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Which Maybe-Soon-to-Be-Open NFL Head-Coaching Job Is the Most Enticing?

Seats are heating up around the league, and five franchises may have coaching vacancies by season’s end. But based on team personnel, front-office staff, and overall culture, only one job can be the most appealing.

Dak Prescott, Baker Mayfield, and Aaron Rodgers with halos over their heads Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this week, former Cardinals head coach and current CBS analyst Bruce Arians told The Canton Repository that the Browns’ coaching job—which the eternally employable Gregg Williams is keeping warm for the time being—is the only NFL opening that he’d consider coming out of retirement for. That comment echoed what’s emerged as a common sentiment in league circles: that the chance to work with Baker Mayfield and a talented Browns roster makes Cleveland an attractive destination for potential head coaches.

The gig checks plenty of boxes, but so do other positions around the league that may open up in a few months. And before deciding that any coaching job is particularly enticing, it would serve us well to remember that these gigs become available for a reason. Even if a team has a promising collection of players, other parts of the organization are likely rotten if the coach is getting canned. So, based on Arians’s comments, let’s examine how appealing each of the five jobs likely to be open at season’s end would be.

Denver Broncos

It’s tough to come up with any definitive selling points for a possible Broncos vacancy. Quick, without looking: Name John Elway’s best draft pick since 2012.

Not easy, is it? Almost all of Elway’s shrewdest moves came in his first couple of years as the team’s executive vice president. Drafting Von Miller was one of them, but that was in 2011, when Denver had the no. 2 overall pick in a draft where a quarterback was guaranteed to be taken first overall (that’d be Cam Newton). Signing Chris Harris as an undrafted free agent that same year was another. Harris has been one of the league’s best cornerbacks for most of his career, and the Broncos got him for next to nothing. Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, and Danny Trevathan were all hits, too, but those moves came in 2012.

Elway’s magic during his Broncos tenure has been his ability to coax the right free agents to Colorado. Landing Peyton Manning in 2012 was a franchise-altering win. The 2014 free-agent class of DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Aqib Talib gave Denver one of the best defenses in recent NFL history and helped the team win a Super Bowl. But after Manning and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips left town, Elway made many disastrous decisions. Drafting Paxton Lynch set the Broncos back years. Misses like Montee Ball, Sylvester Williams, Ty Sambrailo, and Cody Latimer became the norm. Hiring Vance Joseph as the team’s head coach was a misstep from the moment it happened.

The Broncos are projected to have a decent amount of cap space to work with in 2019 (about $44.6 million), but for the most part, this is a roster that contains a few excellent pieces (Miller, Emmanuel Sanders, and Harris, namely) and not much else. There’s a ton of work to be done, and for at least next season, Case Keenum’s $21 million cap hit will still be on the books. Denver’s direction is murky at best.

Enticement Scale: 5.8/10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With the success of coach-QB pairings like Sean McVay and Jared Goff in L.A., Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes II in Kansas City, and Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz in Philadelphia this season, most teams looking for head coaches this spring will likely seek out an offensive mind capable of unlocking the unit’s potential. The tricky part for the Bucs is that they already have one of those. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken has turned Tampa Bay into one of the most explosive units in football, with the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. The Bucs currently rank 10th in passing DVOA, and that includes the terrible performances that Jameis Winston has strung together this season. Monken is unlikely to get the head-coaching job if Dirk Koetter is fired, in part because elevating a coordinator to maintain continuity is the exact mistake that Tampa Bay made when it hired Koetter.

But should Koetter get the boot at the end of the season, Monken may not suffer the same fate. Recently, we’ve seen more than one new head coach keep a coordinator in place after their arrival. The Bears defense was able to hit the ground running because first-year head coach Matt Nagy retained Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator. It’s very possible that a defensive-minded head coach (which the Bucs seem likely to seek) will look at what Monken accomplished with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and O.J. Howard and hope to repeat that success. The chance to step into a situation with at least some certainty on one side of the ball could be attractive.

The Bucs job also comes with plenty of drawbacks, though. Any former defensive coordinator would likely look at the roster on that side of the ball and shudder. Tampa Bay’s unit lacks top-end talent at every level. Improvements at cornerback, safety, and edge rusher will all be necessary for the team to compete. Even with a coaching change, it’s going to take some time for the defense to climb out of the dregs. A promising coordinator like the Vikings’ George Edwards or the Cowboys’ Kris Richard would make sense on paper for the Bucs, but who knows if they’d be interested in inheriting the mess that’s in place right now. But even with those concerns, the problems on defense pale in comparison with worries about the quarterback situation.

Winston is the no. 1 question mark about Tampa Bay’s potential vacancy. His fifth-year option is set to count for $21 million against the cap in 2019, and this is a guy who was just benched for a 35-year-old journeyman quarterback who has played for what seems like half the teams in the league. And that’s not to mention that Winston’s repeated off-field transgressions should make the franchise hesitant to invest in him any further.

If the Bucs bring in a new GM next year (which is also likely, given the team’s current state) and that person cuts ties with Winston, it would open significant cap space for a team that has plenty of nonguaranteed deals on its books. The front office would also have the flexibility to remake this team on the fly, given how little dead money remains on many of the more expensive deals in place. On the other hand, cutting Winston would leave the Bucs with no clear quarterback succession plan. They’re currently 3-5 with an offense that’s competent enough to earn them a few more victories, and the best-case scenario is probably that they end up with a draft pick somewhere in the six-to-10 range. In a draft without many clear top-flight quarterback prospects, that might be the right place to nab a rookie QB and start over. But it’s also possible they’d have to move up in the draft and sacrifice some of the valuable capital necessary for rebuilding the defense. There’s plenty to like about this gig, but the looming Winston decision shrouds most of the positive aspects.

Enticement Scale: 6.2/10

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys’ latest prime-time embarrassment has just about everyone—including Troy Aikman—calling for Dallas to kick Jason Garrett to the curb. If that happens, any prospective coach will immediately have to come to terms with the idea of working with Jerry Jones. He’s a risk-taking owner who’s liable to demand a drastic team-building move at any time, and he’s bound to make the occasional baffling personnel decision that harms the franchise long-term in the interest of shoring up the immediate roster. Jones is the type of guy who would—and did—trade a first-round pick for Amari Cooper, consequences be damned.

But Jones’s rationale behind that trade can be read in multiple ways—and at least one of them is positive. He has plenty of available resources and a desire to improve his team at all costs, which also makes Dallas alluring in many ways. The Cowboys’ facilities are second to none. They’ll never struggle to attract free agents. And looking at their recent track record, Jones and the front-office staff have done a strong job of developing homegrown talent. There are plenty of on-field success stories from the recent crop of Dallas draft picks: Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, Ezekiel Elliott, Byron Jones, and DeMarcus Lawrence. This team has a solid foundation of talent, and for the first time in a long time, the Cowboys also have cap room to spare. Dallas is slated to have about $52.9 million in cap space next season without many glaring holes on its roster outside of its pass-catching positions. Any potential coach surveying the Cowboys’ depth chart would probably like what they see.

There is one glaring exception to that, however, and it lies under center with Dak Prescott. After a stellar rookie season in 2016, when he completed 67.8 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions, it’s been a rocky road for the 25-year-old QB. His development has stalled in a stagnant offense that lacks top-end receiving talent. After another anemic performance by the Cowboys on Monday night against Tennessee, Jones reiterated that Prescott is the team’s quarterback of the future and that he intends to extend Dak this offseason before he enters the final year of his contract. If a prospective coach can figure out what to do with Prescott and create an innovative scheme that would also feature a dynamic running back and a quality (if slightly diminished) offensive line, then Dallas could be a dream destination. If not, a prospective coach may be scared off by the thought of being saddled with Prescott for at least the next few seasons.

Enticement Scale: 8/10

Cleveland Browns

Despite the Browns’ troubled history—the team has had seven non-interim head coaches since 2001—I believe that this is a worthwhile job. (Hue Jackson was fired early last week, so this is the only position that’s currently open.) One major problem that led to Jackson’s departure was the organization’s murky structure. Owner Jimmy Haslam oversaw both the general manager and head coach positions separately. When GM John Dorsey was hired in December, he didn’t have the power to fire Jackson and start over with a new coach and the no. 1 overall pick. Now, with Jackson out, Dorsey will reportedly head up the coaching search, presumably giving him significant say in whether to fire said coach if need be. That clear delineation of power should, in theory, remove Haslam as the franchise’s key decision-maker—a role he’s struggled with in the past.

Dorsey having a larger role in hiring is likely a positive for the organization, and his track record as a talent evaluator may be an even bigger plus. Any coach eyeing the Browns job can look at Dorsey’s history in Kansas City—and his first season in Cleveland—and see his eye for scouting. Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt, and Mitchell Schwartz were all acquired during Dorsey’s tenure in K.C., and his first draft with the Browns wrought Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb. Ward and Chubb are just two of the young, ultratalented players on a Cleveland roster that also includes Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, and Joe Schobert in the 25-or-younger club. Looking at this roster, it’s easy to believe that one more offseason and the addition of a smart coaching staff is all that stands between the Browns and playoff contention. Cleveland will likely roll over close to $60 million in salary cap space next year, in addition to the $27 million or so it’s slated to have in 2019. Once again, the Browns will have plenty of spending power to add top-end talent, and, with the right hire, free agents may be willing to head to Cleveland without the franchise having to pay a premium.

The most important chip of all, though, is having a Heisman-winning quarterback who’s only six months removed from being the no. 1 overall pick. Mayfield has faced some bumps in the road as a rookie, but his skills should make any offensive coach salivate at the thought of shaping his career. Even if that prospect isn’t enough to pry Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley away from his cushy job in Norman to reunite with Mayfield, the Browns should be able to sell someone like Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo on Cleveland being an ideal destination.

Enticement Scale: 8.2/10

Green Bay Packers

This one isn’t all that complicated. If Mike McCarthy is fired, the next coach of the Packers will get a chance to work with one of the greatest quarterbacks ever for what will likely be the final years of his illustrious career. The chance to coach a guy like Aaron Rodgers comes along once in a lifetime, and it’s likely going to have people lining up around the block to interview for this job.

Green Bay’s offense has been in need of a schematic and play-calling overhaul for some time. If the team were to land someone of Riley’s or DeFilippo’s ilk, the Packers would hit the ground running in that coach’s first season. The offense has talent, with Davante Adams on the outside, a quality pass-blocking line in front of Rodgers, and the explosive Aaron Jones toting the rock. The right offensive mind could turn this group into a powerhouse.

The Packers’ history as a conservative franchise may give some coaches pause, though. Green Bay has been hesitant to take big swings in free agency over the years, and even with a new regime in the front office—led by Ted Thompson disciple Brian Gutekunst—the Packers probably won’t be making any big splashes anytime soon.

Still, Gutekunst has more than $40 million in projected cap space to work with next season and two first-round picks. Combine that with the young, talented players who are already on Green Bay’s roster, like Jaire Alexander, and the Packers could seen a spike in play by the start of next season. There’s no reason to overthink this one: The chance to coach Rodgers for one of the most storied franchises in sports—one that typically employs its head coaches for more than a decade—is as good as it gets.

Enticement Scale: 9.6/10