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Ranking NFL's open head-coaching jobs: Coaches, execs pick league’s gigs from least to most attractive

There's love for Chargers' Justin Herbert and big changes in D.C. Not so much over Mike Vrabel's exit and the Panthers

(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)
(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)

Turning over a quarter of NFL head-coaching jobs in a single offseason isn’t a new trend. The availability of so many high-end résumés is.

From Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh to Pete Carroll and Mike Vrabel, the league has arguably never seen such a depth of experience and talent — albeit with some age — in a single collection of head-coaching candidates. Add in a multitude of high-achieving coordinators who appear capable of taking the next step, and there may never be a better time to hire in the NFL.

With that in mind, we polled six highly positioned league sources — three on the coaching side and three on the personnel side — and asked them to rank the league’s seven jobs that were open as of Thursday, with heavy consideration on team ownership, roster and salary-cap load. The six have varied experience in the league’s job pipeline, ranging from those who are currently on interview lists and considered to be climbing the ranks, to those who are currently residing in jobs at the top of a franchise. Coaching voices included offensive and defensive perspective.

The rankings are based on a points system, with a first-place ranking receiving seven points, descending to seventh-place rankings receiving one point. With the votes tallied, here is how the field stacks up, along with the sentiments that shaped the responses ...

7. Carolina Panthers (7 points: one sixth-place vote, five last-place votes)

“Owner first” was the measuring stick of one executive and every coach when it came to approaching each of these openings, and the external view of Panthers owner David Tepper was generally not positive within the poll. And it went beyond the drink-tossing incident in Carolina’s season-finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That was certainly noticed, but the issues highlighted by the group focused more on the turnstile nature of employment at both the head coach and general manager positions, as well as the persistent belief that Tepper had a significant hand in multiple quarterback decisions over the course of his ownership. The bottom line: Tepper is seen as someone who inserts himself into football evaluations in which he lacks the proper depth to make seasoned decisions, and also is a threat as a micromanager to his coaching staffs. One other lingering issue that was a surprise: It didn’t go unnoticed that nearly one year ago, former head coach Matt Rhule filed a lawsuit against Tepper over nearly $5 million in severance that Rhule believes he is owed. That dispute remains unresolved in the league’s arbitration system, but it’s certainly not a great look when a seemingly mercurial owner is fighting a former coach over money. As one executive said, “[W]ith Tepper, it seems like a f***ing miserable place to work.”

Beyond Tepper, the bones of the team are not considered to be promising in the near term, which is an issue when paired with the belief that the club owner lacks patience. There are a handful of promising young players, but the quarterback, Bryce Young, struggled significantly in his rookie season, giving pause to the idea that the position is adequately resolved. Carolina is also hobbled in the next two drafts where it concerns premium draft picks, having traded away its 2024 first-rounder and 2025 second-rounder to the Chicago Bears in the move that ultimately netted Young for the Panthers. For a roster that looks like it’s in need of a high-percentage reboot, lacking two premium draft picks in two years is a solid negative. Particularly when the reboot/rebuild/retool has already resulted in the first overall pick in the 2024 draft going to the Bears, and making it likely that the 2025 second-rounder (also going to the Bears) will be another high choice in that round.

The one upside mentioned by two of those polled? Carolina’s roster is well positioned for a two-year teardown, with a solid amount of salary-cap space this offseason, and a potentially massive amount of space after the 2024 season. That means the Panthers have the runway to extend the handful of current players worth keeping long term, then ample cap space to accentuate the next two draft classes with some free-agent signings in March of 2025.

Quotable: “[Carolina] is the place that you really need to take stock of your current job,” one polled executive said. “For me, I’m really happy to be where I am and we have a great future ahead of us and a great quarterback, an awesome staff. It gives you something to think about and [reinforces] being patient rather than just saying ‘It’s 1 of 32’ and feeling pressure to take the first chance you get. The Panthers, just because of the instability with the owner and that roster needing so much work, it’s not the best shot you can take, that’s for sure.”

FILE - Tennessee Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk talks with head coach Mike Vrabel before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Jacksonville, Fla. Strunk wants a fresh approach to compete in the NFL, so she fired coach Vrabel on Tuesday morning, Jan. 9, 2024, after six seasons and losing 18 of the past 24 games. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)
Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk's dismissal of head coach Mike Vrabel hasn't gone over well in NFL circles. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

6. Tennessee Titans (12 points: one fifth-place vote, four sixth-place votes, one seventh-place vote)

How the job opened — by firing head coach Mike Vrabel — is not resonating well across the NFL. And that impacts how people are looking at this opening. Vrabel is widely respected across the league in both coaching staffs and front offices as being a worker, motivator and leader. A great many heavy hitters hold him in high esteem. And when he was fired outright by Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk, who didn’t attend the news conference following the move, it stirred a significant amount of apprehension over Strunk’s track record of decisions leading the franchise. As one poll member framed it, “She fired a damn good coach and a leader. What else was [Vrabel] supposed to [do] — how much more could he be than that? Moves like that are usually some politics inside the building or some kind of problem between a coach and an owner. That should be the first [warning] light about working there.”

Apart from Vrabel’s dismissal, the Titans' roster has significant question marks. Not everyone in the poll believed Will Levis was a certain resolution at the quarterback spot, which could be a problem given that his draft selection is chiefly being attributed to the influence of Strunk and general manager Ran Carthon. If the next regime comes in and decides in 2024 that Levis isn’t Tennessee's quarterback, it potentially results in some internal friction in the franchise, or simply underscores that the Titans don’t have an answer (or good second option) at QB. Beyond that spot, one candidate raised the specter of a vast number of injuries for the Titans in the past few seasons, relating it as an underlying problem that is sometimes difficult to identify and resolve. The offensive line is also a major rebuilding project, while the defense has a nice base of young talent that needs additions.

There is a monster amount of cap space in the next two offseasons, giving ample ammunition for extensions or big swings in free agency, and the draft pick allotments are relatively intact. But how Strunk has operated in past decisions continues to undermine the “pivot potential” upside of this team. Not to mention the reality that the power structure is now murkier with Carthon taking a lead in the organization, but also appearing to be working in a committee with Strunk. At the very least, it raises questions about how the Titans actually operate structurally as an organization now, and that is going to make it less attractive to top-tier candidates who want to see a track record that they can rely on.

Quotable: “Carolina and Tennessee are both coordinator hires [for the head coach openings],” one polled executive said. “Neither will get someone like [Jim] Harbaugh because of how the owners have been all over the place. Wow — I almost said Harbaugh and Vrabel. Obviously Tennessee fired Mike, so you can cross off the experienced head coaches who already know what they’re doing from that place. What a weird job that is.”

5. Las Vegas Raiders (16 points – four fifth-place votes, two sixth-place votes)

The Raiders fail the two biggest tests for job attraction. NFL sources doubt team owner Mark Davis’ stability and they question how the Raiders will land their next franchise quarterback.

The Raiders’ 8-9 year was buoyed by late-season success after the Oct. 31 firing of head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler. While toppling every division foe, including the Kansas City Chiefs, reflects a fiery locker room’s competitive culture, it also positioned the Raiders to select 13th overall in the 2024 NFL Draft. Without a clear incumbent or high pick, Vegas may have the muddiest path to a franchise quarterback of any team on this list. Who is leading this offense after Jimmy Garoppolo was benched for Aidan O’Connell, O’Connell completing 62.1% of pass attempts for 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions? And what resources are fueling that acquisition? The Raiders rank 11th in cap space right now but will need to make a decision on running back Josh Jacobs, whose franchise tag has expired. They’ll need to decide if they’re comfortable with receiver Davante Adams’ $25 million cap hit, or if they should use him as trade bait for a QB (Adams has an out after 2024 to count just $15.7 million in dead cap if cut then as opposed to this year’s $40.4 million). Even with those pieces, the Raiders ranked 27th in offensive DVOA. A defense anchored by Maxx Crosby excites sources, his 14.5 sacks and league-best 23 tackles for loss bolstering the eighth-best defense by DVOA.

Still, can the Raiders pace Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert twice annually without offensive firepower? Is the talent sufficient to even give candidates a chance at success?

“Not a ton of talent in terms of pillars of your franchise to build around going forward,” one coach said. “But definitely some positives going for you there [after] they started to trend upward.”

Davis’ facilities and stadium are far better in Vegas than they were in Oakland. But his quick trigger and comparison of the Raiders’ success to his WNBA Aces who are riding consecutive championship seasons don’t engender confidence in job stability.

Quotable: “You don't have a quarterback. You're not really picking one where you want to," one polled coach said. "There's not a lot of talent on the team — specifically like the guys on offense, Davante and Josh Jacobs, I don't know if you really want those guys back. Defensively, you got Maxx. But after that, there's not a ton there either.”

UPDATE: The Raiders reportedly are close to finalizing a deal that would make interim head coach Antonio Pierce the head coach.

4. Seattle Seahawks (26 points: one second-place vote, five fourth-place votes)

Historically known in coaching and personnel circles to be a job where authority was delegated to the football people and then left alone, the removal of head coach Pete Carroll — which was effectively a firing — raised a few eyebrows. While it has not been explicitly spelled out, the assumption is that Carroll’s departure was the sole decision of controlling chair Jody Allen, who has now aligned the organization into a more traditional “GM down” structure under John Schneider. That resonated to a pair of executives who were polled. On one hand, it raised the question of whether Allen will be taking a more active role in football decisions moving forward and whether the move is related to expectations of a Super Bowl breakthrough. On the other, the move didn’t stray the franchise away from a clean and linear power structure, which was seen as a positive. Whereas Carroll held the “on paper” control of the operation previously, that now slides over to Schneider, with the next coach reporting to the GM and the GM reporting to Allen. If Allen maintains the history of delegating football decisions to football people, the steady functionality of Seattle really doesn’t change. And that’s also seen as a good thing. One other outlying question surrounding Allen: One poll respondent said the possibility of the Seahawks being sold shouldn’t be ignored by candidates.

As for the football bones, the roster is seen as fairly balanced in terms of age, experience and talent at key positions — good enough to be a playoff contender now, while also not being overly mortgaged in terms of future years. It also has a solid starting quarterback in Geno Smith, who is on one of the league’s few lower-middle class contracts at his position. The Seahawks also having one of the league’s distinct home-field advantages was mentioned as a plus. Overall, the salary cap is tight in 2024 but not a dramatic problem, although it will likely sideline the franchise from being in the first wave or two of free-agent shoppers this offseason. And despite lacking a second-round draft pick in 2024 due to the Leonard Williams trade, the future draft capital is largely intact. All in all, Seattle is seen as a well-run operation in terms of the dynamic between the football operation and ownership, with a good roster capable of being competitive now and in the future — even in a tough division. The only lingering question is how big of a role did Carroll play in that stability, and will it change with him out of the picture and the football operation solely in Schneider’s hands.

Quotable: “When Pete [Carroll] was fired, I talked to [a friend] and we debated what kind of job it is,” an executive said. “For the [head coach] opening and also overall where it fits in the league, where does Seattle fit in? And he brought up whether they were for sale or not. I hadn’t even thought of that part of it. It’s not the first thing you think about, but I do think you have to do some homework on that. It’s out of your control, but I wouldn’t ignore it completely. Especially if you have more than one opportunity on the table. Look at Ron Rivera [with the Carolina Panthers and Washington Commanders]. He was pretty much out of a job or at least auditioning for his job in both of those [ownership changes].”

3. Atlanta Falcons (31 points: two second-place votes, three third-place votes, one fourth-place vote)

The overall consensus: The Falcons are a quarterback away from being an ascending team in a division that should be very winnable over the next several seasons. There is key young talent on both sides of the ball and an owner in Arthur Blank who has a track record of pouring in the resources necessary to build a winner. And generally, Blank showed patience with head coach Arthur Smith, who knew where he stood coming into his third season leading the Falcons.

An interesting twist when it comes to the Falcons is the repetitive history of coaches or executives moving on from the franchise with stories about Blank being a team owner who required “tending to” on a regular basis. Whether it is taking Blank through film sessions from a previous game, answering questions about coaching decisions, or just a general way of micromanaging some decisions, Blank is not considered a “hands off” owner in candidate circles. Historically, if you were to put the Seattle Seahawks “set it and forget it” ownership style on one end, and Carolina Panthers’ ultra-involved David Tepper on the other, Blank would fall somewhere in the middle. Involved and perpetually inquisitive, but not overbearingly difficult. That raised curiosity among a few of those polled, who are wondering how those traits would mesh with at least two of his interview targets — Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh — both of whom would operate like more of a coach/CEO than any of Blank’s previous hires.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 24: Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank celebrates with Taylor Heinicke #4 of the Atlanta Falcons after a win over the Indianapolis Colts at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 24, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
How "hands-on" is Falcons owner Arthur Blank? Somewhere in the middle among franchise bosses. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) (Kevin C. Cox via Getty Images)

The Falcons have a solid but not spectacular amount of cap space in 2024 and then a large pool of money in 2025, giving the franchise the ability to make necessary extensions or contract alterations as it sees fit. If the Falcons wanted, they could be solid spenders in free agency starting this offseason, or even trade for a veteran quarterback like Justin Fields with the commitment of picking up his fifth-year option — though Fields might no longer fit the future offensive scheme now that Smith has departed. The draft capital is in a solid spot, with the Falcons picking up an extra third-round pick from the trade of wideout Calvin Ridley to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s key, given the team’s quarterback needs and the potential necessity to either move up in the 2024 NFL Draft or trade for a veteran at the position.

Quotable: “If they get the right coach and figure it out at quarterback, it could be a [rise] like the [Detroit] Lions,” one polled executive said. “I don’t think they’re as talented as Detroit offensively, but they do have some potentially elite pieces. Plus, their defense is in good shape as it is, although there are a couple of pieces that will age out. … With the right quarterback, maybe a receiver to pair with Drake London and [Kyle] Pitts, and a little investment in the offensive line, they could have one of the best offenses in the NFC.”

2. Los Angeles Chargers (37 points: three first-place votes, one second-place vote, two third-place votes)

The Chargers’ one-point deficit to the Commanders reflects how a candidate and team best be compatible, not just attractive on paper, to succeed. Many view the Commanders’ long-term future as brighter; but the Chargers are more ready to win now.

Quarterback Justin Herbert is far and away the No. 1 selling point here. Herbert’s arm talent, decision-making and ability to rise to the moment create an allure for coaches and executives. A newcomer enters with the top piece of the puzzle solved, confident that an offensive mind can open up the playbook to a player capable of executing. The Chargers’ projected negative $44 million in cap space is alarming, and sources are split on how quickly an aging roster can be trimmed and cap gymnastics take effect.

“The Chargers would be buried even more than this if it wasn’t for Justin Herbert,” said one coach, who ranked Los Angeles third. “They have a lot of older players on their roster now. You can get rid of them, and you’re gonna have to in order to make it the right way. Expectations are a lot higher to begin with, which is a negative thing. And then also — that’s historically a poorly run franchise. Do you really want to be around that?

“If you go to the Chargers and you [are average], they're gonna be like, ‘OK, you're worse than Brandon Staley. What the hell did we hire you for?’”

Perception surrounding the Spanos family is mixed. On one hand, most believe they’ve earned their reputation as one of the “notoriously cheap” ownership groups. Will they short-change assistant coaches, thus hindering a head coach’s ability to assemble the ideal staff? Will the Spanos’ cash limitations require further cap restrictions beyond the league’s infrastructure? These concerns weren’t prohibitive, in large part because of the Chargers’ shiny new training facility set to open this year in El Segundo, California, near the Chargers' and Rams’ SoFi Stadium. Add in the Los Angeles weather, and the Chargers may be better resourced in 2024 than they’ve ever been. They’re certainly far better resourced in the short term than the Commanders at FedEx Field. And they’ve got the fifth overall draft pick.

Still, some worry the Spanos family will find a way to interfere. They fear that the facilities and weather attracting free agents to Los Angeles may be all for naught until the roster is trimmed and the team can actually pay free agents. Who will the Spanoses hire at general manager, and how in concert will the coach and GM hires be? Expectations could mar job stability, too, as the Chargers’ talent pool leads to perennially overrating and the team will twice a year have to face Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs and Sean Payton’s Denver Broncos.

Quotable: “If you're fortunate enough to have the Charger situation where you have a top-10 quarterback, top 5, whatever he is, then certainly that is [helpful] because that's the one piece you need and that it's hard to either draft or get," one of the polled coaches said. "That's either 1 or 1a. And then if you already have that thing in place, then you don't have cap space.

“You could say whatever you want about the Spanoses. Who really knows what they pay for, what they don't pay for. Are they cheap? They have a quarterback. They're building a brand new training facility. The cap is a little bit messed up, but you've got stability there. I'd run there.”

Washington Commanders owner Josh Harris, left, and Adam Peters, right, pose for a photo after Peters was introduced as the team's new general manager during an NFL press conference, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Ashburn, Va. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

1. Washington Commanders (38 points: three first-place votes, two second-place votes, one third-place vote)

Sentiment surrounding the Commanders illustrates perfectly how wary coaches and executives are about team ownership. A year ago, candidates would avoid Dan Snyder’s team at most costs. The Commanders are now the darling among top candidates, even though they haven’t produced a winning season in eight years. League sources believe Josh Harris’ new team ownership group is committed to investing in winning. They’re eager to come in contemporaneously with a new general manager rather than afterward. Harris gained further clout when he lured San Francisco 49ers assistant general manager Adam Peters to be his general manager. And while some sources favor a Chargers team with a proven top-10 quarterback, the next-best scenario to having a quarterback in place is seeing a clear path to obtaining that quarterback. Drafting No. 2 overall in a QB-rich year is gold. C.J. Stroud in Houston, anyone?

The prospect of a new team owner, general manager, head coach and quarterback all turning over within a year opens possibilities.

“If you're taking over as the head coach and you want to instill your culture and your belief system, it's a truly blank slate,” one coach said. “To me, that's more important to long-term success than anything.”

This roster needs help, but the Commanders have capital thanks to their poor win-loss record and their midseason trades of edge rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat. Receivers Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel should support a new quarterback. Defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen lay a foundation on defense. And no team has more 2024 salary-cap space, per Spotrac, than the Commanders — who, remember, won’t need to spend on the priciest asset of QB if they draft him as expected. Add in low expectations for early success, and league sources view Washington as a prime spot for an up-and-coming candidate to succeed in the long term. Harris will have a stadium project on his hands that buys a coach time. Early mediocrity, one coach said, will be celebrated the way Jonathan Gannon’s 4-13 Arizona Cardinals drew praise in 2023.

Quotable: “Exciting new ownership group, and it speaks volumes the fact that they were able to hire Adam Peters, who could have had any GM job he's wanted for years now," a polled coach said. "I think that shows you how attractive this place is.”