Raiders DC Patrick Graham, 43: Not much has gone right this season for the Raiders, who are 2-7 under new coach Josh McDaniels. But we can’t forget that Graham got a second interview for the Vikings head coaching job a year ago and the Jets tried to interview him last year as well. Graham, a former Yale defensive lineman, is now in his 21st year as a coach, the past 14 of which have been in the NFL (including a Super Bowl XLIX win with the 2014 Patriots). He is passionate, has high expectations and holds players accountable.
Raven STC Chris Horton, 37: A seventh-round pick by Washington, who played three NFL seasons as a safety, Horton joined the Ravens as a coaching intern in 2014, was promoted to special teams assistant coach the following year, and succeeded Jerry Rosburg in his current role in 2019 Horton has a presence and the confidence of John Harbaugh, himself a former special teams coordinator. The Ravens finished No. 1 in Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings in 2021, and not just because of all-world kicker Justin Tucker. Harbaugh has given Horton ownership of the operation and Horton has taken to it, coaching players from both sides of the ball into what will perpetually be one of the NFL’s top units.
Lions OC Ben Johnson, 36: Those who have worked with Johnson say he is one of the NFL’s sharpest minds. (How many guys go on the football team as quarterbacks while earning degrees in math and computer science, like Johnson did in North Carolina?) So it’s no surprise that the Lions’ offense sprang to life midway through the 2021 season when Johnson and head coach Dan Campbell – who was on the Dolphins staff with Johnson for four years – took over the reins. Johnson has coached quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends before, and he has a good feel for the whole picture. Is he ready to run his own show after a year with a coordinator title? That is unknown. But his reputation makes him get in the room as soon as possible.
Giants OC Mike Kafka, 35: The Giants have been one of the NFL’s top surprises under new coach (and alum of this list) Brian Daboll, thanks in part to Kafka’s work as a play-caller on a team that lacks receiver horsepower. Kafka was picked in the fourth round by Andy Reid’s Eagles in 2010, bouncing through the NFL as quarterback for parts of six seasons. coach in 2017. Last season, Kafka was the QB coach/passing game coordinator for the Chiefs, who had one of the best passing offenses in the NFL; this season, he is the OC of a Giants team with Saquon Barkley, the league’s leading rusher. Kafka knows how to execute both facets of the offense at a high level, which should make him intriguing to teams that need not only a head coach, but also a plan to fix an offense.
Jets OC Mike LaFleur, 35: It’s probably a little early for Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s younger brother, who is still developing as a play-caller and leader. But if the Jets continue to win with a very young core, it won’t be a shock to see Mike LaFleur get an interview request or two. He’s handsome and comes from the same Shanahan/McVay offensive tree that spawned many other successful head coaches. In 2021, the Jets played four different QBs during a five-game span that saw them ranked No. 1 in the NFL in yards per game; this season, the Jets are 5-1 since Zach Wilson returned from injury despite a variety of offensive line ailments and the loss of breakaway rookie RB Breece Hall. That adaptability will serve LaFleur well when his opportunity arises.
Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich, 42: Leftwich got a long look as a head coaching candidate last year, interviewing with the Jaguars and Bears and getting a request from the Saints. The 10-year-old NFL quarterback was a backup at Pittsburgh under then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who hired Leftwich as QB coach at Arizona in 2017 and took him to Tampa two years later to serve as OC. The Bucs offense hasn’t been as prolific this season, but we can’t forget how dangerous the offense was in Leftwich’s first three seasons, including Tampa’s run to a Super Bowl LV victory when Tom Brady came on board.
Patriots ILB coach Jerod Mayo, 36: Only in his fourth year of coaching, Mayo has conducted head coaching interviews with the Eagles (in 2021) and Broncos (in 2022). Before taking up coaching, Mayo played eight seasons for Bill Belichick at New England, leading the defense and passing the signals for most of that time, including as a rookie for veterans like Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Vince Wilfork. He now serves as the de facto coordinator for a Patriots defense that has played well again this season and ranks among the league leaders in sacks and takeaways. Mayo’s pedigree and makeup are intriguing.
Cowboys O.C. Kellen Moore, 34: Moore, a six-year NFL backup QB who jumped straight into coaching as Dallas QB coach in 2018, is highly regarded for his football IQ and creativity. And last January, he was busy interviewing the Jaguars, Broncos, Dolphins and Vikings for their head coaching jobs. (The Eagles also interviewed Moore last year.) Like many really young coaches, Moore has a lot to learn in terms of the whole picture of running a program. He would need a good plan for his staff and surround himself with experienced people. But the tools are there.
49ers D.C. DeMeco Ryans, 38: The Vikings were so impressed with Ryans after his first interview last January that they asked him to fly him in. Ryans responded by doing something that almost never happens: he refused, telling the team he felt he needed more time to develop. That speaks to the mindset and maturity of Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowler in his 10 seasons as an NFL linebacker who is now in his sixth year as a 49ers assistant and second as defensive coordinator. Despite a spate of injuries, Ryans unit shows up week after week, playing fast and physical. And he prides himself on influencing players on and off the field. His leadership traits outweigh his relative inexperience, and this could be Ryans’ year — if he decides he’s ready.