Candidates who best fit each of the six NFL head coach vacancies in 2021

Which NFL head coach candidates are the best individual fits for the six openings ahead of the 2021 season? Help me...help you, wise decision-makers.

By Matt Fitzgerald
Dec 1, 2018; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer celebrates as he holds the Big Ten Championship trophy after defeating the Northwestern Wildcats in the Big Ten conference championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

There are so many names flying around for the six 2021 NFL head coach vacancies that it’s dizzying to keep track of. Rather than settling for the minutia of tracking every single update and interview, let’s distill the premier candidates down and figure out who’s the most exciting and best fit for each opening.

What makes this NFL offseason’s coaching carousel unique is there are open positions involving franchises who either already have a franchise quarterback or are in position to almost certainly acquire one, thanks to the strength of the 2021 draft class.

With those factors in mind, continue reading to find out which top-tier candidate fits best with the corresponding team.

Related: Best NFL head coach options for 2021

NFL head coach vacancies: Most exciting hires and best fits for each team

Atlanta Falcons: Eric Bieniemy

Eric Bieniemy: The latest NFL head coach from the Andy Reid tree?
Jan 29, 2020; Miami, Florida, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy at Super Bowl LIV press conference at JW Marriott Turnberry. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Want to fire up this fanbase? How about adding the Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, who’s been instrumental in overseeing the rapid development of superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes and would have either Matt Ryan or the Falcons’ No. 4 overall draft pick to work with in 2021.

Bieniemy has been bandied about as a head coach candidate for several years now and already interviewed with the Falcons, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter. After winning a Super Bowl in Kansas City last season, once again the Chiefs are in position to hoist the Lombardi Trophy as the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. That type of success is difficult to ignore.

The Andy Reid coaching tree has been famously successful, supplying a wellspring of ready head coaches who can last atop a major football operation. Bieniemy has the schematic know-how and has witnessed a future Hall of Famer in Reid crush the job with the Chiefs since 2013. At this point, how is it possible that Bieniemy isn’t qualified?

But instead of going to notoriously turbulent organizations such as Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, the Chargers or the Jets, expect Bieniemy to go with the best culture fit.

The Falcons can use that a strong selling point to get him there, and regardless of what’s done at the quarterback position, Bieniemy will make it work.

Bieniemy should also attract a top-flight staff to join him, and a change in systems from longtime coach Dan Quinn on the defensive side of the ball should refresh Atlanta’s unit and help it improve this next year.

Related: NFL rumors: Concerns emerging about Eric Bieniemy as a head coach

Detroit Lions: Robert Saleh

Could Robert Saleh's NFL head coach opportunity double as a homecoming?
Oct 27, 2019; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh hugs cornerback Richard Sherman (25) in the game against the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Someone who grew up mere miles from the Lions facility seems like a suitable candidate in terms of proximity alone, yet Saleh has all the merit in the world to justify Detroit hiring him. Reports surfaced in early December that the team was interested in Saleh.

Not only is he a defensive mastermind as the San Francisco 49ers coordinator. Saleh also has an infectious, extroverted leadership style that seems to translate well to the Niners players.

Even when they dealt with a slew of injuries in 2020 — and San Francisco was without starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for much of the season — the 49ers held up well on defense. They ranked in the top five in total yards allowed, often beset by poor field position and the Niners’ 31 giveaways, which were the second-most in the NFL.

Based on those facts alone, it’s pretty clear Saleh isn’t merely a product of the brilliant defensive line San Francisco fielded during their Super Bowl run in 2019. Nick Bosa was injured this season, DeForest Buckner got traded to Indianapolis, and Dee Ford appeared in just one game.

The Lions need someone with Saleh’s enthusiasm to take over, and the fanbase will rally around the local man to infuse the franchise with some new flavor.

With quarterback Matthew Stafford possibly on the way out and the failed defense of fired coach Matt Patricia fresh on fans’ minds, what better way to move forward than to have a new QB, and a competent defensive coach in Saleh to usher in a new era in Detroit?

Related: Lions head coach: Making an argument for Robert Saleh

Houston Texans: Brandon Staley

Loose tie to Nick Caserio could make Brandon Staley NFL head coach
Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio against the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, big surprise here!

Everyone seems to be thinking about the prospect of pairing a new coach with young stud quarterback Deshaun Watson. It’s unnecessary. Watson lost his head coach/general manager/play-caller Bill O’Brien in the early portion of the 2020 season, yet still proved himself to be among the NFL’s elite. Watson also lost his top target, DeAndre Hopkins, in an offseason trade orchestrated by O’Brien last year.

Why would the Texans go out of their way to find another offensive guru? They should really address the atrocious defense that prevented Watson from guiding Houston to the playoffs. That’s where Staley would come in.

Staley was up to the tall task of succeeding a respected, longtime NFL coach in Wade Phillips as Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator this season. The 38-year-old more than filled the job — he transformed Los Angeles’ D into one of the NFL’s elite, ranking No. 1 in total yards allowed and points yielded per game.

Talk about a resume. Oh, and Staley coached three seasons at John Carroll University, which just so happens to be the alma mater of new Texans GM Nick Caserio.

Given that Caserio just helped Bill Belichick build a dynasty as a longtime personnel man for the New England Patriots, he’s bound to place an emphasis on defense. In fact, Staley shut down the Pats in LA’s 24-3 Week 14 victory this season.

There’s no better coordinator on the head coaching market than Staley, who comes from the Vic Fangio tree and could easily be the defensive version of Rams head coach Sean McVay.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Urban Meyer

Is Urban Meyer ready to make the leap as NFL head coach?
Jan 1, 2019; Pasadena, CA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer leads his team onto the field before the 2019 Rose Bowl against the Washington Huskies at Rose Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The former University of Florida coach who also led Utah and Ohio State to prominence at the college level is being heavily linked to Jacksonville as his potential first NFL coaching gig.

Why not swing for the fences, Jags?

With the No. 1 overall pick and presumably the rights to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, there’s an obvious selling point for Meyer to leave his TV job and try his hand at the professional level. A prolific winner in the NCAA, Meyer would be well ahead of the curve with the most promising young QB prospect in recent memory.

The Sunshine State loves Meyer, and when was the last time Jacksonville did anything truly exciting as a franchise? There’s little to lose at this point. ex-GM Dave Caldwell stayed in his post far too long, and did little to build a sustainable winner. Doug Marrone was an old-school coach who’d need a lot more help around him to be a big success.

Meyer is a program builder and as strong a leader as there’s been in the sport at any level, which is precisely what the Jaguars need right now. They could also foster an inclusive environment wherein Meyer could have input on personnel and construct the team as he sees fit.

With Lawrence presumably to be in place, it’s difficult to mess things up too much, particularly because Jacksonville just has to be smart with its treasure trove of assets: two first- and second-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, plus a league-high $74.4 million in cap space.

Related: 2021 NFL Mock Draft – Big trades, 5 QBs in all-offense top 10

Los Angeles Chargers: Brian Daboll

No better NFL head coach opportunity for Brian Daboll than the Chargers
Nov 24, 2019; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll looks on prior to the game against the Denver Broncos at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to the Staley-Caserio link but even more deeply rooted, Daboll went to the same high school as Chargers general manager Tom Telesco. Talk about a strong networking connection there.

Again, though, it comes down to fit with the team and what would pump up a franchise in desperate need of some juice. The good news? L.A. caught lightning in a bottle when Telesco drafted Justin Herbert, who looks every bit like the long-term successor to Philip Rivers the Bolts were hoping for.

Daboll has done brilliant work bringing along a similarly talented, rocket-armed passer in Buffalo Bills star Josh Allen, who’s just gone off in Year 3 and gotten closer to his max potential sooner than anyone could’ve anticipated. Much of the credit goes to Daboll for that, and to the Bills for surrounding Allen with plenty of weapons.

As opposed to the Texans’ situation, where defense is a problem, Los Angeles has plenty of pieces on that side of the ball to be competent, provided Daboll brings in a strong coordinator. All the Bolts have really lacked lately is the ability to finish. Their four straight wins to end the 2020 campaign were too little, too late, resulting in Anthony Lynn being shown the door.

If Daboll can just get the Chargers a modicum better and manage the games better in the fourth quarter, there’s little reason he can’t thrive and turn Los Angeles into a playoff team in 2021. The talent and quarterback are in place.

Now, Daboll has gotten to learn from probable, soon-to-be-named NFL Coach of the Year Sean McDermott in Buffalo. Not a bad man to emulate if he does in fact get an offer to coach the Bolts.

Related: Predicting NFL playoff teams and Super Bowl 2022 winner

New York Jets: Joe Brady

Could Joe Brady be the next young stud NFL head coach?
Oct 25, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater talks with offensive coordinator Joe Brady prior to kickoff against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Wow, would this be bold. Now that the Jets are presumably missing out on Lawrence in the draft, they have three likely options at the most important position on the field. They can either bring in a new, pricey veteran, retain Sam Darnold, or draft Justin Fields or Zach Wilson as QB2.

Finding a replacement for Darnold at No. 2 overall in the 2021 draft seems like the most likely route. Whether it’s Wilson or Fields, Brady is an ideal coach who can come in and make his imprint amid a new Jets era right away.

While the crosstown rival Giants continue to dip into the old-school well by retaining general manager Dave Gettleman, who hired former Patriots no-nonsense assistant Joe Judge, the Jets would be soaring into an exciting frontier by landing the 31-year-old Brady.

Just because Adam Gase was a disaster and just got fired doesn’t mean New York should automatically flip-flop and go with a coach who’s better known for defense. No. A new franchise quarterback is probably coming in, and it’s important to maximize his success as soon as possible while he’s still on that cheap rookie contract.

Who better to do this than Brady? He helped Joe Burrow transform from pedestrian starter to Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick in one magical year at LSU. Then, Brady kept the Carolina Panthers competitive as offensive coordinator on Matt Rhule’s staff in 2020, despite subpar quarterback play from Teddy Bridgewater and Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield due to a lengthy injury absence.

Hiring Brady, who’s already making the rounds on the interview circuit, is about the splashiest move the Jets could make. When the national spotlight was on LSU, Brady never wavered. Plus, he’s served as an assistant on Sean Payton’s staff in New Orleans, so he’s seen firsthand what it takes to lead a team at the highest level of football.

Unlike other X’s and O’s geniuses, Brady seems to have a charismatic, upbeat personality that bodes well for his ability to be an NFL head coach. If New York doesn’t “buy low” on Brady now so to speak, the team could get stuck with the wrong hire, only to see Brady go elsewhere in 2022 or thereafter and turn a different organization around.

Give Brady a long, big contract and give him time to work with general manager Joe Douglas to turn things around. That sounds like a better strategy than the Jets have had in a long, long time — doesn’t it?

Related: New York Jets: Rebuilding the team starts in crucial 2021 NFL offseason