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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Albert Breer

The NFL Coaching Carousel Is Already in Full Swing

The regular season is done, and we’re ready to roll into the playoffs and the hiring cycle …

• The Broncos’ process, captained by new CEO Greg Penner (the front man for the Walton ownership group) is well underway, and it’s focused, as expected, on coaches who have previous experience in the role. Four of the six candidates they’re planning interviews with—Sean Payton, Jim Harbaugh, Dan Quinn and Raheem Morris—have been head coaches before, with Niners defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and internal candidate Ejiro Evero, the team’s current DC, standing as the two outliers.

While the pursuit of Payton or Harbaugh could end up looking more like a recruitment than an interview process, I do get the sense that Penner, who wasn’t around for the hire of Nathaniel Hackett, is excited to conduct a thorough process, and it sounds like he’ll have an open mind with it.

• The case of 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is an interesting one. Both the Broncos and Texans have put in requests to interview him, and I think he’s a particularly strong candidate in Houston, where he was a cornerstone player for six years. The question from there will be where he’s willing to go.

Ryans made around $50 million as a player. He’s also in a position, as a coordinator working with the likes of Nick Bosa and Fred Warner, to continue churning out top-of-the-league units, which should protect his stock as a head-coaching candidate. And so with financial security and stability for his reputation and in the team he’s working for, Ryans can afford to be picky, and many in the industry expect he will be.

Last year, Ryans pulled out of the Vikings search. I don’t think he’d be afraid to do the same with the Broncos or Texans if he didn’t feel things were right with those franchises.

49ers defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans oversaw the NFL’s best run defense by opponents’ yards per carry (3.4).

Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports

• Speaking of the Texans, with the 38-year-old Ryans, and both Eagles coordinators, Jonathan Gannon (40) and Shane Steichen (37), requested, it’s pretty clear that Houston is breaking in a different direction with this head coach hire after hiring 60-somethings in consecutive years (both showed their age on the job in their own ways).

As we’ve said for a couple weeks now, Gannon is very much a name to watch. He interviewed well in Houston last year, and may have gotten the job if not for some factors outside his control, and has strong ties to fellow northeast Ohio native Nick Caserio through mutual friend Josh McDaniels. Internally, there’s a strong belief that Gannon would be a much better philosophical pairing for Caserio than David Culley or Lovie Smith were.

With that established, I’d add that I’ve heard owner Cal McNair would be leery about going Patriot/Patriot with his next coach/GM pairing. So while I know Caserio likes and respects Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo and Steelers senior defensive assistant Brian Flores, the timing might not be right for either of those guys in Houston.

• Interesting to see the first three names that Kevin Stefanski tapped for defensive-coordinator interviews—Mayo, Flores and Titans senior defensive assistant Jim Schwartz—in Cleveland were all Bill Belichick-raised coaches. Schwartz crossed over with Browns GM Andrew Berry in Philadelphia, too, and has been the name most bandied about. But I wouldn’t rule out the other two. Flores might even be the clubhouse favorite.

As for Mayo, my understanding is he’s very open to taking a coordinator job elsewhere after four years as a defensive assistant in New England. Mayo handles a fair amount of coordinator duties for the Patriots, helping in game-planning and running defensive meetings, but the chance to be a primary play-caller and standalone coordinator elsewhere would help him stand out in the ever-growing list of solid defense-first head coaching candidates over the next few years.

One thing that would help a team land Mayo to be a DC would be geography—I think he’d like to stay in commuting distance from New England, so he wouldn’t have to move his family twice to become a head coach. And he does have the flexibility that Ryans does to be choosy, as strong as his reputation is across the NFL.

• The Titans’ offensive coordinator change has been in the works for a while, and it’s probably fair to say Todd Downing didn’t help his chances of surviving by getting charged with a DUI after Tennessee’s last win, a week before Thanksgiving in Green Bay.

The team’s next OC will be Mike Vrabel’s fourth, and the two times he’s had to replace a departing coach in that role, he’s looked internally—going from Matt LaFleur to Arthur Smith in 2019, and Smith to Downing in 2021. It would shock no one if that happened again, with well-regarded pass-game coordinator Tim Kelly a top candidate for the role.

If Vrabel looks outside the building, both Alabama OC Bill O’Brien (his old boss in Houston) and ex-Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury (an ex-teammate from New England) have strong ties to the Titans coach.

• O’Brien’s name is very much on the radar in New England, too. Owner Robert Kraft has voiced his displeasure with the state of the offensive staff to people in the building over the last couple months, and he referenced making “critical evaluations of all elements of our football operation” in a letter to season ticket holders on Monday. Kraft also has a relationship with O’Brien, who once was considered a potential successor to Belichick.

The question there would be how aggressive the Patriots are willing to be to get him. Belichick’s never really been in a position where he had to bid on a coordinator candidate, with almost all his hires into those jobs being promotions (Josh McDaniels was the one exception in 2012, and that was after McDaniels was fired from the Rams staff). So if Tennessee, Vegas or Tampa comes after O’Brien, will Belichick compete for him? Will Kraft push the issue? It’ll be interesting to see.

If it’s not O’Brien, Kingsbury would be another name to watch. I can say the Patriots have done their homework on him. The question would be whether Kingsbury wants to jump back into being an assistant, with the Cardinals paying out the remaining four years on the contract extension he signed last February.

• The Panthers have dragged their feet a little on putting out requests, but I’d expect them to look hard at keeping Steve Wilks (potentially with Eagles QBs coach Brian Johnson as his OC), and at least look around at young offensive-minded assistants, the area in which owner David Tepper did a lot of his research over the last couple months.

Some names to watch there? Lions OC Ben Johnson, Bengals OC Brian Callahan, Eagles OC Shane Steichen and Bills OC Ken Dorsey.

• Michigan RB Blake Corum broke the news to my buddy Rich Eisen that he’s staying in Ann Arbor for his senior year rather than going pro. And there’s a little more to the story than just that. The knee surgery Corum underwent in December was actually a full meniscus repair, a surgery that necessitates a six-month rehab process. That rehab process would’ve shelved Corum for the entire draft process, and in this case it would be a big deal.

Why? Corum is in a cluster of backs who were slotted behind Texas’s Bijan Robinson and Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs, and among that group there could be a lot of jockeying—a potential third-round pick could become a sixth-rounder, and vice versa. Going into that sort of situation with a knee injury, and the kind where long-term viability is a question, would’ve been an issue, as would have the fact that he wouldn’t have been able to run a 40 when the biggest question he’s facing as a prospect is just how fast he is.

So really, this was more a practical decision for Corum than a romantic one. It made sense for him to go back, prove he was healthy, and be ready to run for scouts in 2024.

• Similar situation with Ohio State TE Cade Stover, who was with Corum in that middle-round range. Stover, who’s spent most of his time as a college player on defense, is a raw athlete, physical and tough enough to garner the nickname Farmer Gronk (he’s from the cornfields of Ohio). But in the national semifinal, Stover suffered a disk injury that would have cost him a good chunk, if not all, of the pre-draft run-up.

Bottom line, if you’re an NFL team, and you’re looking at a raw athlete like Stover and projecting his development at a position he’s still learning, you probably want to see him lift, jump and run. And so rather than not be able to do that this spring, Stover decided it’s best to go back to school, make another run at a national title, develop further at his position and then be able to work out for scouts in 2024.

• And we’ll wrap with this—in the cases of both Corum and Stover, I’d say NIL is more than just a nice benefit those guys get for staying. Each guy could make more this year as college stars than they would as late-round picks in the NFL.

And honestly, there’s a benefit for the league there too, in that NIL is keeping guys in school, and allowing them more time to develop before they come to the pros. And these kids get to make that call, which is always a tough one, without it automatically being a bad business decision to stay on campus..

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