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  • Writer's pictureTravis Tyler

2021 NFL head coach candidates

Updated: May 28, 2021

Robert Saleh, Defensive Coordinator, 49ers

Saleh has been the leader of one of the league's elite defense's in San Francisco. The people around him rave about his abilities and the kind of person he is--often called a "leader of men." Those characteristics are exactly what many franchises seek in an NFL head coach. On top of that, Saleh has been to the Super Bowl as a coordinator and helped the Niners finish fifth in total defense in 2020, despite losing several key players to injuries.

Eric Bieniemy, Offensive Coordinator, Chiefs

Bienemy has been a popular head coaching candidate for years, yet has not landed a gig. He has player support and coaches perhaps the best offense in the league. So why is he still available? There are rumors he has had some bad interviews and some question whether he is really the one making the play calls. He also may have some character questions from his past. Still, I believe this is the time he gets a head coaching job. His offense would be perfect to pair with a young QB like Deshaun Watson or Justin Herbert. Bienemy has interviewed or is scheduled to interview for five of the six current openings.

Brian Daboll, Offensive Coordinator, Bills

Daboll might be the hottest name on this list because of the offensive numbers and scoring Buffalo has been able to put up recently. The development of QB Josh Allen is also a major plus on his resume. Daboll has been an offensive coach in the NFL since 2000, serving as offensive coordinator for four different teams--Cleveland, Miami, Kansas City, and Buffalo. He also spent a season calling the shots at Alabama and won a national title. Teams may be turned off by his links to the Patriots, given that Belichick disciples have largely not had success as head coaches and he spent the first six years of his career in New England. However, Daboll has been part of coaching staffs under several different head coaches and has a solid record of developing players.

Matt Campbell, Head Coach, Iowa State

Campbell is an interesting name to watch. He has taken a once-ridiculed program and turned it into one of the most consistent in the Big 12. This year, the Cyclones made it all the way to the sixth overall ranking in college football and went to the Big 12 Championship. The team has gotten better nearly every year, and Campbell has been named Big 12 Coach of the Year three times during his current five year run. He has many talented players returning to Ames next season and may want to take another run at a title, but NFL teams have sought him out for their vacancies.

Urban Meyer, FOX Analyst

Meyer is a popular name is most coaching searches now that he is no longer coaching a team. He was rumored as a potential replacement for Tom Herman at Texas, but turned the job down. The Jaguars, Lions, and Chargers have all been rumored to be interested, and Meyer is reportedly considering making the leap. He supposedly wants a $12 million per year contract, although that report has been refuted by some. Urban Meyer has been successful everywhere he's been, but will any NFL teams deem that a worthy price tag for a coach who has not coached at the pro level? Update: Meyer has been hired by Jacksonville.

Nick Sirianni, Offensive Coordinator, Colts

Young offensive coaches have been a recent trend in terms of NFL head coaching hires, and Sirianni certainly fits that bill. Since joining the Colts as offensive coordinator, Sirianni has coached top ten offenses in two of his three seasons, despite not having a ton of playmakers. He is helped by an elite offensive line, but putting up those numbers with the personnel he has requires the coordinator to be adaptive and innovative with his scheme. That's a skill that many NFL teams will covet and could lead him into a head coaching position.

Matt Eberflus, Defensive Coordinator, Colts

The Colts defensive coordinator is known for developing young defensive players, especially linebackers. In his brief stint with Dallas as Linebackers Coach and Defensive Passing Game Coordinator, the Cowboys' linebackers were among the best in the league, and the pass defense was the 11th best. Now in Indy, he's done an equally great job with Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Bobby Okereke, and some young players in the secondary.. Under Eberflus, the Colts have become one of the league's best defenses during an era where offenses can score at will.

Don "Wink" Martindale, Defensive Coordinator, Ravens

Martindale has a background as a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in both college and the NFL. He gets the most praise for his current role with Baltimore, which consistently has a top 10 defense. Martindale had some interviews for head coaching gigs last year, and, with 16 years of NFL experience as a coordinator and positional coach, he may be ready for the next step.

Keith Butler, Defensive Coordinator, Steelers

The Steelers are consistently among the best defenses in the NFL, and Butler has been a part of that for 18 seasons. He took over for Dick LaBeau in 2015, and the only hiccups have been caused by a lack of personnel. His work as a linebackers coach includes the development of guys like Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley, and James Harrison, among others. A team looking for a defensive coach may take a shot on a guy like Butler.

Brandon Staley, Defensive Coordinator, Rams

Staley has had a quick rise as a potential head coaching candidate. The 38-year-old joined the Rams this season after assisting Vic Fangio in both Chicago and Denver and ended up coaching the number one defense in the league. The Rams' defense had started to fade a little bit under Wade Phillips, but Staley's work put them back on track.

Byron Leftwich, Offensive Coordinator, Buccaneers

Leftwich is a young, offensive-minded coach who has been praised by others in Tampa for his work with Tom Brady. He also had a solid 9-year career as a quarterback himself after being drafted in the first round in 2003. Leftwich is someone who knows how to relate to his players and players have an abundance of admiration and respect for. He will make a great head coaching candidate one day, but it may still be too soon. Regardless, he makes this list based on his reputation and leadership.

Pat Fitzgerald, Head Coach, Northwestern

Fitzgerald is extremely similar to Campbell in that they are both fantastic leaders and motivators, who have led underachieving programs to greater heights and respect. He is also apparently considering a jump to the NFL and teams have interest in him. Since he played at Northwestern, it is hard for me to see him leaving his alma mater for the NFL. He already has a great gig, but, if the mutual interest is there, he may take the leap and would be a great hire.

Mike Kafka, QB Coach and Passing Game Coordinator, Chiefs

Kafka gets some attention from media in these searches because he is a younger coach working with the league's best offense. But, that doesn't mean he's not qualified. After all, he does have recent playing experience and is working with one of the best coaches in league history in Andy Reid. Kafka also coaches the top passing game. He's a sleeper candidate for sure, but he may not be hired this time around. It is not very common for a position coach to jump right to head coach. After more experience, he should be getting more opportunities in the future.

Dave Toub, Special Teams Coordinator, Chiefs

Toub tends to be mentioned frequently as an under-the-radar head coaching candidate. Some of that may be from the success John Harbaugh has had jumping from special teams to head coach, but Toub has been a football coach for 35 years, including the last 20 in the NFL. He has coached some of the best special teams units in Chicago and Kansas City, and may get an opportunity as a head coach. If we are going to see a rise in special teams coaches becoming head coaches, Toub is certainly near the top of the list.

Marvin Lewis, Defensive Coordinator, Arizona State

Many people will snark at Marvin Lewis being included here, but the reality is he took a stifling Cincinnati Bengals franchise and made it competitive in the AFC North--winning the division four times. Some will point out his lack of playoff success as a head coach, but he did last 15 years and made the playoffs seven times. For teams looking for a new direction, he may be the right choice, possibly having a stabilizing quality like Jim Caldwell had in Detroit--not the guy to put them over the top, but a guy to get them going the right direction. Lewis has interviewed with Detroit and will also interview with others.

Kellen Moore, Offensive Coordinator, Cowboys

Moore has been great for the Cowboys and constantly puts up top offensive numbers. Although the team struggled when Dak Prescott went down, Moore found a way to make his offense work decently when Andy Dalton was healthy. That's that same adaptive and innovative skill I mentioned teams will be looking for. However, Moore recently turned down the head coaching job at his alma mater, Boise State, and signed a contract extension with Dallas. So, it may take a great situation to pry him away.

Nathaniel Hackett, Offensive Coordinator, Packers

Hackett may be an under-the-radar candidate for teams looking for an offensive coach. He has been the offensive coordinator in Buffalo, Jacksonville, and Green Bay, and has proven to be able to put together a capable team. This year should only help, as Green Bay led the league in scoring and fifth in total offense.

Arthur Smith, Offensive Coordinator, Titans

Smith gets a lot of credit for the offense he has built in Tennessee and developing Ryan Tannehill. It's a unit that had been dormant for a while but has really come into its own over the last 18 to 24 months-- which coincides with Smith's promotion to his current role. He is very good at adapting to his personnel and using his players strengths. He likely won't have much to work with if he lands a job, so that will be a vital component of his candidacy. Another key component may be his experience, He has had many people from whom to learn but has only been in the NFL for nine years and spent most of that time as a lower-level assistant.

Dan Campbell, Assistant Head Coach, Saints

Dan Campbell is an under-the-radar candidate that is constantly mentioned in head coaching searches yet has not been hired as one. The former NFL tight end has been commended for his previous work as interim head coach in Miami in 2015 and now works side-by-side with Sean Payton. He is also another guy often called a "leader of men." There isn't as much known about him as some other candidates, but he certainly has qualities that teams could covet in their searches.

Todd Bowles, Defensive Coordinator, Buccaneers

Bowles could be an interesting candidate if a team wants a guy with head coaching experience. He probably didn't get the most fair shot with the Jets and has proven time and time again to be among the most elite defensive coordinators. Just look at the job he has done with the Bucs this year. He will get another shot eventually, just might not be this year.

Joe Brady, Offensive Coordinator, Panthers

Brady is one of the up-and-coming offensive minds in the league. After leaving the Saints to join LSU, he helped the Tigers' offense become one of the greatest ever in college football and was rewarded with a return to the NFL in Carolina. Now, on a team with few offensive impact players that was missing Christian McCaffrey for most of the season, he has been able to carve out a respectable offense. That work has not gone unnoticed, and Brady will be interviewing for head coaching positions throughout the league.

Josh McDaniels, Offensive Coordinator, Patriots

The Patriots offense didn't have a good year and McDaniels has failed as a head coach in the past. Some even question whether he wants to be one after he backed out of the Indy job a couple years ago. Still, I'd expect he'll get some requests as teams do their due diligence.

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