Six NFL teams are looking for new head coaches now that the regular season has come to an end. Some of the openings were expected, especially those that made the move before Week 17 – Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Buffalo.
However, no one really saw Denver’s Gary Kubiak resigning due to health reasons, even if the defending Super Bowl champions failed to make the playoffs. The Broncos’ opening immediately becomes the most appealing one on the market for interested candidates since this is a team that is less than a year from winning the Lombardi Trophy and still has plenty of talent on the roster.
So if Denver is the top job available, where do the others rank? Taking everything into consideration from current roster, available cap space, biggest holes, division and other factors, here is how this football fan would rank the current head coaching vacancies.
1. Denver Broncos
There really isn’t much debate. The Broncos are less than a year from winning the Super Bowl, went a respectable 9-7 this season and still have one of the best defenses in the NFL, led by Von Miller and complemented by one of the league’s nastiest secondaries. The offensive line needs to be addressed, quarterback remains a big question mark, and the offense as a whole is a work in progress, but Denver is still a quality team that can contend next season if the right moves (estimated $40 million in cap space to work with) are made. This presents the best opportunity for a new head coach to be successful in year one.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
After Denver, you can slot the next four teams pretty much in any order you want, depending on your preference. As bad as the Jaguars were this year (and 3-13 is pretty bad), there is plenty to like as far as the future shapes up. The Blake Bortles question will need to be answered, but this roster has talent on both sides of the ball, a ton of cap space (estimated $63 million) to bring in more reinforcements, another high draft pick (No. 4 overall) to work with, and Jacksonville resides in a division that was won with a 9-7 record and lacks any one dominant team. It won’t be easy, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the next head coach to take this team from worst to first in the AFC South next season.
3. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers could be headed to Los Angeles in a matter of days, but location issues aside, this is a team that got no breaks this season in the health or lucky bounces department. San Diego had 20 players on injured reserve by season’s end, including its No. 1 wide receiver (Keenan Allen), both starting cornerbacks (Jason Verrett, Brandon Flowers) and one of its best offensive weapons (RB Danny Woodhead). In addition, running back Melvin Gordon didn’t finish the season healthy.
On the field, the Chargers couldn’t get out of their own way in the first month of the season, losing several games in the closing minutes in which they held the lead, and lost a total of eight by seven or fewer points. The division is tough with Kansas City, Oakland and Denver all finishing 9-7 or better, but with improved health the Chargers should at least be more competitive in 2017 than their 5-11 record indicates. San Diego also has one advantage over all of the other teams on this list – there are no questions when it comes to the quarterback position.
4. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams’ return to Los Angeles can’t be described as anything else other than a disaster, a 4-12 finish made even less appetizing by the fact that their first-round pick (No. 5 overall) belongs to Tennessee because of last year’s trade for the No. 1 overall selection. However, it’s too early to give up on Jared Goff, who was the team’s choice at No. 1, and there are other pieces to build around. Running back Todd Gurley had a horrible sophomore campaign, but the offensive line and lack of production elsewhere have to been given some of the blame.
The defense has All-Pro-caliber building blocks in tackle Aaron Donald and linebacker Alec Ogletree, as well as a solid secondary that has room to improve. Again, the new head coach won’t have the benefit of a first-round pick (or third-rounder for that matter) to address the roster, but should be able to look to free agency (estimated $40 million cap space) to bring in some leadership to help an otherwise young team take the next step. It also doesn’t hurt that the Rams are in the same division as the team that brings up the rear on this list. A big turnaround next season may be too much to expect, but the new head coach could lay the foundation for the team to hit its stride in say 2019 when the team is set to move into its brand-new, state-of-the-art stadium.
5. Buffalo Bills
Rex Ryan went 15-16 in two seasons in Buffalo and it wasn’t enough. The next head coach will have plenty of decisions to make, starting with quarterback. Tyrod Taylor was given a contract extension before the season, but it’s structured in such a way that the Bills have a way out if they want it. And Taylor may want out considering he was benched for the Week 17 finale.
Buffalo’s problems go beyond QB though, as the team needs more impact players on both sides of the ball, especially if wide receiver Sammy Watkins and running back LeSean McCoy continue to have problems staying healthy. The defense had its struggles, but injuries and other circumstances (such as player suspensions) can be pointed to. The Bills will need more out of this year’s first-round pick, linebacker Shaq Lawson, but have other holes that need to be addressed and not a lot of cap space (estimated $26 million) to work with. And they also could open a new hole if they decide to part ways with Taylor.
Lastly, Buffalo isn’t exactly the most preferred locale when it comes to NFL outposts and there’s the matter of being in the same division as the big, bad Patriots. At least with the Jaguars, Chargers and Rams you don’t have to worry about the weather and only play New England no more than once in the regular season.
6. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers do have an obscene amount of cap space (estimated $80 million, Cleveland the only team with more) to work with, but will need every penny considering the roster is a complete mess. Other than a few players, it’s hard to identify many legitimate building blocks at this point. There’s also the reality that this will be the team’s fourth head coach in as many seasons, and there will be a new general manager in charge as well, so continuity is not a strength for a franchise that has won five Super Bowls.
While head coach Chip Kelly and GM Trent Baalke were made the latest fall guys, some of the blame has to fall to CEO Jed York, but as an owner he has the most job security of anyone in the organization. The fans have stopped showing up for games at relatively new Levi’s Stadium, which is never a good sign, and it’s not like the Seahawks, Cardinals or even the Rams are going to pity the 49ers any time soon. San Francisco very well could emerge as a championship contender like it once was, but it’s going to take time, and probably more than the next head coach will be permitted.