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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Christian D'Andrea

Ranking the 8 new NFL head coaches: Who made the best hire?

The 2024 NFL head coach hiring cycle is over. One quarter of the league — eight teams — will head into the offseason with a new name atop their organizational decision-making chart.

Some of these acquisitions look like perfect fits. Others are a little tougher to understand. And, like everything football related, snap judgments may not have any actual bearing on how things pan out.

Last year, I ranked Frank Reich as the best head coach hire of the 2023 cycle. It was a solid theory. He’d helped Philip Rivers win comeback player of the year honors in San Diego, turned Carson Wentz from FCS star to MVP candidate in two seasons and made Nick Foles a Super Bowl MVP. He was 40-33-1 in four-plus seasons leading the Indianapolis Colts.

He inherited a team willing to spend big to take a star quarterback with the first overall pick in the 2023 Draft. This could have, and maybe should have, worked.

It did not. Reich’s reported preference for CJ Stroud at the top of the draft was overruled by owner David Tepper. A roster devoid of talent struggled to win games. Tepper proved he’s exactly the kind of guy who keeps bronzed bull testicles on his work desk by clashing with his new coach and firing him after 11 games. Reich, it turned out, was the worst head coach hiring of 2023.

This is all my fun way of telling you it’s pretty dang difficult to nail your head coaching hire and even tougher to figure out exactly how it’s going to work before their first offseason begins. But using the data we have now — the rosters each coach is inheriting and their histories on the sideline — we can make some educated guesses about who’ll be the best hires of 2024.

Let’s begin at the bottom.

Washington Commanders: Dan Quinn

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Quinn’s tenure as a head coach with the Atlanta Falcons was defined by collapse. He never recovered from 28-3, failed to win a playoff game in the three-plus years that followed and went from the Super Bowl to a 24-29 record before being relieved of his duties.

His return to coordinator duties proved he can still build a defense that plays football like a swarm of angry hornets stuffed into pads. But the Commanders are banking on that extra seasoning patching his holes as a head coach, helping him avoid the postseason collapses and daunting inability to win a challenge (0-for-7 since 2018) or manage a clock efficiently.

And this is a guy who spent the last three years under Mike McCarthy.

This is the concern. Washington will present Quinn with a depleted defense that ranked 32nd in both points and yards allowed last season in part because it traded away Montez Sweat and Chase Young but mostly because its secondary was a disaster. He can turn that into something more, but he’s always going to feel like a consolation prize after Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson announced he’d be staying in Michigan at least one more season.

Quinn gets a fresh start with the team with the most cap space in the NFL for 2024. The Commanders also have the second overall pick and four selections on Day 2. There’s a wonderful opportunity here for him to rewrite his legacy. It won’t be easy.

Atlanta Falcons: Raheem Morris

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Morris absolutely has the experience and bonafides to be a successful head coach. He was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ top guy for three seasons beginning at age 33 and coaxed a 10-win season out of a team quarterbacked by Josh Freeman. He duct taped defenses made up of a mishmash of reliable veterans and young, unproven prospects into stable units in both Atlanta and Los Angeles. He even coached the Falcons for 11 games as interim head coach after Quinn was fired.

But Morris hasn’t been especially successful at any of these spots. He’s 21-38 as a head coach overall. That isn’t a fair reflection of his abilities since he walked into messes in each situation, but it does suggest there’s only so much chicken salad he can create from chicken crap. He coaxed impressive growth from a Rams defense that hemorrhaged starters and effectively had to start over in 2023 — only two players who started at least 10 games returned to the team that year — but still finished the year as a below average unit despite a playoff appearance.

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This suggests Morris is a high floor coach for a team that, it turns out, really needs one. The NFC South remains imminently winnable. A competent quarterback might be all Atlanta needs to take a top 12 defense to the next level and get back to the postseason. And, again, Morris once got 10 wins out of Josh Freeman.

The Falcons made an unsexy hire, but a smart one. Morris isn’t Bill Belichick, who’d interviewed with the team twice in January, but he’s a solid game planner who’ll take the risks Arthur Smith was uncomfortable making and maximize the talent on hand.

New England Patriots: Jerod Mayo

Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Guys who earn a head coaching job after working under Bill Belichick generally don’t pan out. There’s a pretty solid sample size there but let’s just say Bill O’Brien is the most successful branch of that tree.

Guys who played under Bill Belichick have been a little more successful. That’s a very small sample size, but both Mike Vrabel (eight seasons as a Patriot) and Kevin O’Connell (one) have guided their teams to playoff berths and division titles.

Mayo straddles the line between the two. He was an All-Pro inside linebacker in eight years with New England. He was the team’s linebackers coach — and later played a big role in the team’s defensive playcalling — the past five years. His work in the latter led him to be Belichick’s hand-picked successor after the Patriots moved on from their Hall of Fame head coach.

The good news is New England’s defense will likely be a top 10 unit capable of slowing some of the AFC’s most explosive opponents. The bad news is that isn’t the problem the Pats need to fix. Mayo is inheriting a mess at quarterback, wideout and at the offensive tackle positions where his 2023 starters are both free agents.

Thus, it’s incredibly difficult to know whether Mayo can rise above the low standard of a Belichick disciple, especially since we don’t yet know who exactly will be making the team’s personnel decisions. But Mayo can command respect for the Patriot Way in a manner other coaches couldn’t because he won a Super Bowl playing in it. And he can be the slow drip away from the Belichick era and into something different.

Carolina Panthers: Dave Canales

AP Photo/Danny Karnik

The Panthers needed a big swing and took one with Canales, who has only one season as an offensive coordinator — and one season without the influence of Pete Carroll as his head coach — on his resume. Even so, it’s hard not to be impressed by his ability to make flawed quarterbacks better.

Canales was quarterbacks coach in Seattle when the transition from Russell Wilson to Geno Smith repelled any notion of a wholesale rebuild. He moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2023 and, as offensive coordintor, turned Baker Mayfield from 2022’s worst starting quarterback into a borderline top 10 passer. Now he gets to work with Bryce Young, who is in dire need of rehabilitation after a grim rookie campaign.

There’s an issue here beyond Canales’ relative lack of high level experience. He got the best out of discarded quarterbacks thanks in large part to dynamic wide receiver combinations — DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett in Seattle and Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in Tampa Bay.

Carolina’s top three wideouts under contract right now are some combination of a 33-year-old Adam Thielen, Jonathan Mingo and Terrace Marshall Jr.. It’ll be tough supplementing that group at the draft since the Chicago Bears own their top overall pick thanks to last year’s Young trade and the last two Day 2 wideouts the franchise selected are Mingo and Marshall, who have been disappointing as pros. Carolina could go after a veteran in a solid free agent market, but a good chunk of the team’s money may already be earmarked toward keeping Brian Burns and Frankie Luvu from leaving.

A six-year contract should provide the patience necessary to pull off a long-term overhaul, but Canales is also employed by the guy who launched a cocktail at fans in Jacksonville because he couldn’t control his temper. Canales might not get the tools he needs to execute the game plan that worked with the Seahawks and Buccaneers. But in terms of the Panthers’ needs, he’s a solid fit.

Tennessee Titans: Brian Callahan

The Tennessean

Let’s pair the young(ish) offensive coordinators taking on flawed young quarterbacks together. Callahan built his reputation on getting the most out of Joe Burrow and guiding the Cincinnati Bengals from the bottom of the AFC to the Super Bowl. Which is great, but not exactly a steep learning curve when he had Burrow and a cast of stud wide receivers.

Turning Jake Browning into an effective starter after 4.5 seasons in the NFL and zero regular season pass attempts? That’s the kind of preparation the Titans need.

Browning utilized a steady diet of short passes and occasional deep shots to finish 2023 as the league’s 10th-most efficient quarterback in terms of expected points added (EPA) per play, nestled between Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. Now Callahan gets to work that magic with Will Levis and Malik Willis, two talented-but-flawed young quarterbacks.

However, like Canales he’s going to have to do so with limited wideout support. DeAndre Hopkins turns 32 years old in June. Treylon Burks and Chigoziem Okonkwo are more lottery ticket than proven production at this point. There’s no run-after-catch marvel there to buoy the passing game if Levis or Willis struggle. A defense that forced the second-fewest turnovers in the NFL last year won’t provide much support in year one, either.

Las Vegas Raiders: Antonio Pierce

Candice Ward/Getty Images

Speaking of guys without much high level experience, Pierce has spent two years as an NFL coach and exactly nine games with a job title higher than linebackers coach. But man, what a nine games they were.

Pierce went 5-4 despite starting a fourth-round rookie at quarterback. He beat the Kansas City Chiefs on a day where he had 48 net yards of passing offense. How? Because after Pierce took over, his defense went from 26th in defensive efficiency to SECOND over the back half of 2023.

That’s a jump from this:

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Seattle Seahawks: Mike Macdonald

Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

The fit here makes too much sense. The Seahawks missed the playoffs in 2023 thanks to a defense that was filled with solid players but failed to live up to expectations.

Seattle had veterans like Bobby Wagner, Leonard Williams and Quandre Diggs in the lineup. It had rising prospects like Riq Woolen, Devon Witherspoon and Boye Mafe. This should have been an intimidating unit for a postseason team. Instead, it was one of the league’s three worst defenses.

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Macdonald can help. In 2021 he helped make the Michigan Wolverines a top 10 defense among FBS teams. He returned to the Baltimore Ravens as defensive coordinator and oversaw a unit that ranked third and first, respectively, in scoring defense in 2022 and 2023.

Along the way he’s turned first round picks and late-draft steals into stars. Kyle Hamilton, Patrick Queen and Roquan Smith are all coming off their finest seasons as pros thanks in part to his playcalling. Justin Madubuike and Geno Stone each played vital roles for the AFC’s top seed. Macdonald knows how to maximize his roster’s talent, and now he’s going to a Seattle depth chart that’s been less than the sum of its parts lately.

Los Angeles Chargers; Jim Harbaugh

Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

All Harbaugh does is win, whether we’re talking stints in the Pioneer Football League, Pac-10, NFC West or Big Ten. Along the way, he’s made his quarterbacks better, making a non-scholarship FCS quarterback like Josh Johnson a longtime NFL backup, guiding both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick to NFC title games and making J.J. McCarthy a potential 2024 first round pick.

Now he gets to work with Justin Herbert, a player whose talent on the field has exceeded the Chargers’ place in the standings.

Granted, it won’t be as easy as plugging in a successful coach with a high ceiling quarterback. Los Angeles has major restructuring to be done. The team is an estimated $45 million over next year’s salary cap, per Over the Cap. Tough decisions will have to be made about veteran contributors like Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Khalil Mack, all of whom could be traded in order to facilitate a rolling rebuild and provide cap relief. A defense that hasn’t cracked the top 20 when it comes to points allowed in any of the last four seasons remains in rough shape.

Even so, the Chargers made the highest-profile hiring of the 2024 cycle and likely the most expensive at an estimated $16 million annually. In terms of Harbaugh’s track record and what he’ll get to work with, this is the offseason’s safest coaching bet. It may not be an immediate turnaround, but Los Angeles is in better shape now than it ever was in 2023.

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