Who is this year's Sean McVay -- the young, up-and-coming coach who may get an NFL head job sooner than later?
This is the fourth year I've asked the question, and three names from this list have been hired in each of the previous three cycles: Matt Nagy, Matt Patricia and Mike Vrabel in 2018; Brian Flores, Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor in 2019; and Joe Judge, Matt Rhule and Kevin Stefanski in 2020.
Looking at those names, there are some big-time hits and some hires that may end up as misses. This list isn't intended to suggest all the best candidates are younger first-timers; the likes of Dennis Allen, Eric Bieniemy, Todd Bowles, Jim Caldwell, Brian Daboll, Matt Eberflus, Leslie Frazier, Marvin Lewis, Don "Wink" Martindale, Josh McDaniels, Raheem Morris, Greg Roman, Brian Schottenheimer and Steve Spagnuolo, among others, could all be in the mix come January, even though they don't meet the criteria here.
But with roughly half of all jobs continuing to be filled from this demographic -- under age 45, getting their first NFL head-coaching opportunity -- it remains a valuable exercise to identify some less-familiar names that you could hear a lot in the months to come.
Here's a short list, based on dozens of recent conversations with NFL executives, coaches, players and others close to the search process:
New faces for this year's list
Titans OC Arthur Smith: There's a lot of intrigue around the league about Smith, 38, who has gone from relatively unknown tight ends coach to hot head-coaching name in less than two years. His work with Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and Tennessee's offense has impressed. For a guy who grew up with money -- his father is billionaire Fred Smith, who founded FedEx -- Arthur Smith has a blue-collar reputation: humble, hard-working, beloved by players. He paid his dues, spending a decade as a graduate assistant, intern, quality control coach and assistant position coach. If the Titans finish strong, Smith is positioned to be one of the most coveted candidates in January.
Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich: The 10-year NFL veteran quarterback was once a backup in Pittsburgh under Bruce Arians, who hired Leftwich as QB coach in Arizona in 2017 and brought him along to Tampa last year. Leftwich, 40, had an uninspiring stint as the interim OC for a doomed Cardinals team two years ago under Arians' successor, Steve Wilks. But Arians trusted Leftwich enough to make him the play-caller with the Bucs. Leftwich has shown he can manage a room with veterans such as Carson Palmer and Tom Brady, who's more than two years older than his OC and made a point on Wednesday to tweet that he loves Leftwich. Last week's blowout loss to the Saints notwithstanding, it'd be a surprise if Leftwich doesn't have interview requests this cycle.
Clemson OC Tony Elliott: The Panthers did a lot of research last year on Elliott, 40, who declined a formal interview for their head-coaching job. A former Clemson receiver who initially pursued a career in industrial engineering, Elliott is very analytical and cautious. He isn't going to jump at a job if he doesn't feel he's ready. But he has great command of the room, is dynamic and would impress in an interview. He's innovative on offense, too. He has coached at one of the most successful college programs of the past decade, winning two national titles. Elliott has no NFL experience as a player or coach, but Kliff Kingsbury's success running a wide-open offense in Arizona after making the jump from college to the pros makes Elliott's background that much more intriguing. Pairing Elliott with an experienced former head coach could help bridge the gap while he grows into the job.
Giants assistant head coach/DC Patrick Graham: After one season as the Dolphins' DC, Graham got permission from close friend Brian Flores to take a bigger title and reunite with fellow former Patriots assistant Joe Judge. Graham, 41, has impressed people around the league with how hard and well his Giants defense is playing without a lot of talent. Graham played defensive line at Yale and is now in his 19th year coaching, the past 12 in the NFL (including a Super Bowl XLIX win with New England). He's passionate, has high expectations and can be hard on players in a way that makes them love him more.
Rams DC Brandon Staley: A former assistant at football coach factory John Carroll University, Staley taught himself Vic Fangio's defensive scheme years before Fangio gave Staley, now 37, his first NFL job as outside linebackers coach with Chicago in 2017. Staley is thoughtful, detailed and completely obsessed with football. People who have worked with Staley say he's going to be a head coach -- it's just a matter of readiness. This is still really Staley's first year in front of the room. But he has the tools.
Panthers OC Joe Brady: At 31, Brady would be one of the youngest NFL head coaches of all time. Four years ago, he was a graduate assistant at Penn State. But Brady's rise since then -- two years as an offensive assistant with Sean Payton's high-powered Saints, one year helping run the LSU offense that turned Joe Burrow into the No. 1 pick and now as Matt Rhule's OC in Carolina -- means some owner is bound to be intrigued about at least interviewing him. Nobody really questions Brady's brilliance as an offensive mind. He's a natural play-caller. He's humble and engaging. He just hasn't had a lot of time to absorb all the other responsibilities in management, personnel, etc., that would go into running his own show. This is another guy who could use some help from a former HC while Brady and his program grow together.
Returning from last year's list
49ers DC Robert Saleh: One year after San Francisco's Super Bowl run, injuries have decimated the roster, including Saleh's defense -- yet the 49ers are still ranked among the top 10 in many key categories, including yards allowed, points allowed and red zone defense. Saleh, 41, made a great impression in his interview with the Browns last year. He's analytical, evidence-based and knows exactly what he believes philosophically. He has a plan for the offense and the people needed to make it work. He figures to be one of the most requested interviews in this cycle.
Saints assistant head coach/TEs Dan Campbell: A 10-year NFL veteran as a player who had a memorable stint as the Dolphins' interim coach (5-7 in 2015), Campbell has strong leadership traits. He's also heavily involved in the Saints' run game, has a hand in overall game-planning and addresses the offense each week. An incredible stat confirmed by NFL Research: In 15 years as one of football's most successful coaches, Sean Payton has never lost an assistant coach directly to an NFL head-coaching job. With the Saints flying high again at 6-2, there are multiple candidates on staff to potentially break that streak, including defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and Campbell, 44, who has interviewed for four head-coaching jobs in the past.
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell: Before the Jets hired Adam Gase two years ago, they reached out to Campbell, 40, who declined the interview. But people who know Campbell say he's intrigued by the NFL. He's known as a culture builder with a good mind for offense and an innate ability to relate to anyone.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley: Riley, 37, is an offensive guru who has coached two Heisman Trophy winners (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray), both taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. He has one of the best gigs in college football and likes where he is. It'd have to be a really good NFL job to lure him away.
Colts OC Nick Sirianni: Sirianni, 39, has good presence, knows offense and holds players accountable. He's not even the hottest name on the Indianapolis staff at the moment -- that's defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus -- but Sirianni has an excellent reputation across the league. He turned down an interview with the Browns two years ago, feeling he needed to focus solely on the Colts' Divisional Round game, but is ready to interview going forward.
Patriots ILB coach Jerod Mayo: Mayo, 34, has all of one and a half seasons of NFL coaching experience. But he spent eight years playing for Bill Belichick, relaying the defensive signals for most of that time, and is a born leader. The Patriots don't have a defensive coordinator, so Mayo is among those making calls this season. Fellow former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel only was a defensive coordinator for one season before landing the head-coaching job in Tennessee ... which has worked out pretty well for the Titans.
Others to watch in coming years
- Broncos WR coach Zach Azzanni, 44
- Rams RB coach Thomas Brown, 34
- Eagles run game coordinator/DL coach Matt Burke, 44
- Patriots TE/FB coach Nick Caley, 37
- Bengals OC Brian Callahan, 36
- Lions RB coach Kyle Caskey, 41
- Lions special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs, 34
- Bears QB coach John DeFilippo, 42
- Bears safeties coach Sean Desai, 37
- Titans TE coach Todd Downing, 40
- Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero, 39
- Buccaneers OLB coach Larry Foote, 40
- Michigan OC Josh Gattis, 36
- Packers QB coach Luke Getsy, 36
- Dolphins WR coach Josh Grizzard, 30
- Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett, 40
- 49ers STC Richard Hightower, 40
- Alabama associate head coach/RBs coach Charles Huff, 37
- Chiefs QB coach Mike Kafka, 33
- Texans OC Tim Kelly, 34
- 49ers run game coordinator Mike McDaniel, 37
- Cowboys OC Kellen Moore, 32
- Rams OC Kevin O'Connell, 35
- Browns TE coach Drew Petzing, 33
- Bengals QB coach Dan Pitcher, 33
- Rams CB coach Aubrey Pleasant, 34
- Cardinals WR coach David Raih, 40
- Iowa State WR coach Nate Scheelhaase, 30
- Chargers OC Shane Steichen, 35
- Eagles pass game coordinator/QB coach Press Taylor, 32
- Washington Football Team OC Scott Turner, 38
- Colts STC Bubba Ventrone, 38
- Rams pass game coordinator Shane Waldron, 41
- Missouri DC/safeties coach Ryan Walters, 34
- Texans DC Anthony Weaver, 40