There are six vacancies in the NFL, with the potential for more still looming, and a finite number of viable candidates who will land these jobs (plus a ton of not viable candidates who are getting interviews because they have friends in the league or really good agents.) With nearly 20 percent of the league’s head coaching positions currently vacant, let’s rank each job, broken down by specific criteria to see which is truly the most attractive for the next round of NFL head coaches.
6. Cleveland Browns
Nothing personal against Jimmy Haslam, and he’s entrenched as the owner, but facts are facts. He’s now fired three head coaches and three general managers since buying the Browns for $1 billion in 2012. If that carousel doesn’t scare potential candidates, I’m not sure what will.
Well there’s Josh McCown, the soon-to-be 37-year-old journeyman, who parlayed a competent season with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett into one of the more unusual late-career revivals we’ve seen at the quarterback position. He’s slightly above-average at best, and there’s no future with him.
The group just fired was reportedly “so done” with Johnny Manziel after repeated off-field issues involving alcohol. Even in the slight chance that all the outrageous rumors and stories have been exaggerated or are patently untrue, the former Heisman-winning quarterback has shown essentially nothing that indicates he’ll be a successful NFL quarterback on the field.
Let’s put it this way — no one in the greater Cleveland area would be mad if the team drafted a quarterback in Round 1. Most would encourage it.
Road To Playoffs
The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most well-run organizations in the NFL, and have had three head coaches… since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969.
As if they aren’t enough of a perennial intra-division road-block, the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals have become other models of stability and annual success. Ozzie Newsome has been the Ravens’ GM since the team moved to Baltimore in 1996, and John Harbaugh has been the head coach since 2008. Marvin Lewis is the longest-tenured head coach in the NFL outside of Bill Belichick, and the Bengals have gone to the playoffs in each of the past five seasons.
Road to postseason? More like gauntlet to the postseason.
Based on a projected $150 million cap in 2016, OverTheCap.com has the Browns at $15.6 million in space heading into the offseason. Cutting Donte Whitner would free just under $4 million, and the release of Dwayne Bowe would lead to another $3.4 million being made available.
A few other veterans could be let go to free more cash — like Paul Kruger, Tramon Williams, Karlos Dansby, Brian Hartline, and the aforementioned McCown — but the more players cut, the more barren the roster will be in 2016. For having a decent amount of cap space, there’s not much financial flexibility.
Whiffing on multiple first-round picks over the past few years doesn’t exactly bode well here. The defense, especially in the secondary, is devoid of star players outside of the up-and-down play of cornerback Joe Haden.
Immense talent Josh Gordon returns at wide receiver in 2016, but he’s set to become a free-agent after the season and his troubled past makes him a risky long-term commodity.
The offensive line has strong pieces, but center Alex Mack is currently on a one-year, franchise-tag deal and the ultra-reliable Joe Thomas just turned 31.
There are certainly worse rosters in the NFL, but not many. Given the rash of recent head coach and GM firings, unsolved quarterback situation, a roster filled with rather expensive, back-loaded veteran contracts, and the teams’ division rivals, the Browns’ gig is… let’s say, dangerous.
[Update: The Browns hired Paul DePodesta, of “Moneyball” fame, who’s most recently been a scouting executive for the New York Mets. Cleveland is confidently sliding all its chips into the center of a table on the analytics front. Does that make this job less enticing or more enticing? I’d go with the latter.]
5. San Francisco 49ers
Jim Harbaugh was fired in 2014 after missing the playoffs following three consecutive trips to the NFC title game. Sure, Harbaugh may not be the easiest coach for a GM or owner to work with, but his track record in the win-loss column can’t be ignored. His replacement, Jim Tomsula, just went “one and done.”
No rumblings of a potential sale. However, what ultimately occurred with the two most recent head coaches would definitely create a cause for major concern.
Colin Kaepernick went from a quarterback who looked to potentially have the ability to revolutionize the position to… benched for Blaine Gabbert.
Yeah, Blaine Gabbert is there.
Road To Playoffs
The Arizona Cardinals have one of the game’s most creative, fun-loving coaches in Bruce Arians. The Seattle Seahawks have been the pillar of accomplishment in the NFC over the past five seasons and the St. Louis Rams… uhhh, they may be on their way to Los Angeles, but they certainly have a strong defensive line and a budding superstar in Todd Gurley.
The road to the playoffs in the NFC West division is brutal. Period.
OverTheCap.com has the 49ers at a hair under $38 million in cap space at the start of the offseason, and the roster has two significant “dumpable” contracts.
If Kaepernick and Ahmad Brooks are released, almost $15 million would be freed.
GM Trent Baalke has it right — basically, his draft philosophy revolves around getting as many picks as possible so he has more rolls at the craps table. An unprecedented wave of early retirements really stung San Francisco’s roster, and there aren’t many stars on either side of the ball.
NaVorro Bowman is still one of the best linebackers in football, and Carlos Hyde has the talent to be a Top 10 running back. Aaron Lynch is an burgeoning stud as a pass-rusher, and Torrey Smith can stretch any defense.
Still, there are many rosters more top-heavy and deep than the 49ers’.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles’ ownership hasn’t played musical chairs every season or two like some have, but Chip Kelly was axed in three seasons and just one year after he was given full control of the roster.
Sam Bradford isn’t under contract in 2016, and Mark Sanchez is set to make $5.5 million. Or, if he’s released, the Eagles save $3.5 million.
Philadelphia is squarely in a “draft a quarterback early” situation.
Road To Playoffs
Does it get any easier? Because the NFC East has four teams in four of the biggest markets in the NFL and will always get massive publicity. But as we saw this year, as a whole, the division is very weak.
The Dallas Cowboys are closer to rebuilding than they are to legitimately contending, and the same can be said for the New York Giants.
With the offseason officially here for the non-playoff teams, the Eagles have just under $17 million in cap space. Unfortunately, there aren’t many contracts to scrap that’ll save good money.
Sanchez and wideout Riley Cooper may be the two most obvious releases — and they’d free $6.4 million.
In the defensive front seven, there’s a small but exciting collection of young talent, led by versatile defensive lineman Fletcher Cox.
Mychal Kendricks is an explosive linebacker and Brandon Graham is one of the most underrated edge-rushers in the NFC.
Shockingly, the offensive side of the ball slowly deteriorated under Kelly’s watch and a team that boasted the most athletic, routinely punishing offensive line just a few years ago needs to be rebuilt. Also, there aren’t stars at the offensive skill positions.
The roster isn’t terrible, but about half the NFC has more impressive groups heading into 2016.
3. Miami Dolphins
Stephen Ross has made a variety of head-coach and GM hires that have flopped over the past decade, but there’s no worry of a sale and the past shows ownership will give an adequately long leash.
Is Ryan Tannehill good? Yeah. No. I mean, I’m not sure. Actually… you tell me.
In 2015, here are his QB Ratings, in order, from Week 1 to the season finale — 93.5, 108, 59.7, 53, 87.8, 158.3, 64.6, 100.5, 94.3, 90.3, 84.8, 78, 85, 77.6, 84.2, 112.8
He’ll be 28 in July, so there’s hope he’ll improve… or is it foolish to hope for development at this juncture of his career?
Road To Playoffs
The Patriots own the division. The Jets had a fantastic, 10-win season, but are in win-now mode and are a few pieces away from being ready to contend for the next five years. The Bills flopped in Year 1 of Rex Ryan, yet they have some impressive young players.
While the Dolphins don’t have a stroll in the park to win the division, finishing second is certainly doable.
Right now, OverTheCap has Miami $6.4 million *over* a projected cap of $150 million. The only possible cut that’d free a hefty sum is Jordan Cameron. Sure, he’s a talented pass-catching tight end but if released, he’d make $7.5 million available.
Oh, and Greg Jennings can easily be let go for a $4 million saving.
Technically, though…. no team heads into the 2016 offseason with a worse cap situation than the Dolphins.
Depending on your view of Tannehill, the Dolphins roster is either above-average or right around playoff caliber.
There are some important free-agent decisions ahead, but the defensive line is oozing with talent — led by expensive chip Ndamukong Suh — and Reshad Jones is the most under-appreciated safety in the league. Sizable holes exist on the offensive line, in the linebacking corps and in the secondary, but a handful of clubs wish they had as much top-end talent as Miami.
Tom Coughlin with the SAVAGE power move on John Mara!!! pic.twitter.com/o0WdTV5uUZ
— Jim Weber (@JimMWeber) January 5, 2016
2. New York Giants
Giants ownership is as stable as any in NFL, and that’s a major boon for the organization when it comes to luring a fine head coach. Also, coaching in the New York market certainly has its perks.
Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings, but he flashes inconsistency as much as he flashes brilliance and just turned 35.
The quarterback spot shouldn’t be labeled as a weakness for the Giants, but a contingency plan needs to be formulated very soon… unless it is to be believed that Ryan Nassib is the future under center.
Road To Playoffs
See the above section on the Eagles. Anywhere from 7-9 to 9-7 should and could win this division for the next few seasons.
Heading into the offseason, the G-Men have $35.3 million in cap space, the seventh-most in the NFL.
What to do with Victor Cruz? Will he be with $9.9 million in 2016, or should he be cut to save the team another $6 million?
Linebacker Jon Beason can be released to save $5.1 million and if offensive linemen William Beatty is released, $4.1 million would be made available.
So there’s Eli and record-setting wideout Odell Beckham. After that, there aren’t many legitimate stars on the Giants roster, depending on how Jason Pierre-Paul is to be viewed long-term. Robert Ayers is an underrated defensive lineman, and center Weston Richburg was sound as the team’s trench anchor in 2015.
The linebacker contingent needs work and the secondary could use upgrades. While New York’s roster isn’t absolutely terrible, it’s certainly not the reason a coach would agree to sign on at this point.
ICYMI – Steve Underwood is ready to lead the #Titans franchise on a permanent basis.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) January 5, 2016
1. Tennessee Titans
The chance of an ownership change in the near future is the only issue with the Titans job. While there haven’t been any substantiated reports of a sale in 2016 or 2017, there’s been speculation about it.
Marcus Mariota had typical rookie-quarterback issues in 2015, yet he demonstrated his tremendous upside on more than a few occasions in his first year as a pro. He’s the type of quarterback a head coach would love to inherit.
Road To Playoffs
A cinch. Well, yeah, basically. The AFC South is still the most unimpressive division in football. In fact, the scariest team in the near-future is probably the Jacksonville Jaguars, and they still have significant issues on defense.
Going 7-9 or 8-8 gives a team a good chance to win the division. Going 9-7 essentially guarantees it.
OverTheCap.com has the Titans at $19.6 million under the cap, so there’s room to make some necessary free-agent signings. Oh, and the Titans have the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft. That’s enormous.
On the surface, mainly due to Tennessee’s recent lack of success, it’d appear that the club’s roster is horrendous.
Not the case.
Outside the most important asset — Mariota — there’s an underrated group of youthful talent with All-Pro potential. Defensive lineman Jurell Casey just got an extension and is incredibly disruptive. Dorial Green-Beckham showed shades of Brandon Marshall down the stretch as a rookie. If he can stay healthy, Kendall Wright is a slippery slot receiver and Delanie Walker has quietly become one of the most productive pass-catching tight ends in the league in Nashville.
Brian Orakpo’s there, so is Derrick Morgan, and Taylor Lewan started to look like a franchise left tackle in the latter stages of his second pro season. Upgrades are needed in the secondary and on the offensive line, but overall, there is perhaps more talent than the record indicates.
Add in the absolute lack of pressure like in Philly or New York or San Francisco or, maybe, even Cleveland and there’s a strong case to be made that Tennessee is the best available job in the NFL. That is, until the next firing happens.