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The top NFL head coach candidates you should know in 2019

Here are the guys who will lead the Packers, Browns, and many more into new eras.

Green Bay Packers Introduce Matt LaFleur - Press Conference Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The 2018 NFL season featured a pair of midseason firings when Mike McCarthy and Hue Jackson each saw disappointing campaigns end unceremoniously before Week 14. That gave the Packers and Browns a head start when it comes to 2019’s crop of new head coaches, but they won’t be the only teams in the market for new sideline leadership.

Black Monday’s string of firings left vacancies with franchises like the Cardinals, Bengals, Broncos, Buccaneers, Jets, and Dolphins. That’ll give plenty of opportunities for emerging young coordinators and veteran former head coaches alike in January, and we’re keeping track of all the latest news and rumors.

There’s a long list of candidates in 2019, and they range from NFL retreads to pro positional coaches and some of college football’s shining stars.

Who’s been hired

Green Bay Packers: Matt LaFleur, former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator

LaFleur has been able to push his offense to important wins whether his quarterback has been Marcus Mariota, Blaine Gabbert, or a partially injured mashup of the two. He’s unleashed the awesome power of Derrick Henry late in 2018 and made the most of a young, mostly anonymous receiving corps, despite an offense that hasn’t been exactly prolific this season.

But this is a quarterback’s league, and LaFleur has a history of developing them. Much like Doug Pederson and Frank Reich before him, his work in the passing game helped land LaFleur a top-level job in Green Bay with a top-level quarterback in Aaron Rodgers.

Arizona Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury, former offensive coordinator/male model, USC

Kingsbury’s offensive prowess looked like a perfect fit at his pass-happy alma mater, but the former NFL practice squad standby struggled in Lubbock. The Red Raiders were just 35-40 under his guidance, owing largely to a defense that never ranked higher than 88th among FBS teams in his six seasons at the helm. No matter — his track record with NFL-caliber quarterbacks and the fact his defensive deficiencies can be covered up with a qualified coordinator still had teams interested in handing the reins of their franchise to a man who just got fired for a 5-7 season at Texas Tech and then hired at USC.

The Cardinals snatched him from USC for his first NFL job, and they’ll hope he can help groom Josh Rosen just as he did with some guy named Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bruce Arians, former Cardinals and Colts head coach

Arians’ retirement from the NFL lasted exactly one season. Tampa is confident the 66-year-old can get the most out of Jameis Winston. He’s also bringing along a couple former colleagues, including Todd Bowles as the defensive coordinator and Byron Leftwich as the offensive coordinator.

Cleveland Browns: Freddie Kitchens, former Browns offensive coordinator

After seeing what Freddie Kitchens as interim OC did with the offense and with Baker Mayfield, the Browns went all-in and hired Kitchens for as head coach. It’s a risky, but smart move and shows that once again, these are not the same ol’ punching bag Browns.

Denver Broncos: Vic Fangio, former defensive coordinator, Chicago Bears

Vic Fangio is as proven as it gets as a defensive mind in the NFL. He led stalwart pass defenses with the San Francisco 49ers during the Jim Harbaugh years and is now the playcaller for the Bears, one of the most explosive defenses in the NFL today. Fangio had some rough patches when he was the defensive coordinator of the expansion Houston Texans from 2002-05, but most coaches would struggle with a roster being started from scratch. Since returning to the NFL in 2011, Fangio has been lights out as a defensive coordinator.

He’ll get plenty of talent to work with in Denver, his first gig ever as a head coach.

New York Jets: Adam Gase, former head coach, Miami Dolphins

Gase was fired on Black Monday, but he wasn’t unemployed for long. The innovative offensive architect never found his footing in Miami, going 23-25 as a head coach and ostracizing players like Jarvis Landry in the process. He was hamstrung by a low-octane lineup, but still managed to push Ryan Tannehill into a handful of strong performances — all three of Tannehill’s three-touchdown games ended in Dolphin wins in 2018.

The Jets, who are looking to ride the NFL’s rising tide of scoring while developing a young quarterback, are hoping Gase can do just that with Sam Darnold.

Cincinnati Bengals (reportedly): Zac Taylor, QBs coach, Los Angeles Rams

Taylor wasn’t a coordinator in 2018, but his role pushing Jared Goff to reach his potential and status under a rising star in Sean McVay forced his name into the head coaching discussion. The former Nebraska quarterback has experience as an NFL offensive coordinator after helping develop Ryan Tannehill into a useful, if sometimes underwhelming, starting QB in Miami. Despite this being his first head coaching job, the 35-year-old Taylor can bring some of that McVay magic to Cincinnati — or at least the Bengals hope so.

Miami Dolphins (reportedly): Brian Flores, defensive coordinator, New England Patriots

Flores has stepped into the role the celebrated Matt Patricia left behind, taking on greater responsibilities for the franchise that’s employed him since 2004. He’s the architect behind a top-10 scoring defense, and this year’s Patriots have been roughly as good defensively with Flores at the helm as they had been under Patricia the year prior. His work getting revitalized performance from veterans like Kyle Van Noy and Jason McCourty as well as overlooked prospects like J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones are a testament to his developmental powers.

But Flores comes with his caveats. The man he replaced isn’t doing so well in his first head coaching job with the Lions. And aside from Bill O’Brien, the branches of Bill Belichick’s coaching tree have been barren and gnarled.

The Dolphins think Flores can be the man that turns their defense — and the team — around.

Former NFL head coaches grasping at one more shot at greatness

Sometimes great coaches wind up in bad situations. Bill Belichick didn’t become a Hall of Famer until after he was fired by the Cleveland Browns. Pete Carroll didn’t win a Super Bowl until long after the Patriots had cut him loose. Andy Reid has gone from a pretty good head coach with the Eagles to a pretty good head coach with the Chiefs.

So while some head coaching retreads have failed to pan out (helllooooo, Jeff Fisher), others are just the right fit away from turning a mediocre coach into one that can take your team to multiple Super Bowls. Here’s who is on deck for a return in 2019.

Jim Caldwell, former head coach, Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions

Caldwell is a veteran option with plenty of regular season success; five of his seven seasons as a head coach ended with winning records. His playoff record is a different story, though. He couldn’t push a 14-2 Peyton Manning-led Colts team to a Super Bowl title in 2009 and is currently riding a four-game postseason losing streak.

Reported interest: Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals

Mike McCarthy, former head coach, Green Bay Packers

McCarthy is one of the few candidates available to have a Super Bowl win on his resume. The veteran head coach led Green Bay to eight straight playoff appearances from 2009 to 2016 while making Aaron Rodgers a two-time MVP, but recent struggles led him to be axed 12 games into the 2018 season (to be fair, it came right after a home loss to the Cardinals).

McCarthy is a respected head coach with a track record of success, but was the Packers’ rise to perennial contendership because McCarthy brought out the best in Rodgers, or the other way around? A team with a developing quarterback could be willing to place a large wager on the former — that is, if McCarthy wants to coach in 2019 or take the year off.

After not getting the Jets gig, McCarthy has decided to sit out in 2019 and coach again in 2020.

Reported interest: Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets

Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England Patriots

McDaniels’ tenure as head coach of the Denver Broncos was a short-lived bust, but he was deemed good enough to get a second shot with the Colts last year. Then he spurned Indianapolis at the last second to remain the Patriots’ offensive mastermind. Would he be willing to jump ship in 2019? Would any team be willing to risk making him an offer after he embarrassed the Colts?

Reported interest: Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals

McDaniels turned down the Bengals’ request for an interview, while the Packers hired Matt LaFleur. By McDaniels’ own accord, it appears he’s staying in New England for at least one more season.

Chuck Pagano, former head coach, Indianapolis Colts

Pagano got off to a hot start in Indiana, leading the Colts to three straight 11-win seasons behind a debuting Andrew Luck and advancing all the way to the 2014 AFC title game. Horrific roster management by then-GM Ryan Grigson and Luck’s injuries doomed him to mediocrity and then awfulness before his 2017 ousting, but he’s ready to jump back into the coaching fray after a season away from the game.

Reported interest: Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos

NFL assistants who appear ready for the head coaching spotlight

Sean McVay went from a 28-year-old offensive coordinator to a coach of the year candidate in just four years. Matt Nagy made the Chiefs a juggernaut in 2017 as their OC and now has the Bears primed for a big playoff run in just his first season as a head coach. Frank Reich, fresh off a Super Bowl victory, has the Colts on the precipice of the league’s most impressive comeback.

Pulling rising assistants from other teams and onto a barren sideline is a proven method of success. So will 2019’s crop fit that McVay/Nagy/Reich mold? Or will it replicate the struggles of guys like Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, and Steve Wilks — assistants who struggled to expand their expertise to all 60 minutes of the game?

Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

Bieniemy’s first season as Kansas City’s OC has seen him engineer the league’s top-ranked offense while building Patrick Mahomes into 2018’s MVP frontrunner in only his second season in the league. The former All-American tailback has been a part of Andy Reid’s coaching tree since 2013, when he joined the Chiefs as the team’s running backs coach. He’s only grown in stature since then, and KC’s dynamite offense could propel him to a head coaching job at age 49.

Reported interest: Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals

Bieniemy didn’t get a head coaching job this year, but he’ll get another shot next year:

Dan Campbell, tight ends coach, New Orleans Saints

Campbell has experience as a head coach, through it was just a 12-game interim position with the Dolphins in 2015. The former tight end went 5-7 in Miami that fall, an improvement on the 1-3 start that got Joe Philbin fired. He’s spent the three seasons since helping revamp the New Orleans offense, transforming Drew Brees’ aerial attack into a more sustainable unit and pushing the club to back-to-back playoff appearances, including the NFC’s top seed in 2018. He’s a disciple of Sean Payton, which is very much en vogue this fall.

Reported interest: Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals

Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts

The Colts’ offense has been the story of their season, but the defense has put together some strong outings under new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. The Colts rank 12th in opposing points per drive (1.94) after finishing 28th (2.12) in 2017. That quick turnaround, with the help of star rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, might be enough to get Eberflus some head coach interviews this offseason.

The biggest thing in Eberflus’ way right now is his lack of coordinator experience at the NFL level. This is Eberflus’ first coordinator gig in the NFL and his first time being a defensive coordinator since 2008, when he was the defensive coordinator at the University of Missouri.

Reported interest: Cleveland Browns

Kris Richard, defensive backs coach, Dallas Cowboys

Richard followed his former collegiate coach Pete Carroll to the NFL and played a major role in developing the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense. He spent eight years in Seattle, rising all the way up to the club’s defensive coordinator role from 2015 to 2017. His unit never ranked lower than 13th in either points or yardage allowed during that span.

He’s now overseeing Dallas’s defensive revival as the club’s playcaller, a role that led the NFL’s Career Development Advisory Panel to tab him as a top-tier option as a future head coach — a list that includes names like McDaniels, Bieniemy, and several more top candidates.

Reported interest: New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Dave Toub, special teams coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs

Dave Toub has been rumored for head coaching gigs for a few years now. It makes sense; his units have been great since he’s been the special teams coordinator in Kansas City. for The Chiefs currently have the second-ranked special teams unit according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric — they’ve never ranked lower than ninth and have been first twice since Toub was hired in 2013. Toub was promoted to assistant head coach before the season and still runs the special teams, but it might be his time to fully expand his wings.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has already set the standard on what a special teams coordinator can do as a head coach. Toub could be next in line.

College football coaches who could make the jump

There’s a boom-or-bust quality to hiring successful NCAA head coaches. Sometimes you get Pete Carroll or Jimmy Johnson, and he makes you a perennial contender. Other times you get Nick Saban, Butch Davis, or, god forbid, Bobby Petrino. This year’s crop is predicated around some budding offensive minds — and with a handful of needy teams prepared to turn their franchises over to growing young quarterbacks, they could wind up making a major leap in 2019.

Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern

Fitzgerald returned to his alma mater and took a program with limited fan interest and strict academic requirements into a consistent winner on the north side of Chicago. The former two-time All-American has been a revelation for the Wildcats, taking Northwestern to nine bowl games in 13 seasons, recording three 10-win seasons, and winning the Big Ten West this fall. Northwestern had been to six bowl games in its 112 seasons before him. He also developed overlooked recruits like Mike Kafka, Dan Persa, and Clayton Thorson into impactful quarterbacks in a Power 5 Conference.

Reported interest: Green Bay Packers

Update 1/3: It looks like Fitzgerald is staying with Northwestern.

Jim Harbaugh, head coach, Michigan

Harbaugh was outstanding in his four seasons with the 49ers, taking a team that had gone 26-38 in the four years preceding his arrival and leading it to a 44-19-1 regular season record and a 5-3 mark in the postseason during his four years at the helm. But squabbles with owner Jed York and then-GM Trent Baalke led him to part ways with the club and assume the top spot at Michigan, his alma mater.

Harbaugh has helped lead the Wolverines back to relevance, though he’s got plenty of unfinished business left in Ann Arbor. Michigan’s beloved weirdo appears entirely content at the college ranks — but rumors he’d jump ship have grown loud enough for the Jets to issue an official statement about how much they’re not interested in him, which may be just enough smoke to suggest there’s some fire behind a potential return to the pros.

Reported interest: Totally not the Jets.

Matt Rhule, head coach, Baylor

Rhule’s 8-17 record at Baylor looks awful on the surface, but his turnaround in Waco resembles the path of current Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. The former Temple head coach took a team rocked by scandal and built it back to respectability, much like O’Brien did at Penn State in 2012 and 2013. He pushed a 1-11 Bears roster to a 7-6 record this fall, which includes a victory what may stand as the most exciting bowl game of 2018. He could be due for another challenge in 2019.

Reported interest: New York Jets

Lincoln Riley, head coach, Oklahoma

Riley has spent the last three-plus seasons at Oklahoma, spending two as the team’s offensive coordinator before taking over for a retiring Bob Stoops in 2017. In that span he developed Baker Mayfield from neglected Texas Tech transfer into a Heisman Trophy winner. Now Mayfield’s looking for a full-time coach, and Riley could be Cleveland’s guy. He’s led the Sooners to College Football Playoff in each of his two seasons as Oklahoma’s head coach, and that stratospheric success could make him a popular pick for teams looking to find their own version of Sean McVay.

Update 1/1: Riley has reached a contract extension at Oklahoma, which is going to make it pretty tough for any interested NFL teams to scoop him up.