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NFL assistant coaches on the rise; five big questions for Week 8

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By any measure, Sean McVay was a unique head coaching candidate a year ago: He was 30 years old, already three years into his role as Washington Redskins offensive coordinator, an experienced play-caller, the product of a football family, a fantastic communicator and mature beyond his age.

The Los Angeles Rams heard the predictable concern as they did their homework -- "He's a couple years away" -- but also knew that, for every Lane Kiffin-level failure, there was a Jon Gruden, Don Shula, John Madden or Mike Tomlin who had jumped out at an early age. McVay did that in his interview and checked every other box. So, the Rams decided to bet on McVay immediately, rather than betting they'd get another shot when others deemed him ready.

Now 31, McVay is all of seven games -- and five wins -- into his NFL head coaching career. I'm not enshrining him in Canton just yet. If going young were a magic formula, Kyle Shanahan (37) and the 49ers wouldn't be 0-7 right now. (Shanahan's wildly talented, too, and has plenty of time on a six-year contract to grow through a roster overhaul.) But it's worth wondering if the life McVay has infused into a Rams franchise that sorely needed it might embolden a few other teams to step outside their comfort zones during the upcoming coaching-search season and ask the question I posed to dozens of NFL executives, GMs, coaches, agents and others this past week:

Who's this year's Sean McVay?

My criteria were loose. Nobody has the experience McVay had at that age; it's hard to even find many under age 40. But my focus was to identify young and, in many cases, less-heralded coordinators and assistant coaches who might get a shot to run the show sooner than expected. Here's a short list of names to remember:

-- Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs: The former Arena League quarterback has trained under Andy Reid for a decade, rising to co-offensive coordinator last year, and now he has the solo job. People who have worked with Nagy, 39, say he has done tremendous work with Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes and would have Reid's endorsement. Nagy doesn't call plays, but Doug Pederson didn't do that very much in Kansas City before he landed the Eagles' head coaching job, either (nor did Reid in his pre-Philly days). One person who knows Colts general manager Chris Ballard says Nagy will be high (if not first) on Ballard's list if Indianapolis makes a change. The two worked together in Kansas City.

-- Kris Richard, defensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks: A former NFL defensive back, Richard is known as a very good leader and speaker -- traits you need to be heard in a Seahawks meeting room filled with strong personalities. He was an assistant on both of Seattle's Super Bowl teams and was promoted to coordinator in 2015. One NFL executive who knows Richard, 38, said he's ready for a head job -- it'd just need to be at the right place, with time on his side and a strong GM overseeing personnel. The Bills interviewed Richard last year and told people he did well.

-- Mike Vrabel, defensive coordinator, Houston Texans: The 14-year NFL veteran followed Bill O'Brien's branch of the Bill Belichick tree to Houston, and Vrabel, 42, was promoted to defensive coordinator this year. O'Brien's assessment of Vrabel when we spoke in June: "He's a great leader. He's a very good communicator. He's got that good ability to be tough on his players, but also have a chance to put his arm around them and pick them up. He's got a good motivational way about him. Brings a lot of cachet to the field, because he played 14 years, played in a [Patriots] defense that required a lot of smart people and a lot of communication." The Rams requested an interview with Vrabel last year, but they hired McVay before it happened.

-- Matt Patricia, defensive coordinator, New England Patriots: I almost disqualified him from this list, given the fact that his profile is much higher than the others (and not just because of his post-Super Bowl wardrobe choices). But his name comes up in every conversation about the NFL's bright, young assistants. Patricia, 43, has won two rings in five-and-a-half years as Patriots defensive coordinator, and he interviewed the past couple of years with the Browns, Rams and Chargers. He's smart (rocket science!) and engaging. Several people told me they've gotten the impression it'd have to be a perfect fit to convince Patricia to leave New England.

-- John DeFilippo, quarterbacks coach, Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz said he was excited the Eagles blocked DeFilippo, 39, from interviewing for the Jets' offensive coordinator job, and why not? People who know him say he's energetic, passionate and fun to work with. One former colleague with the Raiders recalls DeFilippo even embraced trying to get something out of all-time bust JaMarcus Russell (who had his only modestly functional season with DeFilippo as his QB coach in Oakland in 2008). He's highly motivated to be a head coach and has a plan. He's a bit of a wild card, because he only has one year of experience as a coordinator, on a doomed staff in Cleveland in 2015. The 49ers interviewed him the following January.

-- Todd Downing, offensive coordinator, Oakland Raiders: Tough sell right now, with the Raiders' offense struggling out of the gate in his first season calling the plays. But they made sure to keep Downing, 37, for a reason. The traits people in Oakland describe are what teams look for in a head coach: great communicator, relates to players, has organizational skills and personality. Some people even pushed him as a candidate last year. Said one coach who has worked with Downing: "He has head coach written all over him."

-- Matt Burke, defensive coordinator, Miami Dolphins: A 13-year NFL assistant who replaced close colleague Vance Joseph (now the Broncos' head coach) as coordinator this year, Burke was the guy I knew the least about on this list, until NFL people kept bringing up his name. Scouting report from people Burke, 41, has worked with: very smart, great communication skills, adjusts well on game day, good leader, players respond to him. Said one NFL executive I respect: "If I said, 'Who's the next Sean McVay?' it would be Matt Burke."

A few other young coaches to keep an eye on in the coming years: Jim Bob Cooter (age 33), offensive coordinator, Detroit Lions; Matt LaFleur (37), offensive coordinator, Los Angeles Rams; Marquand Manuel (38), defensive coordinator, Atlanta Falcons; David Raih (37), offensive perimeter coach, Green Bay Packers.

Top candidates

The full field of head coaching candidates is shaping up a little like last year's: It's Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and everyone else. McDaniels, 41, is reflective about how things went in his first head coaching stint with the Broncos (11-17 in Denver) and has learned a lot since. He pulled out of the 49ers' coaching search last year and will remain selective, but I'm told he's ready and excited if the right opportunity comes. Other names that came up in my conversations with people around the league, several of whom had interviews last year:

Those who would be getting their first shot: Frank Reich, offensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles; Steve Wilks, defensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers; Paul Guenther, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals; Dave Toub, special teams coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs; Teryl Austin, defensive coordinator, Detroit Lions.

Those who would be getting a second chance: Pat Shurmur, offensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings; Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles; Mike McCoy, offensive coordinator, Denver Broncos; Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills; Tom Cable, offensive line coach/assistant head coach, Seattle Seahawks; Mike Smith, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

White whales: Former Raiders and Bucs coach Jon Gruden, Stanford coach David Shaw, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

The Five Ws for Week 8

Ever wish you had the access of a highly connected NFL reporter? Well, now you do! Sort of. Submit your questions on Twitter using the hashtag #AskedAndAnswered. @TomPelissero will select the best submissions and work to find an answer.

WHO will be this year's Wade Phillips? After turning down a post-Super Bowl extension, Phillips coached out the last year on his deal as Broncos defensive coordinator in 2016, then joined McVay with the Rams. Now Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is in a similar spot: He's on an expiring contract while coaching a defense that's almost single-handedly keeping the Bears competitive, without a single player who has made a Pro Bowl. If Fangio, 59, doesn't get a head coaching look (which isn't out of the question), he should be in demand to turn around somebody's defense. The 49ers were interested in bringing him back last year (Fangio was San Francisco's defensive coordinator from 2011 to '14), but the Bears denied them.

WHAT has happened to the Broncos' offense? They were one of the NFL's most productive units in the first couple of weeks. From a 26-16 loss in Week 3 at Buffalo through last week's 21-0 defeat at the Chargers, the Broncos are dead last in points per game and red-zone TD percentage and near the bottom in rushing yards per game (25th) and third-down percentage (29th), according to NFL Media Research. A lot gets heaped on quarterback Trevor Siemian. But as coach Vance Joseph said, it's "not a Trevor problem, it's a unit problem." One coach who has studied the Broncos recently pointed to the offensive line: "It starts up front. Not much time or room to run. It'll help them to get [receiver Emmanuel Sanders] back, I'm sure." Sanders sat out last week with an ankle injury. They could use him in Monday's AFC West showdown at Kansas City.

WHEN might the Browns make a change with their head coach? There will be lots of speculation about Hue Jackson's fate if they fall to 0-8 (and 1-23 under the current regime) on Sunday against the Vikings in London. But I haven't gotten the sense in talking to multiple people close to the Browns that it's happening at this stage. Players are still fighting hard. Never say never with that franchise and that record, but owner Jimmy Haslam knew he wasn't signing up for a quick fix.

WHERE does Penn State's Saquon Barkley rate against recent top running backs? He's on that level with the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette, according to scouts I've spoken to over the past month. How you stack them up is a matter of taste. One personnel director told me Barkley is as good a running back as he's ever evaluated, with better feet and agility than Fournette. A college scouting director noted the Nittany Lions have expanded the passing game with Barkley in his junior year (he already has 32 catches for 448 yards in seven games) and broke down the comparison this way: "Barkley's a better outside runner than Elliott is. Elliott's a better inside runner than Barkley. And I think Fournette is probably a little better at both than Barkley. I think [Barkley's] got a little more make-miss and he's a little less physical than the other two. That's one area he can get better at. I don't think he's just a real inside, slam-it, pound-it kind of guy. He wants to jump-cut out of there. He wants to stretch it wide. That's where he goes good."

WHY will UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen be one of the most fascinating evaluations whenever he enters the NFL draft? Just in the past few days, I've had a scout text me out of the blue to say how ridiculously talented the outspoken true junior is, while one longtime NFL executive told me he can't imagine drafting Rosen because of personality issues. This has gone on all fall. Take those October evaluations for what they're worth, especially when dealing with a program like UCLA, which is notoriously uncooperative with NFL scouts. Rosen has a lot of fans as a QB, but it reminds me a little of the debate that swirled around Connor Cook a couple years ago. Teams will spend a lot of extra time and resources trying to figure out if they're comfortable with the guy.

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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