Ranking the vacant NFL head coaching jobs
Black Monday has come and gone and there are now four head coaching jobs vacant in the NFL. On Monday, Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik were sent packing by the New York Jets, the Atlanta Falcons fired Mike Smith, the Chicago Bears canned Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery, and the San Francisco 49ers parted ways with Jim Harbaugh Sunday night. Meanwhile in Oakland, interim head coach Tony Sparano continues to lobby for the full-time Raiders job – and I'm sure he'll be in the mix – but we have to consider that a vacancy as well.
Several candidates have already been targeted and teams are in the process of figuring out interview schedules. There will be a lot of movement over the next few weeks, but for the top candidates out there, which jobs are the most appealing? There are so many factors that go in to building a winning football team and each open spot has some advantages built in.
The following is my ranking of all four current NFL head coaching vacancies, with the advantages and disadvantages of each laid bare.
1. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers job is clearly the most attractive to any potential candidate. While there was always friction between former head coach Jim Harbaugh and the team's front office and ownership, Harbaugh seems to have that kind of relationship with most people. I don't think candidates for the job will be scared off by how Harbaugh was forced out.
San Francisco's roster is loaded with talent, just turned in an 8-8 season that was considered a disappointment and the franchise could turn things around quickly with the right coach. While there are serious questions about whether or not Colin Kaepernick will ever turn into an elite quarterback, his physical gifts are off the charts, and with the right kind of coaching he could improve rapidly. Frank Gore is a free agent but will almost certainly return, Carlos Hyde looks like his long-term replacement in the backfield and while Michael Crabtree might leave in free agency the receiving corps looks solid enough. Meanwhile the offensive line could lose guard Mike Iupati to free agency, but interior linemen aren't tough to replace in the NFL.
Defensively, the 49ers ranked fifth in the NFL in yards allowed and have a really nice core. Budding star Chris Borland, Antoine Bethea and Aaron Lynch are guys to be excited about, while Patrick Willis should be back to full health next season. If Aldon Smith can stay out of trouble and remain focused he's a monster and Tank Carradine could round into a solid pass rushing option as well. Both Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox will be free agents and it's not clear what the long-term solution will be for the 49ers at cornerback. Defensive end Justin Smith is also expected to retire.
Even with a few question marks, the 49ers return one of the most stocked rosters in the NFL and the right coach could have them contending with the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West crown next season. All available candidates should be falling all over each other to get in for an interview.
2. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons finished 6-10 but have far too much talent for that to be acceptable. As a result, Mike Smith is now "former Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith." Atlanta needs a big change, specifically on defense. The Falcons finished dead last in the NFLin yards allowed, giving up a ridiculous 398.3 yards per game. It's a miracle that Atlanta won six games with that defense, but that shows you just how talented the offense is.
In what was a struggle all season, Matt Ryan completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 4,694 yards, with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. His quarterback rating of 93.9 was solid, but he still needs to improve. He's not one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks, but a new offensive staff could hopefully put him on the right track. While Ryan needs to get better, there is no question he has championship-level talent around him. Julio Jones just turned in a monster season (104 receptions, 1,593 yards), Roddy White is still a great receiver (80 receptions, 921 yards) and Harry Douglas is a solid slot guy (51 receptions, 556 yards). Devonta Freeman didn't do much as a rookie out of the backfield but he's poised to take over starting running back duties next season and has the talent to do big things.
Atlanta's offense is set, it's the defense that needs a lot of work. Whoever comes in will have to create some kind of pass rush and essentially remake what is a battered unit. Meanwhile Kroy Biermann and Jacquizz Rodgers are the only real impact free agents.
The defensive situation in Atlanta is scary, but the talent on offense means a prospective coach only has to really rebuild one side of the ball. In a historically weak NFC South the Falcons could easily make the playoffs next year with the right hire.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears were a complete mess top to bottom in 2014, and they probably weren't even as good as their 5-11 record would suggest. The offense has talented skill position players, but quarterback Jay Cutler is terrible and the defense is a sieve. Marc Trestman couldn't get Cutler to improve despite his reputation as a quarterback guru, so he and general manager Phil Emery will now be looking for other jobs.
The first thing a new coach will have to do is figure out a way to deal with the Cutler situation. The 31-year-old quarterback led the NFL in turnovers this year and just flat-out isn't going to get any better. But he'll almost certainly be back in Chicago next season because of the monster contract he signed in January of 2014. It's time for the Bears to move on, but they are likely in a holding pattern under center for a year. That's sure to be a turn off to some candidates.
Once you get past Cutler, the offense has some solid blocks to build around. While Matt Forte isn't a spring chicken he's still getting it done out of the backfield and Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall form one of the best receiving tandems in the NFL. Tight end Martellus Bennett has his moments and guard Kyle Long is a certified stud. So there's stuff there to work with.
Defensively the Bears are a mess. They ranked 30th against the pass (allowed 264.4 yards per game) and 17th against the run (allowed 112.7 yards per game) in 2014. Rookie Kyle Fuller looks like a legit shutdown corner, but other than him the only guy to get excited about on defense was Willie Young, and he left the team's Week 16 loss to the Detroit Lions with a torn Achilles' tendon. Linebacking mainstay Lance Briggs is a free agent and won't be back, Charles Tillman could be done, Stephen Paea is going to need a new contract and could get it elsewhere and there's not a whole lot to love about the rest of the guys who will be returning.
Another negative for a prospective coach is that he'll be parked in the NFC North with Aaron Rodgers sitting just a few hundred miles to the North. It's going to be extremely difficult to win that division any time soon. Over the past few years the Bears-Packers rivalry has gone from blood-feud to nothing more than a geographical coincidence.
Still, Chicago has some pieces in place, but it will take a while to get the team patched up and floating again.
4. New York Jets
Unlike the Falcons and Bears, the New York Jets have absolutely nothing on offense and that will be what gives any candidates pause about taking the job. Now-former general manager John Idzik basically ignored developing the offensive side of the ball and now-former head coach Rex Ryan didn't help matters.
Whoever the Jets hire needs to immediately end the Geno Smith experiment and pick a new direction at quarterback. He will have to deal with having Eric Decker – who is a solid No. 2 receiver being paid like a No. 1 – and Percy Harvin – an oft-injured special package player being paid like a No. 1 receiver – and a crumbling offensive line. Other than Nick Mangold there isn't anyone on New York's offensive line I would retain. The offense as a whole needs a complete makeover.
Defensively, the Jets have pieces to build around, like defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. Leading tackler David Harris is headed for free agency, the team needs to sign some veteran cornerbacks and safety Dawan Landry is a major liability. That said, there is talent on the defensive side of the ball and the unit only allowed 327.2 yards per game this year, which ranked sixth league-wide.
The Jets do bring with them the lure of New York, which has always been a draw for some guys. It's also not hard to find free agents who want to play in The Big Apple. The Jets play in a relatively new facility and have a rabid fanbase. Someone who can win there would quickly turn into a local hero. It shouldn't be hard to find someone willing to take the job.
5. Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders may have won three games this season, but I have no problem calling them the NFL's worst team. Oakland had the league's worst offense in 2014, averaging a hilarious 282.2 yards per game, and also ranked 21st defensively, allowing 357.6 yards per game. Things have just gotten sad for the Raiders.
Looking at the team's roster is downright depressing. Other than Khalil Mack, Derek Carr and Sio Moore, who would a sane person retain? Miles Burris? A 57-year-old Charles Woodson? It's incredibly hard to find guys who look like long-term solutions at their positions on Oakland's roster.
Carr was solid as a rookie considering he was working with almost nothing around him. He completed 58.1 percent of his passes for 3,270 yards, with 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. I'm not convinced he'll be a star, but he should at least be a solid, long-term starter in the league. Latavius Murray showed some flashes running the ball, but that may have just been a flash in the pan and nothing to get too excited about. It wasn't sustained success. Meanwhile, the receiving corps is one of the NFL's worst and the offensive line is average at best.
Defensively the linebackers are a solid, young group with a lot of upside, but that's about the only positive I can find.
Any candidate considering the Raiders will have to rebuild the entire roster from top to bottom. Sure, Carr and Mack will be your leaders and they are already installed, but after that you're not going to be working with much. The Raiders will have the fourth pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, so that will help the process, but it's going to take far more than that to even get started.
The Raiders have become a punchline of a franchise. They play in a crumbling facility, may wind up moving and the leadership of the clownish Davis family has been a national embarrassment. Candidates to become Oakland's head coach will be keenly aware of the awful situation they will be stepping into.
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