NFL Coaching Candidates: 11 Coaches Under 40 to Watch in 2023

There are many people involved in a football team who need to excel for the team to achieve success. It starts from the top with ownership and trickles down to front office members, the scouting department, training staff, equipment staff, coaching staff and, of course, the players.

The coaching staff is responsible for getting the most out of the players. Many layers are involved, including proper communication, teaching ability, leadership and a deep understanding of game strategy, among other skills.

The season is about to kick off, so here’s a list of 11 coaches aged 40 or under who I’m keeping an eye on this season. Some of these names you’ve heard of — some of them you probably haven’t. But in this league, all it takes is one year for you to go from a complete unknown to a potential coordinator and future head coach.

11 Rising Coaches Under 40

Ben Johnson, Offensive Coordinator, 37

The architect of the Detroit Lions’ high-powered offense in 2022, Johnson was one of the hottest head coaching candidates last cycle but opted to stay with the rapidly improving Lions. Under his leadership, the Lions ranked fifth in scoring, fourth in total offense, fourth in red zone efficiency, and first in fewest turnovers. They scored 30 or more points in eight games, matching an NFL record.

“I think Ben’s a rock star, man,” head coach Dan Campbell said last year.

Before becoming Detroit’s offensive coordinator, Johnson coached quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends, gaining experience across various positions. There’s a lot of excitement in Detroit, and if the Lions progress as anticipated, Johnson’s offense will play a significant role. It wouldn’t be surprising if he’s a head coach at this time next year.

Mike Kafka, Offensive Coordinator, 36

Kafka was a fourth-round pick by Andy Reid in Philadelphia in 2010 and played in the NFL for six years before transitioning to coaching, where he joined Reid in Kansas City in 2017. That same year, the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes.

Kafka quickly climbed the coaching ladder, going from an offensive quality control coach to being hired as Brian Daboll’s offensive coordinator and play-caller last season. It was Kafka’s first significant coaching challenge, transitioning from having Reid, Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, etc., to an organization where he had no prior experience and only recently had met Daboll.

Kafka took on the challenge, and the New York Giants had an unexpectedly successful season, making the playoffs and even winning a road playoff game. Kafka interviewed for a couple of head coaching positions this offseason but ultimately did not secure any. The Giants made significant additions to their offense, including TE Darren Waller, WR Jalin Hyatt, and WR Parris Campbell. Another successful year on offense should position Kafka to be squarely in the mix for a top job.

Kellen Moore, Offensive Coordinator, 35

Moore parted ways with the Dallas Cowboys this offseason after coach Mike McCarthy decided he wanted to take more control of the offense. Moore showed in Dallas he’s willing to be aggressive with his playcalling – and the biggest complaint people had with the Los Angeles Chargers over the past two seasons is they have been the exact opposite.

With an abundance of offensive weapons and QB Justin Herbert’s immense talent, Moore could be the guy who unleashes what the general public has been anticipating. The Chargers could be one of the most exciting offenses in the league under his leadership.

There were a few people who mentioned he needs to have a “stronger personality” in order to take that next step to become a head coach, but Moore has what it takes to lead a team eventually.

Shea Tierney, QBs Coach, 36

Tierney joined the Giants last season after spending four years in Buffalo with Daboll. Prior to that, he spent two years at the University of Alabama (also with Daboll).

Tierney worked closely with Daboll and Kafka last season to help develop quarterback Daniel Jones, who achieved career highs in completions (317), passing yards (3,205), rushing yards (708), and rushing touchdowns (seven) while significantly reducing his turnovers. The work was noticed around the league, and Tierney interviewed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator opening this offseason, which ultimately went to Dave Canales.

Christian Parker, DBs Coach, 31

Parker started coaching as the defensive backs coach at Virginia State in 2013 when he was only 21. He moved to the NFL in 2019 when the Green Bay Packers hired him and is now entering his third season as defensive backs coach with the Denver Broncos. Despite originally being hired by Vic Fangio, Parker was retained by Nathaniel Hackett in 2022 and by Sean Payton this year, even though both brought in mostly new coaching staffs.

Last season, Parker oversaw a secondary in which four different defensive backs, including safety Justin Simmons, who had a career-high six interceptions (tied for the league lead), recorded at least one interception. Simmons and cornerback Patrick Surtain received All-Pro honors, making the Broncos the only NFL team with two defensive backs selected to the AP All-Pro teams. Sources describe Parker as an “exceptional communicator,” future coordinator and potential head coach.

Joe Kasper, Safeties Coach, 30

Kasper joined Fangio’s Miami Dolphins defensive staff this offseason after serving as a defensive quality control coach in Philadelphia for the past two years. Fangio consulted in Philadelphia last year when he noticed Kasper’s abilities and brought him on board in Miami.

Safeties have historically had great success in Fangio’s scheme, and he is placing his trust in the up-and-coming Kasper to oversee that group. Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, Antoine Bethea, Eric Reid, Eddie Jackson, and most recently, Simmons have all had Pro Bowl seasons under Fangio. Kasper will take Jevon Holland and the rest of Miami’s safeties under his wing and aim to produce similar or potentially more outstanding results. Kasper could emerge as the next name to watch in the wave of Fangio disciples around the league.

Bobby Babich, LBs Coach, 40

The son of former NFL coach Bob Babich, Bobby has been in Buffalo since 2017 when Sean McDermott was hired. He initially joined as an assistant defensive back coach and eventually became safeties coach in 2018. Babich played a pivotal role in Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde‘s development, making them arguably the league’s best safety duo.

Last year, McDermott moved Babich to linebackers coach, and he again achieved significant success with the unit. Matt Milano was voted All-Pro, and Tremaine Edmunds had a career year, leading to him securing a four-year, $72 million contract with the Chicago Bears in free agency. The Buffalo Bills didn’t add any outside free agents to replace Edmunds and will rely on Babich to bring the unit together with the in-house options. Multiple people have described Babich as “super smart” and a “tireless worker” and consider him one of Buffalo’s secret weapons.

Brian Duker, DBs Coach, 34

Duker took control of the defensive backs during Week 8 of the last season after the Lions let go of Aubrey Pleasant. At that point, Detroit had only won one game in eight weeks, and their secondary was among the league’s worst, allowing 421.3 yards per game and 32.1 points per game. However, things improved once Duker took over, and the team allowed just 20 points per game for the rest of the season and recorded 10 interceptions. That resulted in the Lions winning eight of their last 10 games and narrowly missing the postseason.

The Lions made the secondary a top priority this offseason by bringing in C.J. Gardner-Johnson (one year, $8 million), CB Cameron Sutton (three years, $33 million), CB Emmanuel Moseley (one year, $6 million), and safety Brian Branch (2023 second-round draft pick). They join second-year safety Kerby Joseph, who had an impressive rookie season with four interceptions, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. Duker has way more talent to work with going into 2023, and Detroit’s secondary should continue to improve.

Leonard Hankerson, WRs Coach, 34

Hankerson played in the NFL for five years, crossing paths with Kyle Shanahan in Washington and Atlanta. After transitioning to coaching in the college ranks for five years, Shanahan hired him as an offensive quality control coach in 2021.

After just one season, Shanahan promoted him to the team’s primary receiver coach, where he achieved immediate success. In 2021, Deebo Samuel earned First-Team All-Pro honors, and in 2022, Brandon Aiyuk developed into one of the league’s top young receivers. Hankerson received interest from college programs this offseason but wanted to remain in San Francisco.

Given the widespread use of the Shanahan offense by many NFL teams, he is a coaching prospect who could eventually receive promotion opportunities as he continues to advance in his career.

Chandler Whitmer, Offensive Quality Control, 32

There are a handful of former quality control coaches on this list who have moved up in their coaching careers and are on their way to bigger things. Whitmer is a name to watch as someone who could do the same and was labeled by one source as a future quarterbacks coach.

Whitmer’s primary responsibilities have included working closely with Herbert and the Chargers’ other quarterbacks and handling weekly preparation and day-to-day operations for the offensive coaching staff. Before joining the Chargers, Whitmer worked at Clemson with Trevor Lawrence and at Ohio State with Justin Fields.

 Chris Horton, Special Teams Coordinator, 38

Horton, a former NFL safety, started his NFL coaching career with the Ravens in 2014 as an assistant special teams coach. He earned a promotion to special teams coordinator in 2019. When it comes to Football Outsiders’ annual special teams DVOA ratings, which assess each play in comparison to NFL averages through various factors, Baltimore has consistently been in the Top 5 every year under Horton’s guidance.

Special teams coordinators are one of the handful of people in an NFL team building that work with the entire football team. They play a significant role in roster management, deciding who ultimately secures a spot on the team and who is active on game day, among other responsibilities. John Harbaugh, who himself was a former special teams coordinator, has placed his trust in Horton and he’s responded year after year. The Ravens are the prime example of consistency and prolonged success in the realm of special teams, and Horton has played a pivotal role in making that happen.

Other Names to Watch

  • Eagles offensive coordinator Brian Johnson
  • Patriots LBs coach Jerod Mayo
  • Vikings QBs coach Chris O’Hara
  • Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Taylor
  • Jets QBs coach Rob Calabrese
  • Lions LBs coach Kelvin Sheppard
  • Commanders assistant QBs coach Luke Del Rio
  • Cardinals WRs coach Drew Terrell

Scroll to the Top