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Ben Johnson, Mike Macdonald and Jerod Mayo among young NFL coaches to watch

Just five NFL head coaching jobs opened in the 2023 coaching cycle, tied for the fewest in the past decade. Considering we've seen an average of seven head coaching changes per year during that span, logic would suggest that number will be higher after this season (and one HC post already opened up in Las Vegas). That raises a question people within the league are often asking at this time of year:

Where will teams find all these new head coaches?

Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh will be the subject of much speculation, despite the threat of NCAA sanctions that could also keep him off an NFL sideline. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn figures to draw interest, though he's pulled his name out of the last two cycles and will be highly selective again. Bengals DC Lou Anarumo and Lions DC Aaron Glenn profile as top candidates. Vikings DC Brian Flores has led a defensive turnaround in Minnesota and could be in line for another shot in the big chair. More veteran coaches -- including Commanders OC Eric Bieniemy, Jaguars DC Mike Caldwell, Ravens OC Todd Monken, Rams DC Raheem Morris, Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo and 49ers DC Steve Wilks, among others -- figure to be in the interview mix. Ex-Stanford coach David Shaw and former NFL head men Marvin Lewis and Leslie Frazier have interviewed for jobs in recent years, as well.

But many NFL owners are still inclined to search for "the next Sean McVay" -- i.e., the rising young coach who could solidify the pivotal franchise role for a decade or more.

In the six cycles since the Rams landed McVay in 2017, almost half of all head coaching hires leaguewide (20 of 42, 47.6%) have come from the same demographic -- under age 45 with no previous NFL head coaching experience -- including Jonathan Gannon (Cardinals), DeMeco Ryans (Texans) and Shane Steichen (Colts) this past offseason. While there's no guarantee that hiring from a certain profile will lead to success, the Texans' rapid rise under Ryans and the way programs have flourished under Matt LaFleur (Packers), Mike McDaniel (Dolphins), Kevin O'Connell (Vikings), Zac Taylor (Bengals) and Mike Vrabel (Titans) will keep many owners searching for their own up-and-comer.

Our annual list of rising young coaches is on the longer side for the second consecutive year, thanks to both a new crop of talent and the increased number of interviews many teams have been conducting in recent searches. This collection of names is based on dozens of recent conversations with NFL executives, coaches and others close to the search process.

NOTE: The candidates in each section are listed in alphabetical order.

Candidates for the coming cycle

Titans DC Shane Bowen, 36: A former Georgia Tech linebacker whose playing career ended early because of injury, Bowen is now in his eighth season as an NFL coach and third as Tennessee's defensive play-caller. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel has a defensive background and has input on everything in the building, but Bowen runs the show on his side of the ball, from game planning to installs to meetings. Despite personnel challenges and a slim margin for error due to offensive struggles, Tennessee's defense remains a top-10 unit in points allowed. And Bowen is well-regarded within the league.

Panthers OC Thomas Brown, 37: A onetime Falcons draft pick at running back whose playing days were cut short by injury, Brown moved swiftly into coaching, winning a Super Bowl with the Rams and old high school rival Sean McVay, who has called Brown "one of the greatest competitors I've ever been around." Carolina hired Brown in February and he took over play-calling duties during Carolina's bye in Week 7, immediately helping No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young and the Panthers log their first win after an 0-6 start. Overall, Carolina's offense has been rocky, to say the least, but Brown's had head coaching interviews in each of the past two offseasons (Dolphins in 2022, Texans this past January) and figures to be in the mix again. He has mentored the RB likes of Melvin Gordon, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. He's energetic, sharp and versatile, and he has big-picture perspective. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: Wednesday after publishing, Panthers coach Frank Reich announced that he is taking back the offensive play-calling reins, but stressed that Brown "is still running the show as far as the offense and all the install meetings and game plans.")

Bengals OC Brian Callahan, 39: A former UCLA walk-on QB and the son of longtime NFL coach Bill Callahan, Brian has paved his own path in the NFL, starting in Denver, where he forged a close relationship with Peyton Manning and was part of the Super Bowl 50-winning team as an offensive assistant. Zac Taylor, who brought Callahan to Cincinnati in 2019, calls the plays for the Bengals. That said, Callahan works in tandem with Taylor to build the game plan each week, showing a consistent ability to adapt and put players in position to succeed in different ways, regardless of injuries. Callahan's had three head coaching interviews over the past two offseasons: in 2022 with the Broncos, and this past winter with the Colts (who spoke with him twice) and Cardinals.

Eagles DC Sean Desai, 40: An 11th-year NFL coaching veteran, Desai took over the Eagles' defense after Jonathan Gannon left for Arizona following Super Bowl LVII in February. Moving parts up the middle and in the secondary have created challenges this season, but the unit should continue to improve as the campaign plays out. Desai has learned from some of football's best defensive minds, including Vic Fangio and Pete Carroll, as well as different types of leaders, equipping him to understand what it takes to win from an organizational perspective. Four other teams interviewed Desai for DC jobs before he landed in Philly this past offseason.

Panthers DC Ejiro Evero, 42: A former college safety who went to training camp with the Raiders, Evero has coached all three phases -- offense, defense and special teams -- and been well-regarded at each stop during his 16 NFL seasons. He won a Super Bowl with the Rams as their secondary coach/passing game coordinator and then got his first DC job last year in Denver, where his defense was a bright spot in a frustrating season. A relative unknown before last season, Evero got interviews for all five head coaching vacancies this past January -- plus second interviews with the Texans and Colts -- and was highly sought after for DC jobs before choosing Carolina. Evero has trained under great coordinators, including Vic Fangio and Dom Capers, giving him a unique blend of perspectives. He doesn't get rattled. He has shown a knack for adjusting on game day. And another year of experience has made him that much more comfortable in the DC role.

Bears OC Luke Getsy, 39: A former college quarterback who set records at Akron and went to camp with the 49ers in 2007, Getsy formed a close relationship as a young Packers assistant with Aaron Rodgers, who later campaigned to bring back Getsy as quarterbacks coach in 2019. He's now in his second year on Matt Eberflus' staff in Chicago and spent the past several weeks playing with an undrafted rookie quarterback from Division II, Tyson Bagent. In a season full of personnel challenges, the Bears nonetheless are statistically one of the NFL's top teams in rushing, red zone and third downs as they continue to build a culture on offense. The Broncos interviewed Getsy for their head coaching job in 2022.

Raiders DC Patrick Graham, 44: A former Yale defensive lineman, Graham is now in his 22nd year in coaching, the past 15 in the NFL (winning Super Bowl XLIX with the 2014 Patriots). He's passionate, has high expectations and holds players accountable. With Las Vegas fielding one of the NFL's worst offenses in 2023, it was the Raiders' defense that kept them in games amidst a 3-5 start that ultimately cost head coach Josh McDaniels his job. Owner Mark Davis passed over Graham to name linebackers coach Antonio Pierce the Raiders' interim coach -- an increasingly common move within the league to avoid disrupting the coordinators -- and Las Vegas has won both games since, with Graham's defense yielding a grand total of 18 points. Graham had a second interview for the Vikings' head coaching job after the 2021 season, and the Jets wanted to interview him the previous year, but the coach signed an extension with his employer at the time, the Giants.

Ravens STC Chris Horton, 38: A former NFL safety, Horton joined the Ravens as a coaching intern in 2014, was promoted to assistant special teams coach the following year and succeeded Jerry Rosburg for the top job in 2019. Horton has a presence and the trust of John Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator himself. The Ravens finished No. 1 in Rick Gosselin's special teams rankings in 2021 and No. 3 last year -- and not just because of all-world kicker Justin Tucker. Harbaugh has given Horton ownership over the operation and Horton has run with it, coaching up players from both sides of the ball into what is perennially one of the NFL's top units.

Lions OC Ben Johnson, 37: A former walk-on QB who earned math and computer science degrees at North Carolina, Johnson is considered one of the NFL's sharpest minds and was on the verge of becoming a head coach last January. He interviewed with the Texans and Colts and also drew strong interest from the Panthers, who were set to fly him in for an in-person interview before Johnson decided to return to Detroit and finish the job with longtime ally Dan Campbell. The Lions' offense found life midway through the 2021 season when Johnson and Campbell -- who spent four years together on the Dolphins staff -- took the reins. Johnson coached quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends before becoming Detroit's offensive coordinator in 2022, giving him a good feel for the whole picture. And he should be even more prepared to run his own show after another year as OC. Many league sources consider Johnson the most coveted candidate in this hiring cycle.

Eagles OC Brian Johnson, 36: A prolific college quarterback at Utah and cover model for the NCAA Football 10 video game, Johnson got his start in coaching at his alma mater and became the youngest FBS offensive coordinator at age 24. He has mentored the likes of Dak Prescott, Kyle Trask and now Jalen Hurts -- whose dad, Averion, coincidentally coached Johnson -- and is now in his first season as an NFL OC. Three other teams also pursued him for coordinator jobs this past offseason before he opted to stay in Philadelphia.

Giants OC Mike Kafka, 36: A former NFL quarterback who was drafted by Andy Reid's Eagles in 2010, Kafka possesses innate leadership traits and earned a strong reputation as a QB tutor after reuniting with Reid in Kansas City as a quality control coach in 2017. The Giants' surprise success last year helped propel Kafka's head coaching candidacy; he interviewed with four teams and got second interviews with two of them (Texans and Cardinals). Even with New York struggling amidst a mess of injuries -- including quarterback Daniel Jones’ torn ACL and the decimation up front that has yielded a dozen different O-line combinations -- Kafka's impressive performance on the interview circuit a year ago figures to have him in the mix again.

Ravens DC Mike Macdonald, 36: Another onetime Ravens coaching intern, Macdonald spent the 2021 season with John Harbaugh's brother, Jim, as defensive coordinator at Michigan before returning to Baltimore last season and remaking one of the NFL's top units. As linebacker Roquan Smith recently told The Insiders of Macdonald: "He's a fiery guy. He live by the sword, die by it. But I think he's very cerebral, smart in the way he [creates] his attack plan and being able to just change it up week in and week out, so I'm a big fan of it." Only one defense has shut down Ben Johnson's Lions this year: Macdonald's unit in Week 7, when Baltimore routed Detroit, 38-6. As hot candidates go, Macdonald could be a sleeper.

Patriots LB coach Jerod Mayo, 37: An eight-year NFL linebacker who grew up running Bill Belichick's defense, Mayo is still in just his fifth year of coaching, but his pedigree and makeup are intriguing. He's already had three head coaching interviews and turned down another with the Panthers last January, opting to stay with New England on a new contract that the Patriots announced in a rare press release. He is highly regarded by Pats owner Robert Kraft and viewed by many as Belichick's logical successor. But Mayo feels he's ready to be a head coach anywhere.

Chargers OC Kellen Moore, 35: A six-year NFL backup QB who dove right into coaching with the Cowboys in 2018, Moore is highly regarded for his football IQ and creativity, which he brought to L.A. this past offseason. Moore has already been a regular on the head coach interview circuit, with six interviews over the past three offseasons, including an extended meeting with the Panthers last January.

Cardinals OC Drew Petzing, 36: A onetime Middlebury College defensive back whose playing career was curtailed by injuries, Petzing broke into the NFL as a football operations intern with the Browns in 2013 before rising through the coaching ranks in Minnesota and again in Cleveland, then reuniting with former Vikings cohort Jonathan Gannon in Arizona this past offseason. The Cardinals have started three different QBs (and played extended stretches without other key players) in a rebuilding season. Other coaches laud the job Petzing has done under challenging circumstances, and his reputation has been positive at every stop in his young coaching career.

Raiders interim HC Antonio Pierce, 45: A nine-year NFL veteran linebacker who won Super Bowl XLII with the Giants, Pierce was the surprise choice as Raiders interim head coach in just his second season as an NFL assistant. He previously spent four years in a variety of roles on Herm Edwards' staff at Arizona State, before resigning in February 2022 amidst an NCAA investigation into the program's potential recruiting violations. Pierce has obvious presence and credibility as a former player. He worked in media and business before going into coaching, giving him some unique real-world experience. Owner Mark Davis has told media outlets that Pierce has an opportunity to earn the full-time job. Pierce just turned 45 last month, so we're giving him a one-year exemption onto this list, as the latest fascinating test case of a former player with relatively little coaching experience getting the opportunity to run the show.

Texans OC Bobby Slowik, 36: A former Michigan Tech wide receiver and the son of longtime NFL coach Bob Slowik, Bobby broke into the league as a video assistant with the Washington franchise in 2010 and is now in his 10th season as an NFL coach (having spent three years as a PFF analyst in between coaching gigs). The younger Slowik was a largely unknown name before DeMeco Ryans hired him as Houston's OC this past offseason -- bringing him along from San Francisco, where Slowik was heavily involved in game-planning and with the 49ers' quarterbacks. Working for the detail-oriented Kyle Shanahan prepares assistants for head coaching jobs (SEE: Ryans, Robert Saleh, Mike McDaniel). And much like McDaniel, Slowik may be more ready to be in front of the room than his résumé suggests because of his high football IQ. The Texans are one of the NFL's pleasant surprises and No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud is a front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year (if not NFL MVP). Could that already vault Slowik into a head coaching opportunity? At minimum, teams will do their homework.

Dolphins OC Frank Smith, 42: A 14th-year NFL coaching veteran, Smith is in his second year on Mike McDaniel's staff in Miami, where he's involved in all aspects of running the program, preparing him for his own shot whenever it comes. Smith's close relationships at past stops with players and role in developing the likes of TE Darren Waller and LT Rashawn Slater speak to his strong personal skills. He also has a big role in game-planning for an offense that utilizes its weapons as well as anyone. Smith spent three years as the Raiders' tight ends coach (2018-2020), so it wouldn't be a surprise if he's on the interview list for Las Vegas' job, among others.

Jaguars OC Press Taylor, 35: A two-time national juco champion as a QB and the brother of Bengals coach Zac Taylor, Press broke into the NFL as a quality control coach in Philadelphia in 2013 and made a notable contribution to the Eagles' Super Bowl LII win: Doug Pederson credited Taylor with the idea for the "Philly Special." Reunited last year with Pederson in Jacksonville, Taylor built the offense and took over as the full-time play-caller this year, with mostly positive results (last week's struggles vs. the 49ers notwithstanding). Zac Taylor took a bad team and built it into a perennial contender. Could Press do it next?

Browns AHC/STC Bubba Ventrone, 41: A 10-year NFL special teams standout, Ventrone started his coaching career as a special teams assistant with the Patriots in 2015 -- earning a Super Bowl ring as a member of the 2016 Pats' staff -- before getting the Colts' coordinator job in 2018. Now in his first year as the Browns' assistant head coach, Ventrone gets even more time in front of the team. He is detailed and has a presence. He's also experienced in game management and is known as a good talent evaluator who understands big-picture roster management. Ventrone coaches players hard, and they respect him for it.

Seahawks OC Shane Waldron, 44: A onetime college tight end and long snapper at Tufts, Waldron initially broke into the NFL as an operations intern with the Patriots in 2002 and is now in his 19th year of coaching at any level. Currently in his third season as Seattle's offensive coordinator, he first appeared on this list in 2018 -- just before he interviewed for the Bengals head coaching job that went to Rams staff-mate Zac Taylor instead -- and since has gotten more experience at the front of the room. Working under Bill Belichick, Sean McVay and Pete Carroll has given Waldron a strong foundation for success. And Carroll's consistent mindset -- win or lose -- has rubbed off on Waldron, whose role in Geno Smith's revival is a positive note on his résumé.

NFL coaches to watch in future years

NOTE: Like with Antonio Pierce above, we also gave a few 45-year-old coaches an exemption on this list.

  • Chargers DC Derrick Ansley, 41
  • Bills LB coach Bobby Babich, 40
  • Browns safeties coach Ephraim Banda, 42
  • Chiefs pass game coordinator Joe Bleymaier, 41
  • Browns DL coach Ben Bloom, 41
  • Bears LB coach Dave Borgonzi, 40
  • Bills QB coach Joe Brady, 34
  • Jets QB coach Rob Calabrese, 33
  • Rams TE coach Nick Caley, 40
  • Dolphins LB coach Anthony Campanile, 41
  • Buccaneers OC Dave Canales, 42
  • Dolphins DL coach Austin Clark, 33
  • Rams OLB coach Joe Coniglio, 37
  • Colts OC Jim Bob Cooter, 39
  • Patriots DL coach DeMarcus Covington, 34
  • Titans OLB coach Ryan Crow, 35
  • Saints passing game coordinator/QB coach Ronald Curry, 44
  • Chiefs safeties coach Donald D'Alesio, 32
  • Vikings STC Matt Daniels, 34
  • Chargers defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach Tom Donatell, 34
  • Patriots WR coach Ross Douglas, 28
  • Packers DB coach Ryan Downard, 35
  • Jets pass game coordinator Todd Downing, 43
  • Broncos TE coach Declan Doyle, 27
  • Cowboys DL coach Aden Durde, 44
  • Lions passing game coordinator Tanner Engstrand, 41
  • Jaguars STC Heath Farwell, 41
  • Chargers STC Ryan Ficken, 43
  • 49ers TE coach Brian Fleury, 43
  • Buccaneers pass game coordinator/ILB coach Larry Foote, 43
  • Panthers passing game coordinator Parks Frazier, 31
  • Chiefs QB coach David Girardi, 35
  • Jaguars WR coach Chad Hall, 37
  • Raiders interim OC Bo Hardegree, 39
  • Titans defensive pass game coordinator/CB coach Chris Harris, 41
  • Rams DL coach/run game coordinator Eric Henderson, 40
  • Bears STC Richard Hightower, 43
  • Dolphins pass game coordinator/DB coach Renaldo Hill, 45
  • Saints LB coach Michael Hodges, 37
  • Chargers LB coach Jeff Howard, 40
  • Seahawks DC Clint Hurtt, 45
  • Steelers WR coach Frisman Jackson, 44
  • Bears QB coach Andrew Janocko, 35
  • Texans QB coach Jerrod Johnson, 35
  • Vikings defensive pass game coordinator Daronte Jones, 45
  • Dolphins safeties coach Joe Kasper, 31
  • Titans OC Tim Kelly, 37
  • Texans LB coach Chris Kiffin, 41
  • Chargers TE coach Kevin Koger, 33
  • 49ers offensive passing game specialist Klint Kubiak, 36
  • Vikings OL coach Chris Kuper, 40
  • Rams OC Mike LaFleur, 36
  • Ravens WR coach Greg Lewis, 43
  • Buccaneers QB coach Thaddeus Lewis, 35
  • Browns CB coach Brandon Lynch, 41
  • Colts TE coach Tom Manning, 40
  • Jets DB coach Marquand Manuel, 44
  • Panthers QB coach Josh McCown, 44
  • Texans WR coach/offensive passing game coordinator Ben McDaniels, 43
  • Lions AHC/RB coach Scottie Montgomery, 45
  • Falcons DC Ryan Nielsen, 44
  • Vikings QB coach Chris O'Hara, 32
  • Ravens ILB coach Zachary Orr, 31
  • Titans run game coordinator/RB coach Justin Outten, 40
  • Broncos DB coach Christian Parker, 31
  • Eagles passing game coordinator/AHC Kevin Patullo, 42
  • Rams pass game specialist Jake Peetz, 39
  • Vikings OC Wes Phillips, 44
  • Bengals QB coach Dan Pitcher, 36
  • Rams DB coach/pass game coordinator Aubrey Pleasant, 37
  • Commanders QB coach Tavita Pritchard, 36
  • Cardinals DC Nick Rallis, 30
  • Rams QB coach/pass game coordinator Zac Robinson, 37
  • Jets LB coach Mike Rutenberg, 42
  • Seahawks senior defensive assistant/defensive passing game coordinator Karl Scott, 38
  • Cardinals LB coach Sam Siefkes, 32
  • Packers OC Adam Stenavich, 40
  • Cardinals passing game coordinator/WR coach Drew Terrell, 32
  • Giants QB coach Shea Tierney, 37
  • Cowboys QB coach Scott Tolzien, 36
  • Giants safeties coach Michael Treier, 33
  • Colts QB coach Cam Turner, 36
  • Raiders pass game coordinator Scott Turner, 41
  • Buccaneers TE coach John Van Dam, 39
  • Ravens AHC/DL coach Anthony Weaver, 43
  • Broncos QB coach Davis Webb, 28
  • Cardinals pass game specialist Spencer Whipple, 34
  • Broncos OLB coach Michael Wilhoite, 36
  • Ravens DB coach Dennard Wilson, 41
  • Cardinals QB coach Israel Woolfork, 33

Other college coaches on the NFL radar

  • Iowa State HC Matt Campbell, 43
  • Toledo HC Jason Candle, 44
  • Kentucky OC Liam Coen, 38
  • Ohio State HC Ryan Day, 44
  • Virginia HC Tony Elliott, 43
  • Minnesota HC P.J. Fleck, 42
  • Maryland OC Josh Gattis, 39
  • Boston College HC Jeff Hafley, 44
  • LSU passing game coordinator/WR coach Cortez Hankton, 42
  • Ohio State OC/WR coach Brian Hartline, 36
  • UCLA DC D'Anton Lynn, 34
  • Virginia Tech DC/LB coach Chris Marve, 34
  • USC coach Lincoln Riley, 40
  • Iowa State OC/QB coach Nate Scheelhaase, 33
  • Georgia DC/ILB coach Glenn Schumann, 33
  • Purdue HC Ryan Walters, 37
  • Notre Dame DL coach/defensive run game coordinator Al Washington, 39

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