We all have an idea of what makes an NFL job tantalizing, right? The ideal head-coaching opportunity would come with a franchise quarterback, a bunch of extra draft picks, a hands-off owner with a history of patience, a familiar face at general manager, and a talented roster. Jobs like that don't come open often for a reason: Coaches with those advantages don't often lose their jobs.
When I ranked the potential available jobs last year, the best spot that eventually did become available was the Los Angeles Chargers. Given their current winning streak, Anthony Lynn has to be happy with his choice, and indeed, a vacancy with Philip Rivers and a bevy of superstars (when healthy) on either side of the roster wasn't hard to forecast as desirable.
And yet, who would have wanted the Los Angeles Rams job this time last year? The Rams were all-in on Jared Goff, who was having one of the worst rookie seasons of a quarterback in recent memory. Jeff Fisher appeared to have wasted the spoils of the Robert Griffin trade. The Rams were down their first-round pick in the 2017 draft, which was going to be No. 5 overall. They weren't even in great cap shape. Things change fast.
This offseason, the league's owners will be trying to find their Sean McVay, while the hot head-coaching candidates will be trying to find their Rams situation. Let's make their lives easier by sorting through the 10 jobs most likely to come available in order of their respective desirability. Some of these jobs won't come available, of course, and we're not arguing that these coaches should necessarily be fired. In each case, though, there have either been reports suggesting that the coach might not be in his role next year or it's fair to speculate given their respective teams' performance this season.
Let's begin in the desert, where injuries have torn apart one of the league's best rosters ...
It remains to be seen whether Bruce Arians will continue on for another year at the helm of the Cardinals, but there will likely be changes at the very top of the Arizona roster in 2018. Carson Palmer seems unlikely to return at his $20.6 million cap hit, leaving the Cardinals in such desperate need of a quarterback that they've been singing Blaine Gabbert's praises. Larry Fitzgerald signed a one-year extension last month, but the deal doesn't have any guaranteed money, suggesting that the Cardinals aren't sure whether to expect their franchise icon back for another season.
Even beyond their two biggest salaries, though, the Cardinals are in a transitional period, if not necessarily a rebuild. They lost six key defensive pieces last year in free agency, including five starters, and then spent the vast majority of their draft capital targeting replacements. Their offensive line plan hasn't worked, with D.J. Humphries tearing his ACL just as he started to thrive, while veteran free agents Mike Iupati and Jared Veldheer haven't quite worked out.
Young players who were expected to turn into stars have seen their progress stall thanks to injury, leading to some awkward decisions to come for general manager Steve Keim. The Cardinals are surely going to re-sign David Johnson as early as this offseason, but should they invest in John Brown and Deone Bucannon? Should they pick up Humphries' fifth-year option for 2019? Can the Cardinals afford to pay Markus Golden Chandler Jones money when they're already paying Chandler Jones Chandler Jones money? Even worse, can they afford to lose Golden after next season for a 2020 compensatory pick?
Inconsistent drafting has left the Cardinals in a bind. Rod Graves' final draft in 2012 has proved to be a disaster; none of those picks are left on the Arizona roster. Tyrann Mathieu was the star of the 2013 draft, but he has slipped after two ACL tears, and the only other player left from that draft is Earl Watford. The 2014 and 2015 drafts delivered more talent, but unless Robert Nkemdiche becomes good after two years spent alternately injured and in the doghouse, the Cardinals will have no starters from the Class of 2016.
They are too good (and expensive) to rebuild, but need to have just about every one of their talented players stay healthy to compete. Even in that scenario, they probably need a new quarterback and won't have the cap space or the high draft picks to compete with lesser teams. If Arians and Palmer both retire this offseason, a new coach will probably go after a veteran starter like Eli Manning or Josh McCown and hope for the best behind an experimental offensive line. Good luck.
Part of evaluating jobs, of course, is evaluating starting quarterbacks. If you're in love with Jameis Winston and chalk up this disappointing 2017 season to his shoulder injury, the Bucs job might look quite promising. Tampa has genuine stars on both sides of the ball and a clean cap picture with $70 million in space next year. Get Winston healthy, find a reliable running back, go after defensive help in free agency, and you've got yourself a playoff contender.
The counter-argument is that we've now seen Winston throw 1,431 pro passes and the results have been underwhelming. The closest comparable for Winston in terms of rate statistics since the start of 2015 is another quarterback from Florida:
As has been the case with Bortles, you can't make the argument that Winston hasn't gotten help, either. The Bucs have a highly paid running back (Doug Martin), a superstar No. 1 wideout (Mike Evans), an expensive free-agent No. 2 wideout (DeSean Jackson), a first-round pick at tight end (O.J. Howard), and a safety valve (Cameron Brate). The Bucs used a high second-round pick after nabbing Winston to draft left tackle Donovan Smith, selected a star interior lineman in Ali Marpet (who is now on injured reserve), and dipped in free agency to sign J.R. Sweezy. You can take issue with some of their decisions, but the effort has certainly been there to build around Tampa's most recent first overall pick.
The Bucs will pick up Winston's fifth-year option this offseason and likely get one more year to evaluate before deciding whether they want to pay him big money. One year is a long time, though, when firing Koetter would make the former Arizona State coach the third consecutive Buccaneers coach to lose his job after just two seasons at the helm. Nobody with options wants to leave a plum coordinator's job and uproot their family for two years as a head coach.
Even if you get a long-term deal and believe in Winston, though, this defense is a mess. The Buccaneers rank 31st in defensive DVOA and that's with Gerald McCoy, who is likely out for the rest of the year with a torn biceps. McCoy and Lavonte David are genuine stars, but the Bucs still have major problems on the edge and in their secondary, where 2016 first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves III regressed badly during his second campaign before injuring his hamstring. Their best young talent on defense outside of McCoy is at linebacker, but Tampa needs to flip as many as a half-dozen positions on its defense with new starters this offseason. And what if you were wrong to believe in Winston?
Being entrusted with the Bengals job is like becoming the night watchman at a low-budget museum. As long as you don't screw up horrifically, you'll be able to keep the job for about as long as you want. Heck, even if you do an awful job, you're probably going to get some time. Marvin Lewis has had the job for 14 years without a playoff victory, of course, but think about the guys before him. Bruce Coslet made it into a fifth year with a 21-39 record. He replaced David Shula, who made it nearly five years himself with a 19-52 mark. Cincinnati moves at a glacial pace.
The flip side, of course, is that it's difficult to really do a great job as the Bengals' steward. You won't be investing much in free agency, where disappointing recent low-cost signings such as A.J. Hawk and Kevin Minter won't be encouraging owner Mike Brown to open up his checkbook. Questionable decisions, perhaps driven by a modest budget, have seen the Bengals shed talented players at wide receiver (Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu) and along the offensive line (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler) in consecutive offseasons.
It's fair to note that six awful quarters have the Bengals here -- if Cincinnati had held onto its lead against the Steelers and shown up on Sunday against the Bears, it would be 7-6 and in the thick of the AFC wild-card race on a four-game winning streak. Lewis might be negotiating an extension.
At 5-8, though, it feels like we've exhausted the possibilities with this Bengals team. There are plenty of big names on defense, but Cincinnati is 19th in defensive DVOA, thanks in part to playing the league's easiest slate of offenses. The Andy Dalton breakout from 2015 looks more and more like an outlier, even if his level of play has risen slightly from his 2011-2014 beginnings. Do you want to take this job knowing that you may not have any other quarterback options besides Dalton and AJ McCarron?
Daring to take the job in Washington is essentially a show of supreme confidence in yourself. You have to believe that you're going to be the one to overcome what might be the league's most toxic culture and succeed where eight other coaches have failed under owner Daniel Snyder. Coaches have to be confident people by definition, but taking the Washington job might also qualify as literal madness.
And to be clear, this seventh-placed ranking assumes Washington has Kirk Cousins on its roster in 2018, whether by the transition tag, the franchise tag, or a long-term extension. Without Cousins, this would be about as undesirable of a job as possible, given the hole at quarterback and the attrition rate of prior coaches. There's virtually no chance a new coach would have the time to both identify and develop a new franchise quarterback before being fired.
The best-case scenario for Washington is that it signs Cousins to that long-term extension, but even that will eat up $25 million to $30 million or so of the $54 million in cap space it is due to hold this offseason. Several other starters are free agents, most notably inside linebacker Zach Brown and cornerback Bashaud Breeland. Washington might choose to re-sign Breeland and move on from free-agent addition Josh Norman after two frustrating seasons in D.C. Designating Norman as a post-June 1 release would free up $14 million in cap space but simultaneously create another opening on the defense.
There's unquestioned talent on this roster, but getting all that talent on the field at the same time has been an issue because of injuries. Cousins has taken just 52 dropbacks since the start of 2016 with the offense Jay Gruden would have imagined building around -- tackles Trent Williams and Morgan Moses, running back Chris Thompson, tight end Jordan Reed, and wideouts Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson -- all on the field. There's going to be a season every four or five years in which everyone gets right and Washington wins a division title, but as a coach with options, would you really want to hope to get lucky in one of your two seasons at the helm?
If Vance Joseph is fired for the sins of the father of Denver football, it will certainly be an unfair decision. He inherited Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch from the previous regime and added Brock Osweiler as his third choice. It's awfully tough to win when your quarterbacks are throwing interceptions 3.8 percent of the time and your kicker -- in the kicking paradise of Denver -- is the fourth-worst in football on scoring plays.
John Elway deserves plaudits for what he has done in the past as the head of Denver's personnel department, but a series of bad drafts are coming home to roost. There's nobody left on this roster from the 2013 draft. The Class of 2014 delivered a pair of future Pro Bowlers in cornerback Bradley Roby and center Matt Paradis, but their second-round (Cody Latimer) and third-round (Michael Schofield) picks didn't pan out. Shane Ray, a first-round pick in 2015, has shown promise when healthy across from Von Miller, but he appears to be the only Broncos player from that draft to emerge as a viable starter. And while the 2016 class has shown promise, Lynch appears to be a wasted Day 1 pick.
The good news is that the Broncos find themselves in a reasonable cap situation, with $33 million of space and nobody they'll miss about to hit free agency. They also could clear another $15.5 million by releasing Aqib Talib and C.J. Anderson, who could be replaced with larger roles from Roby and Devontae Booker. Elway has been an excellent recruiter in the past, and if the Broncos retool with someone like Eli Manning while adding a tight end (Tyler Eifert?) and an inside linebacker (Zach Brown?), Denver might be able to turn things around quickly. The missing pieces on cost-controlled rookie deals, though, should keep the Broncos from flourishing until the 2016 and 2017 classes mature.
I laid out the case for the Colts job being compelling back in October, when I advocated for Indy to shut down Andrew Luck and treat 2017 like a lost season. Indy ended up placing Luck on injured reserve shortly thereafter, and the Colts have gone just 1-5 since, beating only the Tom Savage-led Texans. Their other two wins are over the 49ers and Browns, who are a combined 3-23 this season. This is a bad football team.
This was supposed to be a bad football team, though, even if Luck had been at the helm. Former GM Ryan Grigson left the cupboard virtually empty, and for GM Chris Ballard, the 2017 season has been about finding surprises and making modest bets. The big surprise has been quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who was acquired just before the Patriots were about to release him in preseason and has exhibited promise, albeit with a downright-masochistic sack rate. Journeyman Rashaan Melvin, a free agent-to-be, looked like a shutdown cornerback at times before suffering a hand injury. First-round pick Malik Hooker looked like an Earl Thomas starter kit before suffering a serious knee injury.
Indy heads into 2018 with some optimism, a top-five pick, and nearly $91 million in cap space. Now, though, the concern is Luck. The organization didn't even expect Luck to miss significant regular-season action when he had surgery last January. It ended up costing the former first overall pick his entire season, and there's still no public path for what comes next. The uncertainty over Luck -- and the ever-increasing possibility he was never the guy we saw before the shoulder injury -- makes Indianapolis a riskier proposition.
You would want the job for stability's sake. Outside of Ben McAdoo and Ray Handley, every Giants coach in the post-punk era has gotten a minimum of four years at the helm. Anyone who doesn't have McAdoo's haircut is going to be considered a wildly successful and popular upgrade for the near future. If your new GM just focuses every moment of his offseason into upgrading the offensive line and brings Manning back on a farewell tour, the Giants could be a playoff team in 2018.
It might also be time to rebuild, however. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on free agents over the past couple of seasons won't inspire ownership to continue investing, and with Manning on his way out of the league, the Giants either need to luck into a quarterback or take one at the top of the draft while they have the chance. The limited money left in the Giants' budget should be going toward Justin Pugh and Odell Beckham Jr. this offseason and Landon Collins next year. They'll be the core of the next Giants playoff team, but that's probably not coming until 2020.
If you want your Rams analogue for this upcoming offseason, it's lurking in the Midway. The Bears have their own struggling rookie quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky. He has actually played better than Goff did last season, but teams around the league were more confident about Goff than they were about the Bears' 2017 first-round selection.
Get Trubisky going and this roster suddenly looks appetizing. The defense has quietly leaped above league average for the first time since 2012, per DVOA, although it has been masked by the league's second-toughest slate of opposing offensive attacks. The Bears have an impressive offensive line when everyone is healthy, one of the best one-two running back duos in football, and should have $65 million to spend this offseason after cutting Mike Glennon.
I would be worried, though, about spending that money with Ryan Pace as general manager. The Bears might be coming off the worst free-agent period since the Dream Team Eagles, which included letting Alshon Jeffery leave without a franchise tag so they could give $18.5 million to Glennon instead. Dion Sims (three years, $18 million) has 13 catches in 11 games. Marcus Cooper (three years, $16 million) fumbled away a would-be return touchdown against the Steelers, was subsequently torched and benched, and has barely been seen since. Markus Wheaton (two years, $11 million) had one catch in eight games before being put on IR. Prince Amukamara has been their best big-money signing, and he's on a one-year deal.
Coincidentally, the Bears need to follow the Rams' model and get Trubisky some weapons at receiver this offseason. If they had a passing game right now, they might be on the fringes of playoff contention.
I know that the Browns have suggested Hue Jackson is going to return next year. Given the way owner Jimmy Haslam has torched timelines and ripped up road maps in years past, my suspicion is that an 0-16 season might have a way of changing his mind.
With Haslam at the helm, is the Browns job enticing? It's hard to say that executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown left the roster in a better state than the one he inherited, given that Cleveland let impactful young players like Tashaun Gipson and Mitchell Schwartz leave in free agency for compensatory picks that haven't yet amounted to much. There's talent here on paper, but Cleveland's spending spree up front on the offensive line didn't stabilize things for its bevy of quarterbacks. This offense is barely functional for long stretches of time, reduced either to simple screens or hopeless bombs. A suicidal turnover rate in the red zone hasn't helped matters.
The better building blocks are on defense, where Danny Shelton and Christian Kirksey have paced the league's best run defense by DVOA. Myles Garrett has been a monster when healthy, with five sacks and 16 knockdowns in seven games. Emmanuel Ogbah is a reasonable second pass-rusher. Jason McCourty has rebuilt his career in a Comeback Player of the Year-caliber campaign and is under contract for 2018.
More than anything, though, the Browns have those draft picks. They are projected to have the first and sixth overall selections and six of the top 65 picks in the 2018 draft. They're almost assuredly going to take a quarterback under new GM John Dorsey, who has almost assuredly spent his time away from the league after being fired from the Chiefs this summer scouting quarterbacks. Cleveland also will have nearly $117 million in cap space to work with and can outbid anyone for whomever they want. Le'Veon Bell? Allen Robinson? Jarvis Landry? All three? Draft the right quarterback and the Browns could witness exponential growth. Of course, if drafting the right quarterback were that simple ...
... the Browns would have just taken Deshaun Watson. Instead, if Bill O'Brien's job becomes available this offseason, the opportunity to work with a franchise quarterback with four cost-controlled years remaining on his deal is the most enticing opportunity to come along in a long, long time. Watson played only seven games, but he led the league in yards per attempt (8.3) and Total QBR (81.5) before tearing his ACL.
It's one thing for McVay to inherit Goff, who struggled mightily as a rookie. When was the last time a coach joined a team with a quarterback who has already looked as good as Watson and was still on his rookie deal? Derek Carr had a middling rookie season before Jack Del Rio arrived. Kirk Cousins didn't cut out the interceptions until after Jay Gruden took over. The only other active example I can think of that comes close would be Mike Mularkey inheriting Marcus Mariota, and even he was an interim coach who kept his job.
On top of that, this is a top-level core capable of competing with anyone else in the league when guys are healthy. Mix Watson with a top-five wideout in DeAndre Hopkins and two superstar edge rushers in J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney and the Texans have a set of building blocks that 25 or so teams would probably prefer to their own. Even their second tier of talent -- players such as Whitney Mercilus, Will Fuller and Kareem Jackson -- is impressive. Their biggest weakness is on special teams, which would be fixable by swapping out the specialists and focusing mid-round picks for a year or two on improving their coverage.
Things aren't perfect. The Texans are down their top two picks in the 2018 draft after moving up for Watson. Injuries have ripped apart the roster, and there's no guarantee that they'll ever have their core healthy at the same time. Houston needs a new set of offensive tackles and doesn't have much on the interior of its defensive line. No job is perfect, though, and Houston's is as appealing as an opening gets.