As the 2016 NFL season wound down, the job most coveted by practically every head coach and general manager candidate I spoke to was with the Indianapolis Colts.
The opportunity to build around a rising stud quarterback in Andrew Luck was a rare and enticing one, so much so that it lured highly respected executive Chris Ballard out of Kansas City after he'd turned down GM opportunities for years.
One year later, there was no such clarity when I asked the same question -- What's the best head coaching job that could come open this year? -- to a handful of potential head coaches, as well as coaching agents, NFL executives and others this week.
Concern about Luck's trajectory in light of his shoulder problems are one factor in that lack of clarity at a time the Colts are virtually certain to fire coach Chuck Pagano. But there are other factors, most notable that there figure to be more jobs open this year ... and that a lot of them come with a franchise or potential franchise quarterback already attached.
Consider this: There were only six head coaching swaps after last season (the fewest in seven years) and those teams went into this season with, respectively, Philip Rivers, Jared Goff, Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor, Trevor Siemian and Brian Hoyer atop the depth chart. Rivers is Rivers. But Goff and Bortles weren't exactly sure things before their leaps forward. Overall, it wasn't an illustrious list. Some situations (the 49ers getting Jimmy Garoppolo) have evolved already; others (Buffalo and Denver) are total question marks heading into the offseason.
Even after the Buccaneers informed coach Dirk Koetter on Friday of the surprise decision to retain him for 2018, taking Jameis Winston off the list, QBs who could have new head coaches next season depending how much of the speculation in league circles comes to fruition include: Luck, Matthew Stafford, Mitchell Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Deshaun Watson, Andy Dalton, Eli Manning and perhaps (long shot) Derek Carr.
Talent on the roster is just one component of evaluating these openings. You have to look at ownership, resources, organizational structure, market, relationships (if any) with people in the building. Every candidate has his own criteria, just like teams have their own criteria for candidates. But if you don't buy into the quarterback, it's certainly harder to buy into everything else. And I can tell you from speaking with coaches and scouts there's no clear consensus on which QBs -- particularly young ones -- can be developed, fixed, won with, etc.
A lot of it is a matter of taste, and who fits the way you want to play offense, particularly for coaches with offensive backgrounds. That the list of candidates with a history of developing QBs (Josh McDaniels, Pat Shurmur, Matt Nagy, John DeFilippo, Frank Reich, Todd Haley) is a short one might partly explain why the Bucs decided to retain Koetter after flirting with a Jon Gruden reunion, and why other teams may opt to stand pat unless someone they want becomes available.
The Texans job comes up a lot in discussions about the most attractive openings, with Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and several difference-makers on defense, but there are many moving pieces there as they figure out if they can make things work with coach Bill O'Brien and GM Rick Smith. So do Mariota and the Titans, although Mike Mularkey's club can still get into the playoffs and perhaps stave off changes by snapping a three-game losing streak Sunday against the Jaguars. The Lions with Stafford are an obvious one if they fire Jim Caldwell as many assume. And the Colts job still ranks among the most attractive, too, provided Luck checks out medically, thanks in part to the respect Ballard has around the league as he rebuilds the roster.
In that regard, it could be a good year to be a candidate. A lot of jobs with pieces to build around, not enough A-listers to fill them, and many with workable parts at the most important position.
The Five Ws for Week 17
WHO was the worst Pro Bowl snub? The list came out right after last week's column published, so this has been discussed at length, but the omission of Vikings safety Harrison Smith is a head-scratcher. When I was doing my poll last week of NFL GMs and other executives on awards, I also pulled together an All-Pro ballot off their recommendations, and Smith was the clear No. 1 at his position. It's not like Smith lacked "splash" plays -- he had huge interceptions in early-season wins over the Bears (on national TV) and Packers, and only punctuated his case with two more picks Saturday night in Green Bay. My full All-Pro ballot, based on those execs' opinions (set up by position to match three-wide sets that have become the NFL's base offense): Offense -- QB-Tom Brady, Patriots; RB-Todd Gurley, Rams; WR-Antonio Brown, Steelers; DeAndre Hopkins, Texas; Julio Jones, Falcons; TE-Rob Gronkowski, Patriots; T-Tyron Smith, Cowboys; David Bakhtiari, Packers; G-Zack Martin, Cowboys; David DeCastro, Steelers; C-Alex Mack, Falcons. Defense -- EDGE-Joey Bosa, Chargers; Everson Griffen, Vikings; DL-Calais Campbell, Jaguars; Aaron Donald, Rams; LB-Luke Kuechly, Panthers; Bobby Wagner, Seahawks; CB-Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars; Xavier Rhodes, Vikings; A.J. Bouye, Jaguars; S-Harrison Smith, Vikings, Glover Quin, Lions.
WHAT would be worse: an earthquake in San Francisco or the Niners losing Jimmy Garoppolo in the offseason? (submitted by @PatsSoxFansVA) Natural disaster comparisons aside, Garoppolo's contract will be a fascinating subplot to what's setting up as an unusually robust QB market -- and everyone involved knows the 49ers are in a position where they flat-out can't afford to lose him. One agent attuned to the marketplace predicted the 49ers end up paying $25 million a year for Garoppolo, on par with what Derek Carr got from the Raiders last summer (and in line with the roughly $51 million over two years it'd cost the 49ers to franchise tag Garoppolo in 2018 and '19.) One team negotiator I asked took the over on a $24 million average; another said he'd tag Garoppolo for 2018 instead of paying him off five starts (and a 4-0 record so far), though that'd put the 49ers at risk of the same costly year-to-year game the Redskins probably regret playing with Kirk Cousins. Structure is everything, of course, and a shorter, bridge-type deal that's all or mostly guaranteed might make sense here. Bottom line: Any price is worth it for a franchise QB, especially when you're potentially working with over $100 million in cap space and have a league-low $82.8 million cash commitment on the books for 2018. Think of the money to be made in Silicon Valley if Jimmy G becomes the NFL's next superstar. With the cap rising and the likes of Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers coming up on new deals next year, "overpaying" Garoppolo now could mean having him at a bargain rate soon -- if he keeps balling.
WHEN will Le'Veon Bell's crazy workload catch up with him? Bell's 406 touches this season are 63 more than the next-highest player (Gurley has 343) and he's on pace for 433, which would be the most since DeMarco Murray had 449 touches in 2014 with the Cowboys. Murray memorably sat on the market for days before signing a five-year, $40 million contract in Philadelphia, where he never really fit and was traded to Tennessee after one season. Murray had just turned 27 when he hit free agency; Bell turns 26 in February. Both had an injury history, but proved durable during a high-volume season. Bell bet on himself by turning down a five-year offer worth more than $60 million -- including $30 million over two years and $42 million over three, sources said in July -- to play this season on the $12.12 million franchise tag. Can his price really go up to make it worth his while after this type of workload? He'll find out for sure in March.
WHERE did things go wrong with Giants cornerback Eli Apple? There's a lot to unpack here, but it's increasingly obvious former GM Jerry Reese and company misevaluated the prospect. I've spoken to scouts and executives about Apple periodically during this season, and plenty of people had him graded nowhere near where the Giants took him No. 10 overall in the 2016 draft. "I never liked him coming out," an AFC general manager told me last month. "I had him in the second." An NFC executive said his team had Apple in the late second/early third round. There's no question Apple had (and has) loads of talent, but questions about his maturity on and off the field have never been a secret. The best anyone can say about Apple's career so far is he's young and inconsistent. Giants co-owner John Mara said Friday he'd like to keep Apple around. But if the choice is Apple or his frequent sparring partner, it's hard to see how new GM Dave Gettleman doesn't side with safety Landon Collins, who was a defensive player of the year candidate last year and possesses leadership traits the Giants sorely need.
WHY did the Gettleman hire catch people off-guard Thursday? It's no surprise he's back with the Giants; I wrote in this space three weeks ago that several wired-in people told me he was the front-runner. But there were two parts of the move that were unexpected: 1) Timing. The Giants put out word early in the process they intended to interview candidates from other teams. They waited 24 days after firing, so what's another three days to request anyone you want? Mara said they didn't want to fall behind on head coaching interviews. Still, the only other GM job open was with the Panthers, who are up for sale and just fired Gettleman five months ago. No clear pressure point. 2) There was a sense Gettleman, 66, would end up with an executive vice president-type title and a younger evaluator would be hired and groomed. Mara noted "there might be another change or two or three happening in the future," seemingly hinting at further shakeup with the scouting staff, but it's harder to get the guy you want without the GM title attached. After a wild 2017 GM hiring cycle brought six changes, the last two fired (Gettleman and John Dorsey) ended up being the first two hired. Doug Whaley, come on down ...