These 10 understudies ready to become leading men

Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt made their mark in 2007, their first season as head coaches. Three rookie coaches this season -- Atlanta's Mike Smith, Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Miami's Tony Sparano -- have their teams on the playoff doorstep.

So when teams with vacancies look for new head coaches this offseason, expect them to duplicate the concept of hiring an innovative, yet relatively inexperienced and inexpensive, assistant to flip their franchise's fortunes.

So, what candidates are most likely to make the short lists in 2009?

Tomlin went to the Steelers when he was 36, making him the youngest of the five coaches mentioned, and Smith went to the Falcons when he was 49, making him the oldest. So being under 50 seems to fit the profile.

Three of the five coaches were coordinators before taking over a team, with Sparano coming from an offensive line job and Harbaugh coming from a defensive back position, although he had been a special teams coordinator.

Having a powerful influence earlier in their careers also seems to be a factor in the coach's rise to a top job. Tomlin's roots were in the famed Tampa Bay defense, Whisenhunt had the Steelers' seal of approval, and Harbaugh learned organizational skills from the Eagles and defense from Jim Johnson. Sparano was a Bill Parcells disciple, and Smith had experience with tremendous defenses in Baltimore and Jacksonville.

With those factors in mind, here's a top-10 list of candidates for head-coaching openings after this season:

1. Steve Spagnuolo, Giants defensive coordinator
He's 49 with 10 years of NFL experience and blasted onto the scene last season with his great game plans throughout the Giants' run to the Super Bowl. This season, he lost his two best pass rushers and still has his defense dominating. He's a communicator, and his experience comes under Tom Coughlin, Andy Reid and Johnson. If Spagnuolo wants to leave the Giants, he'll have an offer.

2. Josh McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator
He's just 32, but he already has eight years of NFL experience under coach Bill Belichick and player personnel executive Scott Pioli. The job the Patriots offense did this season without injured quarterback Tom Brady makes McDaniels an intriguing candidate.

3. Leslie Frazier, Vikings defensive coordinator
He's 49 and played five seasons with the Bears before logging 10 years as an NFL coach. This season, he has Minnesota's defense ranked eighth in the NFL, drawing on lessons learned from mentors Johnson, Tony Dungy and Marvin Lewis.

4. Jason Garrett, Cowboys offensive coordinator
He's 42 with 12 years of experience as an NFL quarterback and was a hot candidate last year in just his third season as an assistant coach. He's accustomed to the spotlight in Dallas, so a big-market team will want to recruit him. Garrett is one of the brightest coaches in the NFL and comes from a football family, like Harbaugh.

5. Raheem Morris, Buccaneers defensive backs coach
He's just 32 with six years of NFL coaching experience, but he's on the radar because he's following in the footsteps of Tomlin, Lovie Smith and Herm Edwards, who all coached Tampa Bay's secondary with great success. Morris appears to be the probable candidate to replace Monte Kiffin as the Bucs' defensive coordinator, but some owner will move Morris to the top of the list after interviewing him.

6. Jim Schwartz, Titans defensive coordinator
He's 42 and a 14-year coach who's running the NFL's fourth-ranked defense. His mentor is Jeff Fisher, and that carries a lot of weight in the league.

7. Ron Rivera, Chargers defensive coordinator
He's 46 with nine years of experience as a player with the Bears and 12 years as an NFL assistant. He was a solid candidate after his defense helped the Bears reach Super Bowl XLI, but no head-coaching offers materialized. He then parted ways with Chicago and surfaced in San Diego as the linebackers coach. He replaced Ted Cotrell as defensive coordinator in midseason and is back on the radar.

8. Todd Haley, Cardinals offensive coordinator
He's 41 and running a fourth-ranked offense that's sending a quarterback and two wide receivers to the Pro Bowl. He has a no-nonsense approach to the game, which comes from his time under Parcells with the Jets and Cowboys. NFC West teams know him the best, but he's also the son of longtime personnel executive Dick Haley.

9. Brian Schottenheimer, Jets offensive coordinator
The 35-year-old son of former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer was on short lists a few years ago, but the Jets offense slipped in 2007, and so did he. This season, the 10-year assistant has the Jets ranked third in points scored and could receive another look.

10. Jeff Davidson, Panthers offensive coordinator
He's 41, with four years as an NFL player and 14 years as an assistant, and has served under Belichick, Pete Carroll and John Fox. Carolina runs the ball and built its team around the offensive line, but Davidson still knows how to get the ball to other playmakers such as wide receiver Steve Smith.

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