The beauty of early September: For most teams, hope springs eternal. Everyone can still win their division and everyone can go win the Super Bowl. But behind the scenes, there are young coordinators and position coaches -- and some ex-head coaches attempting to make a comeback -- who will be garnering attention, just in case those hopes go awry and teams need to make head-coaching changes.
In anticipation of the regular-season opener, NFL.com surveyed several people with knowledge of the hiring process and people in decision-making positions about candidates who have impressed them recently. From there, we broke the candidates out into several tiers based on popular opinion among those who weighed in.
The short list
Coaches who will be running their own teams in 2017.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England Patriots: At this point, the situation is more about McDaniels finding the right opportunity (and having the time to interview). After his stint as the head coach in Denver (he went 11-17 in 2009 and 2010), perspective is everything. He has an excellent situation in New England right now, but he is likely looking for a place where the golden trio -- quarterback, ownership and general manager -- line up to his liking.
Sean McDermott, defensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers: Had the Panthers not been white hot last season, this probably would have been a done deal already. Interview time was at a premium, and the architect of one of the NFL's best defenses simply got swallowed up in the hysteria of Carolina's run to Super Bowl 50. Few can blame him, but plenty will line up to interview him.
Harold Goodwin, offensive coordinator, Arizona Cardinals: It took people around the NFL long enough to start listening to Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians -- but now that he has our attention, he's not letting go. There will be considerably less buzz surrounding Goodwin because he doesn't have an agent and deflects the spotlight, but Arians is already taking steps to ensure that all eyes are on this talented coordinator.
If all goes well
Coordinators who, with continued success, will be heavy favorites to interview.
Kyle Shanahan, offensive coordinator, Atlanta Falcons: Sometimes, the owners in decision-making positions can be as knee-jerk as the fans who fill their stadiums. Shanahan managed to install an eye-opening offense in three different previous locations, but a cold streak to end the 2015 season also curbed his chances of making an impression. If the Falcons return to the playoffs, Shanahan could find himself running his own team.
Paul Guenther, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals: While the Bengals have yet to win a playoff game in 14 years under Marvin Lewis, his coaching tree piques serious interest. Former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is already installing a sweeping culture change in Cleveland, while the man he succeeded in Cincinnati, Jay Gruden, led Washington to an NFC East title last season. Meanwhile, former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been a game changer in Minnesota, winning 11 games in his second year at the helm. Guenther, who has been with Cincinnati since 2005 and has interviewed for head-coaching vacancies in the past, will have plenty of eyes on him, so long as the Bengals turn in another solid defensive effort in 2016.
Teryl Austin, defensive coordinator, Detroit Lions: Austin was everywhere last offseason, riding the carousel through almost all of the big openings before winding up back in Detroit. Of the four interviews he took in early 2016, he felt he could have landed two of the jobs. If Detroit's defense settles down after taking a step back without Ndamukong Suh in 2015, he will have more chances.
Matt Patricia, defensive coordinator, New England Patriots: The fear over hiring Bill Belichick disciples is dying down, which is why Patricia made the rounds last season and landed an interview with the Cleveland Browns. The word you most commonly hear associated with Patricia is "brilliant," and not just when it comes to the defenses he calls.
Edgar Bennett, offensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers: Those concerned with offensive coordinators in Green Bay -- Mike McCarthy calls the plays -- will be keeping an eye on fast-rising coach Ben McAdoo, a long-time McCarthy assistant who became the Giants' offensive coordinator in 2014 before taking the top job in New York this season. But Bennett is viewed by some as a better head-coaching candidate, motivator and CEO than coordinator, which is why he should find himself on the interview circuit this year if Green Bay has a big season.
Darrell Bevell, offensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks: Bevell might be remembered for one play call and how he handled it afterward, but the Seahawks are primed to have a top-three offense in 2016. If Bevell can unleash the full potential of this unit, we'll time-travel back to 2013, when owners were begging Seahawks coordinators to take their money.
Names that could get trendy in a hurry
Anthony Lynn, assistant head coach and running game coordinator, Buffalo Bills: Lynn has been ahead of the curve in terms of offensive creativity for a few years now and is getting the chance to see his ideas implemented in Buffalo. If the Bills' offense can take another step forward on the shoulders of quarterback Tyrod Taylor and running back LeSean McCoy, Lynn should find his name in the mix. Lynn previously interviewed for gigs in Miami, Jacksonville, San Francisco and more.
Sean McVay, offensive coordinator, Washington Redskins: McVay is getting a reputation for being more like Jon Gruden than his current boss -- Jon's brother, Jay. If he gets a head-coaching job next January, the 30-year-old would be roughly a year younger than Lane Kiffin was in 2007 when, at 31 years and eight months, the Raiders made him the youngest head coach in NFL history. Teams have become more open-minded about hiring older coaches of late, which means McVay might have to wait another year or two. However, if Kirk Cousins throws the air out of the football again this year, that ascension could speed up a bit.
Vance Joseph, defensive coordinator, Miami Dolphins: Joseph is a coach's coach and has energized the players down in Miami. With a star-studded lineup at his disposal, we could see Joseph's name elevate faster than anyone on the list.
Jim Bob Cooter, offensive coordinator, Detroit Lions: Cooter could end up being a buzzed-about name if Matthew Stafford enjoys a big season in Detroit. His influence on Jim Caldwell's offense has been significant thus far, and being attached to the Peyton Manning name and brand doesn't hurt. Cooter also has ties to Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, who could end up developing quite the coaching tree of his own in Miami.
If all goes really, really well
Former head coaches and high-profile coordinators who could make moves if their teams outperform expectations.
Frank Reich, offensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles: Reich interviewed for the Buffalo Bills' head coaching job early in 2015 after a strong first season as the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers in 2014. Unfortunately, Reich ran into a buzzsaw -- along with other members of San Diego's coaching staff -- in a haphazard assistant shakeup following the 2015 season. Reich is well-liked around the league, though, and has the temperament to lead a football team. Should Philadelphia win the NFC East in 2016, stoking the fire for more coaches associated with the Andy Reid school, Reich's name will come up once again.
Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles: Schwartz is already standing out in Philadelphia with his no-nonsense approach to the defense. In many ways, he has an easier path than Reich because of his previous head coaching experience (five seasons in Detroit) and the wealth of talent on Philadelphia's defense.
Todd Haley, offensive coordinator, Pittsburgh Steelers: Haley's tenure as head coach in Kansas City (2009-2011) did not end well, but there is no denying the fact that Pittsburgh's offense has continued to perform at an extremely high level since the firing of Bruce Arians and Haley's hiring in 2012. That isn't lost on decision makers who want a high-flying offense to keep pace with the rest of the NFL.
Mike Smith, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The New York Giants are typically held high as one of the NFL's gold-standard organizations, and after they brought in Smith, the former Falcons head coach (66-46 from 2008 to 2014), for an interview this offseason, his profile gained a tremendous boost. Owners of teams not considered stable or patient might view this as a reference point when going after their next head coach.
Leslie Frazier, defensive backs coach, Baltimore Ravens: Getting with the Ravens might end up breathing life back into Frazier's coaching career after he was let go as the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator in January. The former Vikings head coach (2010-13) is on a short list of former NFL head coaches -- like Smith, Schwartz, Haley, Doug Marrone (Bills, 2013-14) and possibly Pat Shurmur (Browns, 2011-12) -- who could get a second look over the coming years.
Hey, where are the college guys?
This is important to note, given the state of the league and how quickly we're seeing offenses move from the college game into the pros. The obvious candidates, Brian Kelly of Notre Dame and David Shaw of Stanford, have been batted around for the better part of two years, but owners might have (unfairly) soured on college coaches, thanks to recent experiments (Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay, Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, Nick Saban in Miami and Bobby Petrino in Atlanta). Also, we have heard this time and time again on Shaw when talking to people involved in the situation: The Stanford alum has the perfect job and gets to work with excellent kids. He lives in one of the most beautiful areas of the country and has an office at one of the most picturesque campuses in America. Stanford would never fire him. So why would he go?