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Top Head Coaching Candidates to Fill Open NFL Jobs

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The biggest name came off the board almost as quickly as the board opened. Jim Harbaugh could’ve had his pick of almost any NFL job he wanted. Instead, when he bolted the San Francisco 49ers, he took a job at the University of Michigan instead.

What he left in his wake are five NFL teams at least, and maybe soon more, scrambling to find qualified candidates to fill their coaching vacancies created on Black Monday (or in some cases, before). But what the 49ers, Jets, Bears, Falcons and Raiders are quickly learning is there isn’t really another Harbaugh out on the market this year.

There are qualified candidates, but no no-brainers. Here are a look at the five current NFL head coaching vacancies, the candidates they might look at, and who makes the most sense to lead their team:

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

No team has a bigger void than the Niners, who lost their finest coach since Bill Walsh. All Harbaugh did in four years was take the team to three NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, before chaos reigned this year. Whatever troubles he caused inside the organization, the man could flat-out coach.

There doesn’t appear to be any big-name replacement waiting in the wings, either. The candidates mentioned most for the Niners are all in the “hot assistant” category – coaches like Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (who may turn out to be the hottest of them all). Given the 49ers’ issues on offense, though, it would seem to make more sense for them to go to an offensive coordinator like Denver’s Adam Gase or Cleveland’s Kyle Shanahan.

Here’s a name to watch, though, if the 49ers decide they need or want a big name: Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, is still available, and he was the 49ers offensive coordinator once – albeit eons ago in the early '90s.

CHICAGO BEARS

The Bears seemed to be a logical landing spot for Harbaugh, had he decided to remain in the NFL. And, like the Raiders and Jets, they reportedly reached out to him. But alas, he said no, leaving them to search through the also-rans.

Could they pull the trigger on the most interesting, explosive, and probably best hire of the offseason and bring in ex-Jets coach Rex Ryan, son of former (and beloved) Bears defensive coordinator Buddy? It seems like perfect situation for the brash Rex to coach the team his daddy always wanted to run, and the perfect coach for the Bears to replace the milquetoast Marc Trestman.

If not Ryan, Bowles or Quinn could be on the menu because they do love their defense out in Chicago. But considering their biggest problem is their quarterback, Jay Cutler, and their dysfunctional offense they might want to take a long look at Stanford coach David Shaw.

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NEW YORK JETS

Another team that reached out to Harbaugh and would’ve been lucky to land him. Now it seems the new coach will be in the hands of the new GM, whoever that may be. And until the GM is in place, the coaching search is just a guess.

They certainly could go the Shanahan route to make a big splash, though it’s hard to believe there are many GMs eager to work with him. Josh McDaniels, a former Bill Belichick disciple who flopped as a first-team head coach in Denver, could return to the head coaching ranks with something to prove (and with a few of the Patriots’ secrets).

The Jets’ biggest problem, much like the Bears, is their offense, though. And the development of a quarterback – perhaps Geno Smith, but really any quarterback – has to be the priority. It could be that Andrew Luck’s mentor, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, will fit that bill.

ATLANTA FALCONS

This has long been rumored to be Ryan’s next stop, assuming he doesn’t take a TV job first. They’ve got a loaded offense – something he never had in New York – and a defense known for it’s underachieving. He could immediately change that, as well as bring an attitude and identity that the Falcons sorely need after years of relatively anonymity under Mike Smith.

They do seem likely to stay on the defensive side of the ball in their search, which could mean they look to Bowles or Quinn. Another name that has surfaced in connection with them is Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. McDaniels wouldn’t be a terrible choice either, especially if they want someone to fine-tune the offense, which was erratic but in general is pretty good.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Boy did the Raiders want and need Harbaugh. He would’ve been the perfect coach to restore winning and respectability to a franchise that is sadly lacking in both. He would’ve brought discipline and order (two things they again have been lacking). And keeping Harbaugh in his Northern California would’ve been quite the shot at the 49ers, who have long been the bigger ticket in town.

With Harbaugh out of the picture, the Raiders may have trouble landing a coach given their reputation for being a place where players and coaches go to end their careers. That said, if candidates can look past that then Ryan, Bowles and maybe Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a former head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars and a Bay Area native, could be in play.

But one name to watch is interim coach Tony Sparano. He’s never distinguished himself in that spot – either with Oakland or with Miami – but he reportedly has a lot of support from the players he led down the stretch.

—Ralph Vacchiano