Here’s a top-10 ranking of actual candidates for head-coaching openings around the league (so it does not, for instance, include Jon Gruden, who has been steadfast in saying he will not leave broadcasting to return to the sidelines):
1. Josh McDaniels
Offensive Coordinator, New England
Biggest strength: Since failing as a head coach in Denver, he has fully regained his status as one of the best and brightest offensive minds in the NFL. Having Tom Brady at quarterback can do plenty to make an offensive coordinator look smart, and McDaniels doesn’t get to take him with him. But McDaniels deserves a great deal of credit for keeping the Patriots’ offensive machine humming despite missing Brady through his four-game suspension, being without Rob Gronkowski for most of the season, and working with various personnel changes elsewhere.
Biggest question mark: Has he learned from his mistakes with the Broncos?
2. Kyle Shanahan
Offensive Coordinator, Atlanta Falcons
Biggest strength: Like McDaniels, he knows how to bring the best out of an offense. The Falcons had the NFL’s second-most yards this season, while quarterback Matt Ryan established himself as a leading candidate for league MVP by throwing 38 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. With a thorough understanding of passing mechanics and blocking schemes, Shanahan knows how to maximize production through the air and on the ground.
Biggest question mark: Does he have enough of a broad-range perspective and willingness to listen to other ideas?
3. Matt Patricia
Defensive Coordinator, New England
Biggest strength: He has done a superb job of running the Patriots’ defense. And make no mistake. He is running it rather than serving as a mere figure head for the defensive-mastermind at the team’s helm, Bill Belichick. Patricia’s defenses have been consistently strong, which is remarkable considering Belichick’s insistence on trading or cutting members of the unit when they become too expensive to keep. Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, and former Pats Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones have all thrived under Patricia’s guidance.
Biggest question mark: Will his very limited understanding of offense allow him to see the big picture well enough to succeed?
4. Sean McDermott
Defensive Coordinator, Carolina
Biggest strength: He proved he can put together a strong defense with the unit that ranked in the top 10 in the NFL from 2012 to 2015. Although the Panthers fell to 21st in defense in 2016, they managed to rank second in the league in sacks despite lacking a dominant pass-rusher. McDermott learned under one of the very best defensive coordinators in the league in Jim Johnson when he was an assistant coach in Philadelphia. McDermott is known for being exceptionally well organized and has a strong grasp of the big picture.
Biggest question mark: Can he assemble a quality offensive staff to complement the defensive prowess he brings to the table?
5. Mike Smith
Defensive Coordinator, Tampa Bay
Biggest strength: He’s one of the few candidates with NFL head-coaching experience. During seven seasons at the helm of the Atlanta Falcons (2008-2014), Smith went 67-50 (including playoffs). In his first year as the Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator this season, they ranked 23rd in total defense. However, he did guide some dominant defenses as coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2003 to 2007.
Biggest question mark: What makes him a better choice now than when he was fired after going 10-22 in his final two seasons in Atlanta?
6. Doug Marrone
Interim Head Coach, Jacksonville
Biggest strength: He has two years of head-coaching experience with the Bills, although the results (15-17) were far from overwhelming. The fact is, however, that Marrone would have had at least one more season at the Bills’ helm had he not opted to leave and collect $4 million in the process because he was unhappy with the way the team was being run by ownership and the front office. He runs a tight ship, which is something that some rosters need more than others, and offers almost nothing in the way of personality with the media.
Biggest question mark: Has he learned from his thin-skinned ways with the Bills?
7. Tom Coughlin
Biggest strength: He won two Super Bowls as head coach of the New York Giants, both against the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady New England Patriots. Coughlin also was head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars when they reached the AFC Championship Game in only their second year of existence. He’s known for being a strict disciplinarian with low tolerance for players who lack accountability.
Biggest question mark: At 70, does he still have the drive to invest the considerable time and energy needed to fix all that is broken with the teams seeking new coaches?
8. Anthony Lynn
Interim Head Coach, Buffalo
Biggest strength: He showed a fair amount of competence when, two games into the season, he was promoted from assistant head coach/running backs to offensive coordinator for the first time in his career. Lynn had established a year earlier that he knew how to help assemble the league’s top rushing attack, and kept it strong along with guiding the Bills to 10th in the NFL in scoring.
Biggest question mark: As unfair as it might seem to make any hard judgments based on one game, you have to wonder how much prospective employers will question the fact the Bills – despite players saying how much they supported him getting the job full-time – gave one of their most embarrassing performances ever in Lynn’s head-coaching debut.
9. Harold Goodwin
Offensive Coordinator, Arizona
Biggest strength: The 10 seasons he has spent as an assistant working with Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, going back to when Arians was offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007, has provided Goodwin with a tremendous education from one of the top offensive minds in the game. In 2015, Goodwin’s third season as offensive coordinator, the Cardinals’ offense ranked first in the NFL for the first time in their history.
Biggest question mark: Is a coordinator who has never called plays (that’s Arians’ job) ready to step into the role of head coach?
10. Sean McVay
Offensive Coordinator, Washington
Biggest strength: Nearing his 31st birthday, he is truly the youngest of rising coaching stars after the Redskins finished third in the NFL in offense. He also has benefitted greatly from learning under a bright offensive thinker in Redskins head coach Jay Gruden.
Biggest question mark: Is he simply too young to be a head coach?
One man’s 2016 Associated Press Awards ballot:
WR (2): Julio Jones, Falcons; Antonio Brown, Steelers
FLEX (1): Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
TE (1): Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
LT (1): Tyron Smith, Cowboys
LG (1): Kelechi Osemele, Raiders
C (1): Alex Mack, Falcons
RG (1): Zack Martin, Cowboys
RT (1): Mitchell Schwartz, Chiefs
QB (1): Tom Brady, Patriots
RB (1): Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
EDGE RUSHER (2): Khalil Mack, Raiders; Vic Beasley, Falcons
INTERIOR LINEMEN (2): Aaron Donald, Rams; Fletcher Cox, Eagles
LB (3): Von Miller, Broncos; Lorenzo Alexander, Bills; Whitney Mercilus, Texans
CB (2): Aqib Talib, Broncos; Marcus Peters, Chiefs
S (2): Eric Berry, Chiefs; Landon Collins, Giants
DB (1): Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
Placekicker (1): Justin Tucker, Ravens
Punter (1): John Hekker, Rams
Kick Returner (1): Cordarrelle Patterson, Vikings
Punt Returner (1): Tyreek Hill, Chiefs
Special Teamer (1): Dwayne Harris, Giants
Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady, Patriots
Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick, Patriots
Assistant Coach of the Year: Kyle Shanahan, offensive coordinator, Falcons
Comeback Player: Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers
Defensive Rookie: Joey Bosa, DE, Chargers
Offensive Rookie: Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys
Defensive Player: Khalil Mack, DE, Raiders
Offensive Player: Derek Carr, QB, Raiders