quarterback whisperer to take over coaching duties come 2019.

Whoever takes the job will have $100 million in cap space with which to work. The problem, truthfully, might be spending it. The Jets could (at least theoretically) literally turn over their entire skill-position group this offseason, which might not be the worst idea given that Gang Green’s weapons ranked 32nd heading into the season. Tight end Chris Herndon should still have a role, but everyone else is flexible. Bilal Powell, Quincy Enunwa and Jermaine Kearse are unrestricted free agents. Robby Anderson is a restricted free agent. Isaiah Crowell has only $3 million in dead money on his 2019 cap charge.

Let’s say the Jets bring back Anderson and Herndon. Great! Now, who else is going to fill in those roles? The Jets can afford to pay Le’Veon Bell whatever he wants, but James Conner’s success in Bell’s absence makes the former Steelers star seem less special than he did before 2018. Maybe the Jets keep Crowell and sign someone like Tevin Coleman or T.J. Yeldon to serve as a complementary back.

More disconcertingly, though, is what’s really out there to add at wide receiver? The top of the class in free agency includes players on the wrong side of 30 (Golden Tate, Larry Fitzgerald, Chris Hogan), deep threats with injury issues (John Brown, Kelvin Benjamin, Donte Moncrief), slot guys (Adam Humphries, Cole Beasley, Randall Cobb) and size-speed guys who haven’t produced at a consistent level (Tyrell Williams, Devin Funchess). The Jets are going to be competing with a half-dozen teams that are desperate to give their young quarterback wideout help. Do you really want to go to $14 million a season for Funchess? All that cap space might not mean much in the place where the Jets need help most.

5. Cleveland Browns

Biggest strength: Roster talent
Biggest weakness: Ownership

I suspect some will find the Browns being this low as a surprise. On paper, this is an appealing job. The Browns have a ton of young talent after amassing draft picks during the Sashi Brown era, including a promising rookie quarterback in first overall pick Baker Mayfield. Cleveland is set with more than $81 million in cap space in 2019, and GM John Dorsey has a track record of success going back through his time in Green Bay and Kansas City. Cleveland is only 3-6-1, but when you consider that the Browns went 1-31 between 2016 and 2017, a .350 winning percentage was literally cause for free-beer fridges to be opened around the city. A 90th percentile-luck version of this Browns team could be 7-3 right now.

All that’s great. Any analysis of the Browns opportunity that leaves out ownership, though, is fatally flawed. There’s absolutely no reason to think that Jimmy and Dee Haslam have any idea of how to run a football organization or will stick to any plan for any meaningful length of time. Haslam already has been through five head coaches in less than seven years as Browns owner and will hire his sixth this offseason. The Browns pivoted to analytics and a long-term plan before 2016, then gave up after less than two seasons and hired Dorsey to run the team with a traditional scouting background. They retained Hue Jackson after one win in two seasons, then fired both Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley in midseason.

If you’re Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and can basically have your pick of a half-dozen NFL jobs, would you be more influenced by the ability to coach Mayfield, or the fact that no coach has made it through three seasons with Haslam running operations? It’s tough to win without a franchise quarterback. It’s virtually impossible to win with a bad owner.

4. Detroit Lions

Biggest strength: Franchise QB
Biggest weakness: Roster talent

Matt Patricia might not be cut out for this. The Lions hired Patricia in February, but months later, it was revealed that Patricia had been previously indicted on sexual assault charges in 1996. Patricia denied the charge and the case never went to trial, but he also failed to tell the Lions about the indictment. The former Patriots executive has been bizarrely testy with the media, coming up with an inexplicable argument for his timeout usage against the 49er, then scolding a reporter for his posture weeks later.

Patricia’s former boss is similarly gruff with the media, but Bill Belichick can skate by on a track record of wild success. Patricia is 3-6, and while he beat Belichick and the Patriots in Week 3, the Lions have lost their past three games by a combined 41 points. If the Lions can’t come up with a victory during their upcoming three-game homestand against the Panthers, Bears and Rams, Lions fans might be combing through their closet for brown paper bags.

If Patricia goes, the Lions might look for another coach in his image. Detroit has been missing pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah for most of the year and didn’t have Darius Slay for Sunday’s shellacking at the hands of Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears, but Patricia’s defense ranks 30th in DVOA after 10 weeks. The idea of hiring a defensive coach after firing Jim Caldwell wasn’t a bad one, but Patricia just might not be very good.

Ansah is a free agent in 2019, and the Lions have to seriously invest in their defense after years of focusing their efforts on offense. It’s a tough trick to pull with quarterback Matthew Stafford occupying $29.5 million of cap space, the second-largest cap hit in football. GM Bob Quinn’s moves to solidify Stafford’s offensive line by signing T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner haven’t worked; Lang hasn’t stayed healthy and hit injured reserve this week, while Wagner has allowed 10.5 sacks in 22 starts with the Lions after giving up seven in 47 starts in Baltimore. Starting with Stafford and an ownership group that has mostly been patient is a plus, but the Lions are a mess on the field.

3. Seattle Seahawks

Biggest strength: Franchise QB
Biggest weakness: Uncertain ownership

The tragic death of Seahawks owner Paul Allen throws a short-term wrench into Seattle’s plans. Allen helped keep the team in Seattle, and given the rabid fan base the Seahawks enjoy, it’s difficult to imagine the team leaving the Pacific Northwest even after Allen’s passing. Ownership transitions are difficult processes, though, and with the Seahawks likely to be sold, it’s unclear how the temporary ownership structure or the eventual replacement owners will run the team. Uncertainty is a problem.

As the Seahawks transition further from the Legion of Boom era, it remains to be seen whether their coach will want to be part of the process. Pete Carroll has coached well enough to keep his job, of course, but the 4-5 Seahawks have just a 29.9 percent chance of making the postseason, per FPI. Carroll turned 67 in September and will lose another set of veterans from that team in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas this offseason. The Rams seem set to dominate the NFC West for the next several seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carroll take on the challenge and stick around as the Seahawks rebuild, but nobody would fault the former Super Bowl champion for retiring after the season, either.

If Carroll moves on, the Seahawks would represent an interesting opportunity. Russell Wilson doesn’t turn 30 until November and should have several more years left as an upper-echelon NFL starter. His offensive line finally looks like an NFL unit, although the new coach likely would look to replace both coordinators and offensive line coach Mike Solari, all of whom were hired this past season. The Seahawks also rank 10th in defensive DVOA despite losing Thomas for most of the season, which is a testament to the work Carroll has done in coaching up the likes of Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers.

Given the ownership upheaval, though, the Seahawks might not be players in free agency to plug holes on their defensive line. The roster doesn’t have much depth after years of poor drafts, and Seattle is missing its second-, sixth- and seventh-round picks in the upcoming draft. Few coaches inherit teams with a pair of viable Hall of Fame candidates in their prime as a new Seahawks czar would with Wilson and Bobby Wagner, but there might be less behind those two stars than it seems.

2. Baltimore Ravens

Biggest strength: Patient ownership
Biggest weakness: Young roster talent

Steve Bisciotti purchased majority ownership in the Ravens in 2004. After a 5-11 season in 2007, Bisciotti fired Brian Billick and replaced him with Eagles coach John Harbaugh, who had been Philly’s longtime special teams coordinator before spending 2007 as defensive backs coach. Bisciotti hasn’t made a coaching change since. Harbaugh is in the middle of his 11th season in the job, and while the Ravens routinely made it to the playoffs and even won a Super Bowl during the first half of his tenure, Baltimore has made it to the postseason just once in the past six seasons. If Harbaugh misses the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, it might be time to move on.

Whoever comes in will be taking over a team shedding its longtime identity. Legendary former tight end and current GM Ozzie Newsome is retiring after the season, and while deputy Eric DeCosta has been ticketed to take over the position for years, the Ravens will be losing a Hall of Fame executive. The Ravens also seem set to shed the onerous Joe Flacco contract after the season, a move that would free up $10.5 million and get them to $45.8 million in space as they start the 2019 offseason. They can create $14 million more by cutting Jimmy Smith and declining Brandon Carr’s option, although Baltimore likely would need to add a cornerback in the process. Stalwart edge rusher Terrell Suggs is also a free agent, though the Ravens might focus more on retaining Za’Darius Smith and giving C.J. Mosley a big deal.

The project for a new coach will be developing Lamar Jackson into a starting quarterback while integrating younger players at both cornerback and wideout, where the Ravens will be down to Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead. If Smith and Suggs both leave, the Ravens likely will like to add edge depth in the draft. Harbaugh’s would-be replacement will have the time to develop young talent. Given how out-of-the-box Harbaugh was as a hire in the first place, though, it would be naive to suggest that the Ravens are likely to lean toward a coach with any specific set of skills.

1. Green Bay Packers

Biggest strength: Aaron Rodgers
Biggest weakness: Young talent

The biggest weakness with the Packers, truthfully, is Mike McCarthy. Any coach coming in to replace McCarthy would have an enormous advantage by virtue of getting to work with arguably the most talented quarterback in league history in Rodgers. While Rodgers turns 35 in December, his contract suggests that the Packers see him as an essential part of their team through 2021. I don’t think I need to explain why Rodgers would be an enticing asset for a coach, so I’ll stop now.

The Packers are in reasonable cap shape and have an ownership group that has been extremely patient … outside of that time they gave Ray Rhodes one year as coach in 1999. Before Rhodes, Mike Holmgren was at the helm for seven seasons. After Rhodes, Mike Sherman got six seasons in charge, and McCarthy is working on his 13th season at Lambeau. Whoever replaces McCarthy will seemingly be fired almost immediately or get two presidential terms to work things out.

The only thing that isn’t quite up to task is the talent around Rodgers, which led to GM Ted Thompson getting kicked upstairs after the 2017 season. Thompson famously eschewed free agency in favor of amassing draft picks, and while that helped him build a Super Bowl winner, his drafting prowess waned in recent years. The 2012-15 drafts delivered four star-caliber contributors in Nick Perry, Mike Daniels, David Bakhtiari and Davante Adams, but the only other players left from those years on the Packers roster are Corey Linsley and Jake Ryan. While the Packers might have imagined a secondary with first-round picks Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Damarious Randall playing alongside second-rounders Quinten Rollins and Casey Hayward, none of those guys are left in Lambeau.

You know what? I don’t think the new Packers coach will be complaining too much. The Packers are 14th in defensive DVOA, and while Rodgers has been inconsistent while recovering from the knee injury he suffered in Week 1, there might not be another quarterback in the league you would prefer to put on the field for one final drive in the fourth quarter. Every coach wants to prove that he can mold a young quarterback into a successful NFL starter. Every coach also would prefer to take Aaron Rodgers if they had the chance.

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