Expert Analysis


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9 Top NFL Head Coaching Candidates Entering 2024 Hiring Cycle

There were only five head coaching openings a year ago, far fewer than usual. Three jobs opened in-season in 2023, and the expectation is that the NFL will be back to the normal 6-7 range this cycle, and likely more.

Here are potential candidates for the upcoming coaching cycle. Please note that I’m not including current head coaches who could potentially be available (Bill Belichick) or interim coaches (Antonio Pierce) on this list.

9 Top NFL Coaching Candidates for 2024

Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh’s name comes up every year, and that won’t stop. But this year feels a little different.

First, there's been all the off-the-field issues, from the sign-stealing scandal to alleged recruiting violations. As a result, some believe Harbaugh may want to leave college coaching simply because of that.

There’s also the possibility that Michigan could win the National Championship on Jan. 8, which was always the ultimate goal for Harbaugh. If that were to happen, he might feel like his work is done with his alma mater.

Third, and potentially most important, Harbaugh recently hired agent Don Yee, who has more than 30 years of experience and represents high-profile NFL clients, including Sean Payton.

Sometimes actions speak louder than words, and it sure feels like this could be the year Harbaugh strongly considers returning to the NFL, where he was 44-19-1 as the 49ers' head coach from 2011-14. He led San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game three times and a Super Bowl appearance in 2012.

Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson
Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. (The Providence Journal)

Detroit Lions OC Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson will be the most sought-after candidate this offseason. The 37-year-old took over as the Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator in 2022 and rapidly helped their offense evolve into a top unit.

Despite interviewing with several teams last year, he chose to remain in Detroit. Once again, the team boasts one of the most prolific offenses and clinched its division for the first time in 30 years.

Before becoming the offensive coordinator, Johnson coached quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends, showcasing experience in various offensive roles. He fits the mold of the bright, young offensive mind many owners want as a head coach.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dave Canales
Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dave Canales. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers OC Dave Canales

Dave Canales spent 13 years in Seattle before joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past offseason as their offensive coordinator. The 42-year-old has a strong track record with quarterbacks, having served as Seattle’s quarterbacks coach in 2022. He played a significant role in Geno Smith’s Comeback Player of the Year season.

In his first year in Tampa, Canales has achieved similar results by helping Baker Mayfield revive his career to the point where Mayfield could be the long-term answer for the Buccaneers.

A very energetic and positive person, Canales exudes some Pete Carroll vibes, which makes sense considering he was with Carroll for more than a decade. He could be a sneaky candidate in this year’s coaching cycle.

Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald
Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Baltimore Ravens DC Mike Macdonald

Mike Macdonald spent the 2021 season at Michigan as the defensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh before returning to Baltimore last season to be the defensive coordinator under John Harbaugh. The 36-year-old has remade the Baltimore Ravens defense into one of the most feared units in the league. His defense allows a league-low 16.4 points per game and has 57 sacks and 29 takeaways.

Macdonald has probably been the most rapidly rising star on this list in 2023 — and if a team is willing to go young and defensive-minded, he should be at the top of the list.

Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn
Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn talks to players during training camp. (Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports)

Dallas Cowboys DC Dan Quinn

The former Falcons head coach has been a popular candidate for the past two years, but it’s been made clear in league circles that Dan Quinn is only going to take a job that he truly wants. He’s been the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator for three years, and he has loved everything about Dallas.

His defense has consistently been among the league’s best each season. It’s no longer a question of if Quinn will get another job; it’s more about when and if that job is good enough for him to leave the joy he’s experienced working in Dallas. He's also one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the NFL.

Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris
Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Los Angeles Rams DC Raheem Morris

The Los Angeles Rams have been one of the more special teams this season simply because not many people could’ve seen them having the season they’ve had. Their roster was torn down in the offseason, and the team made virtually no notable signings in free agency. The Rams filled out the roster with mid-to-late-round draft picks and undrafted players.

The development on defense, with players like Ernest Jones, Byron Young, Kobie Turner, Cobie Durant, Derion Kendrick, Russ Yeast and Quentin Lake all getting significant snaps and playing complementary football, is impressive. This all goes back to Raheem Morris, who was the Rams' defensive coordinator when they won the Super Bowl two years ago and has gone through this entire change of players. He has worked closely on getting these players ready week-to-week.

Morris was previously a head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009-11 when he got the job at age 32, replacing Jon Gruden. Morris was an interim coach for the Falcons in 2020. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has said on numerous occasions that Morris deserves another shot at being a head coach. It’s fair to say that his work this year in Los Angeles might be his best yet.

New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ullrich
New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. (The Record)

New York Jets DC Jeff Ulbrich

Some around the league have wondered if there will be a new trend of seeking coaches who are former players and are more of a leader than the X's and O's guy. Dan Campbell is the perfect example in Detroit, and the entire league has taken notice of what Antonio Pierce did as the interim coach of the Raiders.

Jeff Ulbrich, a former 10-year NFL linebacker, has served as the New York Jets’ defensive coordinator since 2021. His energy is infectious, and his players love him. The Jets' defense has consistently ranked among the top in the league every year under his leadership.

Before joining the Jets, Ulbrich spent six years with Dan Quinn in Atlanta, where he was the linebackers coach and eventually gained the assistant head coach title. During that period, he spent time with Kyle Shanahan, who was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator for two years. Many coaches from the Shanahan tree have become fans of Ulbrich, which should help him build his offensive staff if he becomes a head coach.

Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham
Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Las Vegas Raiders DC Patrick Graham

A lot of attention in Las Vegas has rightfully gone to Pierce, who has been outstanding. However, the unsung hero behind the entire defense is Patrick Graham. Graham is very passionate, sets high expectations and holds his players accountable.

Despite lacking top-tier talent beyond Maxx Crosby, the Las Vegas Raiders defense has shown improvement as the season has gone on. Since Week 9, the defense ranks first in the NFL in points allowed (16.3), 10th in takeaways (13), and ninth in sacks (25). They are fourth in the NFL in EPA per play.

“He’s doing a great job leading us and putting us in great positions, and we have a lot of guys that are bought in,” Crosby said of Graham. Teams have sought to interview Graham in the past, and his impactful work on the Raiders' defense this season could lead to more opportunities in the upcoming coaching cycle.

Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan
Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, left, talks with Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen (8), right, during training camp. (The Enquirer)

Cincinnati Bengals OC Brian Callahan

Brian Callahan, 39, has worked with some of the top quarterbacks over the years. He was with Peyton Manning during his time with the Broncos, served as the Lions quarterbacks coach with Matthew Stafford and was the Raiders quarterbacks coach with Derek Carr.

Zac Taylor brought him to Cincinnati in 2019, and although Callahan doesn't call plays, he has been an integral part of the Bengals offense. Callahan plays a major role in game planning, and the flashes the team had with Jake Browning should bolster his reputation.

He has interviewed for several head coaching jobs in the past couple of years, including multiple interviews with the Colts last year.

Other Candidates to keep an eye on