The 2014 NFL regular season has come to an end, and with that end came Black Monday, which saw the firing of four head coaches and two GMs (as well as one coach that simply walked away). Including the Oakland Raiders, who fired head coach Dennis Allen after Week 4, the NFL now has six head coaching vacancies entering the 2015 offseason.
For some franchises, such as the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills, this is familiar territory. Another year, another coach. For others, like the San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets, this offseason is a daunting new task as they seek to replace the coaches that have brought the most success in recent memory. Both Jim Harbaugh and Rex Ryan led their respective teams to conference championships for the first time since the late 1990s (and they each did it multiple times).
As coordinators and recently dismissed coaches hope for the opportunity to be hired by any one of these six teams, it’s still clear that some of the open spots are just better than others. Here, we take a look at the vacancies and rank the spots in order of attractiveness.
1. Oakland Raiders
This top ranking may come as a surprise for anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to the NFL in the last ten years, but for any coach that is looking to come in and immediately impart his own identity on a team, the Raiders are by far the best option.
Pros: Cap Space. There’s tons of it. The Raiders are estimated to have the second most spending money entering the 2015 offseason, with $59.4M in cap space. This will give the new coach the opportunity to pursue several high-profile free agents or completely revamp the team’s starters.
Young Talent. The eventual coach of the Raiders will have young playmakers and captains on both sides of the ball. On defense, first round draft pick Khalil Mack ended his first season as the highest graded 4-3 outside linebacker in the league by Pro Football Focus. In fact, Mack’s rating against the run was the best of any player in the league, more than double the rating of the second place defender. On offense, rookie Derek Carr proved to be the best quarterback of the 2014 draft class, starting all sixteen games.
Active Front Office. The Oakland front office is driven to action. They are acting fast and acting often. Oakland brought in a huge crop of free agents last offseason (and have the cap space to do it again this year), fired their head coach midseason, executed a midseason trade, and put in an early interview request for Jim Harbaugh (although too late for the Michigan man). For any coach looking to make his mark on an impressionable team, he can enter the offseason with the confidence that moves will be made to accommodate his vision.
Cons: Dead weight and major depth chart reworking. The Raiders roster is filled with veterans who are hampered by age and injury. Much of their 53 man roster is filled with nearly expired veterans who would find it tough to crack the final roster anywhere else. The new coach will have an immediate and large task in purging the dead weight and reworking the depth chart to fit the current players and 2015 acquisitions to his schemes.
Less Desirable Free Agent Destination. Although the big picture is certainly promising for any potential head coach, potential free agents may need more convincing to take their talents to the East Bay. The recent memories of fourth place finishes in the AFC West may scare away some of the marquee targets this offseason.
2. Atlanta Falcons
This is a big dropoff from the number one spot. The main reason why the Falcons come in ahead of Chicago is the fact that the Bears’ new coach will have to enter an NFC North division in which all three divisional opponents are on the rise. But Atlanta can still be an attractive landing spot for big name coaches (read: Rex Ryan).
Pros: The Falcons are in a weak division. All four teams in the NFC South finished below .500 this year, so the new coach will have the opportunity to become an immediate contender. Also, Atlanta’s offensive talent is possibly the biggest single draw of any coaching vacancy this year. They are the only coach-less team that comes with an absolute no-risk quarterback attached in Matt Ryan. They also have All-Pro level wide receiver talent, and a diverse stable of running backs. The weapons are endless, and Ryan ensures that the 2015 first-round pick can be used somewhere other than quarterback.
Cons: Atlanta has a questionable GM in terms of personnel. It’s actually a bit surprising that Thomas Dimitroff stayed with Atlanta after the firing of Mike Smith, and his job is far from safe. He has put the current team in a compromising position, and he could cause headaches for the next head coach if he keeps his job. He has signed aging veterans with minimal contributions (except for two games a year), such as Steven Jackson and Devin Hester. Dimitroff also spent at ton of money on the interior defensive line with small improvement, signing $55M worth of defensive line talent in Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. He also retained questionable veterans that would be hard-pressed to find a starting role on any other team in the league, such as Kroy Biermann, while letting solid contributors like Brent Grimes walk away. This has created embarrassing depth in certain position groups and oversaturation in others.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears may have a headache brewing with Jay Cutler’s contract, and a new GM could go either way, but Chicago remains a desirable destination with its wealth of offensive talent.
Pros: Even though Jay Cutler’s 2014 season was a major disappointment, Chicago still has enough offensive talent to draw in any coach with an offensive background. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have proved that they can be a viable receiving threat for any quarterback in the league, and Matt Forte is a jack of all trades with enough talent to carry the offense by himself. Also, the Bears have quite a bit of cap space to work with the issues on defense.
Cons: The defense will almost certainly have to be completely reworked. Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs have likely seen their last wins in Chicago. Rookie Kyle Fuller had a quick start but became a liability as the season progressed and depth collapsed around him. Pick a position group on the Chicago defense, and you’ll find a group that needs major bolstering.
4. New York Jets
The firing of GM John Idzik is the only thing that saves the Jets from being 2015’s least desirable coaching vacancy.
Pros: The Jets have one of the best defensive lines in the league, which makes it easy for the rest of the defense to perform. With the solid linebacker play and young potential in the secondary, Rex Ryan’s pre-built defense has the potential to be in the top five and will allow an offensive coach to focus on the Jets’ largest headache on the other side of the ball.
Cons: While the acquisitions of the last season may look exciting on paper (Mike Vick, Eric Decker, Chris Johnson, Percy Harvin), they have come nowhere close to meeting the lofty expectations set for them. The New York Jets offense resembles someone that spent millions of dollars on all the best high-end building materials before suddenly remembering that they have no idea how to build a house. Attitude problems from several players and inconsistent play from Geno Smith makes New York a bad spot for a rookie head coach.
5. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers still have quite a bit of talent across the board, but the ousting of a coach that had been to three consecutive conference championships will certainly make even the most competent potential head-coach think twice before coming to San Francisco
Pros: The 49ers have world-class talent just laying around. The right coach can come in and immediately turn San Francisco into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Colin Kaepernick has yet to hit his ceiling, and young running backs and solid receiver depth can propel him to top ten status. On defense, there are All-Pro caliber players everywhere you look. After a year of injuries and suspensions, the 49ers are one solid defensive back away from challenging Seattle for the division lead.
Cons: The 49ers have possibly the single biggest deterrent of potentials head coaches: CEO Jed York. It’s not known what soured between York and Harbaugh that caused the elite coach to leave San Francisco, but it has to be troubling for a potential coach to believe that your job will never be safe, regardless of the on-field achievements of the team. Beyond that, the 49ers are projected to enter the 2015 offseason $3.5M over the cap, giving them the third-worst cap situation, which means that the team could run into trouble if suspensions and injuries appear again next season without the cap room to find adequate depth.
6. Buffalo Bills
The Bills are an interesting case, since head coach Doug Marrone actually opted out of his contract in pursuit of the Jets’ vacancy. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz did a fantastic job in 2014, and for Schwartz (who is attracting interest from around the league), I would rank the Bills as the most desirable coaching vacancy. But for any outsider, Buffalo comes in just barely behind New York and San Francisco.
Pros: The amount of defensive talent is astounding. The league’s best front seven is attractive for any coach, and it would come as a surprise to nobody if they ranked in the top three next season. The scary defense certainly complements an offensively weak AFC East (excluding the Patriots) where you are guaranteed to have four games against an inconsistent quarterback. The Bills also have quite a bit of cap space to try and solve its quarterback situation, and rookie receiver Sammy Watkins makes Buffalo a more attractive spot for free agent quarterbacks.
Cons: The offense will need major work this offseason. With the retirement of Kyle Orton and the lack of progress in E.J. Manuel’s development, quarterback should be the top target for Buffalo. This is complicated, however, by the fact that Buffalo has no first round pick in the 2015 draft, meaning that they will have to sign someone in free agency or take a major gamble on a later round passer. At running back, age and injury have nearly brought an end to the duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, and youth at receiver means that a rookie quarterback would have no security blanket.