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Josh McDaniels, Teryl Austin top coaching candidates

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Some coaches in the NFL have reached the beginning of the end.

By now, owners looking to make a coaching change have started reaching out to search firms or panels to do some background work on potential replacements. Those going the more traditional route have started contacting agents on a cursory level to figure out what it would take to secure The Right Man (or Woman) For The Job (here's our step-by-step piece on how the process works from last week).

So begins a carousel that feels like it will last forever, but stands out as one of the more absurd breakneck hiring periods in any professional industry. Coaches, who are essentially the CEOs and public faces of their respective companies, are interviewed, vetted and hired in less than a month. The Eagles gave themselves a head start last year and still didn't have a candidate completely pinpointed before some teams that had fired their coach after Philadelphia.

Estimates from two people involved in the process of hiring coaches guessed that there could be three or four openings this offseason, though anything can happen over the last month with fans and media preferring the age-old chaos theory of firing the coach of just about every team with a truly dismal record. (By that count, area columnists, reporters and bloggers have already at some point late in this season raised the possibility of or openly advocated for at least seven coaching jobs changing hands, which illustrates the fickle nature of the season.) In that spirit, here's the final head coaching NEXT list of the season, breaking down all the potential candidates who will make waves this winter. As usual, the analysis below is a blend of my personal opinion, and the opinions of several current and former general managers, as well as individuals who have been a part of previous hiring processes.

The top four

1) Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England Patriots: As I reported back in September and October via a source who has spoken to McDaniels, the Pats coach would be willing to leave New England for the right opportunity. What is the right opportunity? While that was not specifically laid out, I would interpret that as a place where there is already a talented quarterback, a non-meddlesome owner and a smart general manager. McDaniels already has shot down rumors that he will wait out Bill Belichick in New England and eventually take over the Patriots' head coaching job. That being said, his cozy situation in New England creates tremendous stability and leverage for any team trying to pry him away.

2) Teryl Austin, defensive coordinator, Detroit Lions: Austin was labeled as a heavy favorite to interview again at the end of this season on our initial list of candidates. This thinking was based on my opinion -- given the sheer number of interviews he's had in seasons past -- which was recently fortified by one former NFL coach who expected Austin will receive calls again this season. Placed in a category of excellent coordinators, it would seem Austin's ultimate coaching fate resided on the entire Lions operation this season. After a stunning campaign that could produce a division title, the time has come for Austin to rise from the ranks of well-respected defensive architect to team leader. His best weapon might be his skepticism; Austin has interviewed with plenty of teams over the past two years, though he has spoken honestly about some of those interviews not being serious inquisitions. He knows what he wants and who to trust.

3) Kyle Shanahan, offensive coordinator, Atlanta Falcons: Like last year, this could be dependent on the Falcons staving off a collapse. Matt Ryan is still in MVP form and Julio Jones is still the NFL's leading wide receiver (by a healthy margin). Nearly every offense Shanahan has touched over the years has been better because of him -- Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta, of late -- and despite his relative youth (37 next week), teams looking for an offensive upgrade almost certainly will bring him in for a talk -- or, in my opinion, they at least should. It could be shortsighted to assume that owners bailed on Shanahan last year because the Falcons fell apart in the second half of the season, but this is the time of year when many decision makers start honing in. Shining now will make a lasting impression.

4) Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles: I think the resurgence of Jack Del Rio in Oakland has opened some minds to a retread NFL head coach again, based on the sentiment that several former general managers who have gone through coaching hires have told me over the years: The NFL is a trend-seeking league, and owners sometimes emulate what is working elsewhere. As NFL.com's Charley Casserly told me in a piece about hiring head coaches, previous professional experience is valued. Schwartz had some success in Detroit and is the perfect fit for a team in search of discipline. The 50-year-old will work well with a team looking to accentuate its defensive playmakers, but he is an acquired taste. Much like Tom Coughlin after his stint in Jacksonville, it will take the right mix of timing and opportunity. (As former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi told me a while back on hiring Coughlin, it takes an open mind to hire someone with a reputation for intensity.) Schwartz is not going to mince words during the interview process.

Right on the cusp

1) Anthony Lynn, offensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills: The Bills' offense has been night and day since Lynn took over following Greg Roman's firing in mid-September. His eye for play design and ability to free up star players has not gone unnoticed over the last few months. (NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, for one, mentioned Lynn along with Schwartz and McDaniels as potential head-coaching candidates on "GameDay First" back in late November.) The longtime Rex Ryan assistant has a style of his own and is a consummate player favorite, which was easy for me to see, having covered Lynn while he was the running backs coach of the New York Jets. Lynn spent half a dozen years in the NFL as a player and also has special teams experience on his coaching résumé.

2) Matt Patricia, defensive coordinator, New England Patriots: I recently asked a college coach who knows Patricia well how he would hold up as a leader of 53 men, as opposed to just a specific group of players. The answer was that hard work can translate to anything -- meaning Patricia is determined enough to do whatever he wants in this league. The fantasy that a Patriots assistant is going to come to a team and create what Belichick has created in New England is fleeting, but Patricia's work ethic stands out. Stories written aboutPatricia over the last few years seem to paint him as a shut-in, though I think that narrative will soon change.

3) Vance Joseph, defensive coordinator, Miami Dolphins: As intimated in our initial coaching list, Joseph is the first coach who comes up when you ask other NFL coaches who they'd recommend. On the record throughout the season, Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase has praised his defensive coordinator. A former player, Joseph is an excellent communicator and is quick to build a community feel in the locker room. A humble, self-critical play caller, Joseph will impress in interviews this winter.

4) Jim Bob Cooter, offensive coordinator, Detroit Lions: Unfortunately for Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, he has not received nearly the credit he deserves for the team's surprising run this year. Most of the attention has been placed on Austin and Cooter, both of whom will get interviews this January if they can fit time in their schedules. One industry source had Cooter targeted as a potential candidate for an interview after training camp but noted how the opinion of him could change based on the performance of the Lions this season, while an NFC executive lauded his potential as a coach. It is my opinion that, in that time, his stock has risen, as Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has elevated himself into the MVP conversation. The Lions don't have a highly ranked offense in terms of total yards, but the devastation is in the design. Also, Detroit is sixth in turnover margin -- behind five other teams that have a good chance of making the playoffs.

5) Darrell Bevell, offensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks: Bevell has, in some way, shape or form, been on just about every head-coaching list created since the middle of 2013. Meanwhile, just about every Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator in that time has been plucked for a head-coaching job elsewhere. To me, Bevell seems like a good coordinator who runs a fun and unpredictable offense. He manages the coaches around him well and has created something successful from a group of (very talented) undrafted free agents and mid-round picks. Given that his fellow offensive coaches like Tom Cable, who was listed by Rapoport as a potential head-coaching candidate in previous seasons, have also generated some kind of buzz, I would guess owners would need to decide who is responsible for what in Seattle and come away happy with that decision.

Wild cards

1) Tom Coughlin, former head coach, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants: Coughlin has not minced words since his ouster in New York: He wants to coach again. While one of Coughlin's friends who has spoken with him recently said the former coach has settled in nicely at the league office, Coughlin has publicly said he'd listen to coaching offers -- especially if it's in the right place. The 70-year-old is a family man first, but there are certain scenarios -- such as Jacksonville -- that could work out perfectly for the two-time Super Bowl champion.

2) Harold Goodwin, offensive coordinator, Arizona Cardinals: Goodwin was a name that garnered a lot of attention at the beginning of the season -- especially after Bruce Arians gave him control of the team's play-calling in the preseason, theoretically to boost his profile as a potential head coach. Given recent reports -- though none confirmed by me personally -- that Arians could weigh retirement at the end of the season due to health concerns, it's important that Goodwin be named on the list. It would be difficult to imagine the Cardinals not giving him a hard look in that scenario.

3) Mike Smith, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Smith is a good football coach with a career winning record (66-46 in seven years with the Falcons) who impressed the Giants with his interview last offseason before they went with Ben McAdoo, according to one team source with knowledge of the interview. The Buccaneers are gearing up for a serious playoff race against Atlanta and, should they end up on top, Smith would get a share of the credit. Also, teams are going to pay attention to whomever the Giants interviewed last season -- and they should. They are one of the few teams doing it right. In my piece on the hiring process, Casserly noted that he always took note of the Steelers, who have had just three head coaches since the hiring of Chuck Noll back in 1969. The Giants, who had Tom Coughlin from 2004 to 2015, would seem to be held in similar regard, though no one has nearly the track record of success that Dan Rooney does in Pittsburgh.

4) Sean McDermott, defensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers: I think some teams are smart enough to decide for themselves if they like the 42-year-old defensive coordinator. The Panthers are a spectacularly disappointing 4-8 this season, but they have lost a majority of their games by a field goal or less -- and lost one of the 10 best cover corners in the league last offseason. This offseason, McDermott should have more time to devote to the interview process.

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