Ranking NFL head-coach openings: Chargers, Jags jobs shine

It says something about the volatility of the NFL that, on the day after the 2020 regular season ended, there are six teams in need of new head coaches, and that is greeted by a shrug and a “Not so bad.” Indeed, six openings is on the low end when it comes to the coaching carousel, (last year, there were five; the year before, eight) which means the very top candidates should have their pick of the jobs.

A lot of attention will be paid to minority hiring in this cycle after two embarrassing years. With the firing of Anthony Lynn by the Chargers, the NFL is down to just three minority coaches — Ron Rivera in Washington, Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh and Brian Flores in Miami. Attention, owners: Two of those guys (Rivera and Tomlin) are in the playoffs, and the third (Flores) nearly made it in the second year of an epic rebuilding project, making him a prime candidate for Coach of the Year.

The NFL has made changes to the Rooney Rule, which mandates teams interview minority candidates for head-coaching positions, to strengthen it, and one top league official said on Sunday that he was hopeful for progress this year, although losing Lynn is certainly a blow. The hope is that owners will slow down and cast a wide net — the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, for whom the rule is named, consistently implored his peers not to rush into hiring decisions — and that the talent among minority coaches will rise to the top as a result. Footnote: There are also six general manager openings, and the NFL is also watching closely to see who gets those jobs, because minority hiring in the front office is abysmal, too.

There are only 32 of these head-coaching jobs, so few candidates are in a position to say no. This is a group of openings at teams that are flush with talent and resources, which tends to be an unusual situation for organizations that need a head coach. But some jobs are more attractive than others.

Here is a ranking of the openings, along with an explanation of what makes them desirable or should raise red flags for the candidates in the coming weeks:

Even a four-game winning streak to close the season, along with a 33-31 record in four years, couldn’t save Anthony Lynn’s job, but both markers do indicate which way this team is trending. With rookie quarterback sensation Justin Herbert, defensive end Joey Bosa, receiver Keenan Allen and safety Derwin James providing an ultra-talented nucleus, this is viewed as a team on the rise, making this the best opening available. Plus, the Chargers play in a sparkling new stadium in a city where players love to live, and Lynn already shouldered the burden of shepherding the organization through the upheaval of its move from San Diego.

The drawbacks? The Chargers badly need to build up the offensive line. They are the second team in town, and they have been cursed by injuries year after year. And another thing — they play in the same division as Patrick Mahomes. Still, this will be a coveted spot, especially for those with an offensive bent who would be delighted to mold the young quarterback and provide stability for his development. That has to be top of mind for the Chargers’ braintrust as they make the decision. 

Yes, the Jaguars were the worst team in the NFL in 2020, and they have a lot of work to do to get back to respectability after a run so bad it cost general manager Dave Caldwell and head coach Doug Marrone their jobs. But they also have an awful lot of tools with which to build a turnaround, and the biggest one is the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft — this year, that could mean a chance at landing Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, regarded as one of the best quarterback prospects in history, should he decide to enter the draft.

Owner Shad Khan minced no words in his press conference Monday, saying that what has always eluded the Jaguars franchise is the presence of a franchise quarterback. That wait could be about to end, and the Jaguars should be able to quickly surround their QB of the future, whoever he may be, with other talent. They have a boatload of other draft capital, including another first-rounder and an extra pick in the second round, procured in a series of trades of veterans. They are expected to have the most cap space in the league, per Over The Cap, at about $80 million. They have a few young pieces, like receiver D.J. Chark, running back James Robinson, defensive end Josh Allen and linebacker Myles Jack. And Khan is a patient owner, although his revelation that he had final personnel say last season, and that he intends to keep it that way, is sure to be brought up by candidates.

Mostly what this team needs is a top-to-bottom culture builder — one of the biggest problems for the Jaguars in recent years is that few of their best draft picks signed second contracts with the team. That has to change, and the first step is for the Jacksonville to become a place players want to be, with a coach they want to play for.

Deshaun Watson. Deshaun Watson. Deshaun Watson. That is what makes this job attractive; that’s how good the quarterback is. The problem is, the Texans don’t have a whole lot else to recommend them. They don’t have many other pieces to build around long-term, especially if J.J. Watt departs (although a new braintrust will have a blank slate in front of it). Worse, Houston doesn’t have picks in the first and second rounds of this’s year draft after both were traded away in the deal to acquire Laremy Tunsil in 2019, and there is a lot of money tied up in veteran contracts.

A roster rebuild could take a while, and there are plenty of questions about ownership — Cal McNair has taken over for his late father, Robert McNair, and this is his first big hire — and about who has influence in the organization. That could scare off some candidates. The Texans also need a general manager, a job that former coach Bill O’Brien held at the same time as he was the head coach. 

The good news is that the new general manager and head coach will likely get a few more good years out of quarterback Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. The bad news is then they have to find their eventual replacements, especially for Ryan, who will turn 36 in May. The roster is on the old side in football terms, and the cap situation is expected to be difficult. But the Falcons have one of the best owners in the league in Arthur Blank, who will spend what he has to spend to get his team back to relevance. Don’t discount the lure of respected ownership if a candidate has multiple options. 

The Jets should thank Justin Fields for playing so well in the College Football Playoff semifinal, because the potential presence of yet another prominent quarterback prospect would make the second overall draft pick a lot more valuable, if they want to trade it. The Jets already have four first-round picks in the next two drafts, and that draft haul, along with more than $70 million in projected cap space, would be enticing for any coach. Of course, that means the Jets would choose to keep quarterback Sam Darnold. If there is a coaching candidate who believes in the former No. 3 overall pick, this is a plum position, because of all those draft picks and a few young pieces, like budding star left tackle Mekhi Becton and defensive end Quinnen Williams. And if a coaching candidate has a conviction about another quarterback, he can start over with his chosen signal-caller. But the Jets need a culture change to create a place where good players (like safety Jamal Adams, the 2017 first-rounder who received a sought-after trade out of town last summer) want to be — this is a chance for general manager Joe Douglas, who was brought aboard in 2019, to do that, given that he did not draft Darnold or hire former coach Adam Gase.

There is another question that will hang over this search: Who has the last word in the organization, with the likely impending return of owner Woody Johnson from his ambassadorship? What role will current chairman Christopher Johnson have, and will his older brother resume control of the team? For a franchise desperate for stability, those questions have to be answered before any other.

This is not a shot at the Lions, because if they get the right people — they need a general manager and a coach — and they win, they will probably get statues next to the fist that is the monument to Joe Louis in Motown. But this is a complete rebuild. Veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford is there, but his future with the team is in considerable question. Perhaps a new coach would want to start over with a clean slate, and the Lions will move Stafford. There is limited projected cap space to work with, and the defense, especially, needs an overhaul. The Ford family has historically been very patient, although Sheila Ford Hamp, who took over last year for her mother, is mostly unknown. Reviving the Lions would generate the kind of excitement we are seeing in Cleveland right now, but the Lions — like the Jets and Jaguars — need someone to change the culture from one that expects bad things to one that demands success. 

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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