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Dan Quinn, DeMeco Ryans, Sean Payton: Who are the NFL's 2023 head coach candidates?

Who are the NFL's 2023 head coach candidates? From Dan Quinn to Ben Johnson, we break down some of the names that could be in the running for top jobs; the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers are among the teams set to be looking for new leaders next season

DeMeco Ryans, Sean Payton, Dan Quinn

The NFL's head coaching carousel is gathering speed, especially with the announcement on Monday of the third sacking of the season - the Denver Broncos firing Nathaniel Hackett after their desperately disappointing 4-11 season.

Who could be in line to take over in Denver? The Carolina Panthers are also on the hunt for a new head coach after dismissing Matt Rhule earlier in the year, as are the Indianapolis Colts, having fired Frank Reich and inserted Jeff Saturday as a controversial interim replacement until the end of the season.

There are also several other losing franchises who could be eyeing up a change for 2023 as pressure mounts on their embattled leaders... But who could be hired to replace them this coming offseason?

For now, here is a look at some of the most interesting candidates when the job interviews begin early next year...

Dan Quinn - Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator

Pitching up in Dallas could not have gone much better for Dan Quinn and the task of repairing a reputation partially dented when he was fired as Atlanta Falcons head coach in 2022. Among his defining adjustments has been the ability to tinker and modernise the Cover-3 defense that surged to fame with the Legion of Boom in Seattle, disguising his way into Tampa 2 or quarters looks with post-snap rotation while generating pressure without blitzing at one one of the most efficient rates in the league.

He has unleashed Micah Parsons as the newest generational blue-chip playmaker, overseeing his emergence as the NFL's most dynamic edge rusher while also using him and Dallas' other linebackers as retreating hook/robber options with which to make field reads a nightmare for opposition quarterbacks. Want a British angle to it? He is teaching the UK's Aden Durde, the Cowboys defensive line coach, all he knows. Quinn will be top of most lists come January.

DeMeco Ryans - San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator

The departure of predecessor Robert Saleh to become New York Jets head coach ahead of the 2021 campaign was both a burden and a blessing on multiple levels. The 49ers lost one of the NFL's most coveted and respected defensive minds, but replaced him by promoting one of the NFL's rising stars in DeMeco Ryans, whose impact has since alerted the rest of the NFL to his head coach credentials. Behold an unfortunate trend to the Kyle Shanahan tree: coaching gem emerges, coaching gem gets plucked by other team - Ryans will be the next. If not now, then certainly down the line. His defense ranks first in points per game, yards per game, yards per rush, rushing yards per game, first downs per game and touchdown-interception ratio.

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Ryans' operation offers up some of the most wide-ranging and effective coverage diversity in the league, disguising man with zone and zone with man while scheming stunts with interior linebacker rushers to carve lanes for his sack monster Nick Bosa, exploiting the instincts and athleticism of Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Talanoa Hufanga by yo-yoing them high-to-low in robber looks as a master of middle-of-the-field defense and enjoying the luxury of generating pressure through a blitz-light four/five-man rush.

Sean Payton - Former New Orleans Saints head coach

He has spent the year watching and waiting in the background, playing mental Top Trumps as he weighs up the smartest long-term move should he fulfil expectations by returning to a head coaching post in 2023. Certain crystal balls had forecast a potential second-season exit for Mike McCarthy in Dallas, paving the way for Sean Payton to become the newest lieutenant in Jerry Jones' Super Bowl assault. That feels increasingly unlikely such are the Cowboys' current Championship credentials.

The Super Bowl champion who steered Drew Brees to NFL quarterbacking royalty will accompany Quinn at the top of most wishlists having led the Saints to winning records in 10 of his 15 seasons in charge, secured a playoff berth in nine and transformed the New Orleans offense into one of the most potent and consistent in the league. In some cases, he will be interviewer rather than interviewee. Could the Arizona Cardinals lure him across as successor to an under-pressure Kliff Kingsbury? Could the Panthers land one of the top quarterbacks in the Draft to entice him with a restart project?

Sean Payton resigned as Saints head coach at the end of last season
Image: Sean Payton resigned as Saints head coach at the end of last season

Ejiro Evero - Denver Broncos defensive coordinator

The Broncos may have a star on their hands, floating amid the woes of Hackett's wreckage. A British-born star on course for a top job, or top job contention at the very least. Evero has tempered a hobbling offense on the brink of total shutdown with success as one of the most productive defenses in the league to propel him among head coaching murmurs. He embodies a marriage of the Wade Phillips, Vic Fangio and Raheem Morris multi-era systems within which he studied and developed as a defensive mind of his own, shape-shifting out of two-high coverages with light-box looks customary to today's league while maintaining loyalty in single-high coverage's ability to lure dangerous throws outside the numbers and showing aggression with the blitz.

Evero's defense has seen a decline in pressure up front over the last month since the trade of star edge rusher Bradley Chubb, prompting him to dial up the blitz at an increased rate in search of different ways to disrupt the passer. His ability to adapt and evolve a Fangio scheme adopted across the league forms the basis of his growing credentials. If not now, then perhaps down the line for the 41-year-old.

Shane Steichen - Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator

The ascent of Jalen Hurts from unconvincing rookie to sophomore superstar has reflected glowingly on Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, who had earned his role in Philly by way of overseeing the 2020 Chargers offense in which Herbert played his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Within one of the league's most balanced systems lies one of the league's most innovative and sophisticated RPO attacks, stuffed with layer upon layer upon layer as unblocked edge rushers, quarterback spies and backside defensive backs are left to decipher a handoff, a keeper or a keep-and-throw to the flat tight end, who in other circumstances might be pulled east-to-west to block for Hurts as he tucks-and-runs. The respect Steichen demands and the conflict he creates at the line of scrimmage comes with a haymaker in the form of AJ Brown on one-on-one islands downfield. His Eagles have been a joy to watch.

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Steichen's Eagles offense produced another dominant display to beat the Giants in Week 14 | Watch highlights here

Jonathan Gannon - Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator

The Eagles have barely put a foot wrong, any minor hiccups a mere reflection of the lofty bar set for themselves early on this year. Jonathan Gannon's defense leads the NFL in sacks, interceptions, while ranking second in total yards allowed per game - a nifty return for a coach that has been called out for lacking aggression. The former Colts defensive backs coach has been an advocate for the light-box two-high safety coverages sweeping the league with the blessing of Fangio, putting the onus on his 40/50 fronts (four/five defensive lineman) to win their matchups in the trenches while favouring short ground gains or completions underneath if it means cutting out the chunk plays downfield. For the first 10 weeks of the season the Eagles were second in dropback EPA and thriving in eliminating the 'big' plays, but 31st in rush EPA: they were inviting the run and teams were accepting the invite before outstaying their welcome.

Gannon has since been boosted by the return of rookie defensive tackle Jordan Davis from injury and the arrival of free agency additions Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph as interior multi-gap bouncers, while dropping safeties into the box more frequently and shifting the tackles Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave to the edge to add some versatility to his front and dialling up the blitz a tad more; personnel has been key but the effort to make adjustments is there. From Week 11-14 the Eagles shut down Jonathan Taylor (84 yards), Aaron Jones (43 yards), Derrick Henry (30 yards) and Saquon Barkley (28 yards) and allowed them no better than 3.8 yards per carry. He gets some flak because, well, somebody on a near-faultless team seemingly has to get some flak; how his defense looks down the stretch and into January will be reflected on his resume.

Jerod Mayo - New England Patriots inside linebackers coach

The Patriots' Jerod Mayo secret is out. If it ever was a secret. Those inside the building will have long vouched for the head coach credentials of the 36-year-old, who has been integral to restoring a stifling Bill Belichick defense of previous years. Such is the way of the modern quarterback and the outer-pocket mobility and off-platform threat of the NFL's Josh Allen - for whom the Patriots have been seeking a solution - New England have placed an emphasis on injecting added speed and range to their second-level defense in a bid to combat as much.

Mayo has been at the heart of the operation, exploiting the athleticism of Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Devin McCourty and Jabrill Peppers as hybrid safeties in the box while utilising offseason trade addition Mack Wilson as a spy option and splitting the time of former Detroit Lions 2019 second-round pick Jahlani Tavai between off-ball sideline-to-sideline linebacker and orthodox edge rusher. His work with New England's multi-faceted defensive backs as they float high-to-low pre-to-post snap and creep into the box has been a key component to the disguised coverages contributing to Belichick's top-tier defense. He is brandishing the Belichick-certified brush strokes with his own tint of Mayo.

New England Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo
Image: New England Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo

Leslie Frazier - Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator

Leslie Frazier is likely to prove the most experienced option among this coming cycle's candidates with 24 years of NFL coaching behind him at the age of 63. A decade on since being fired as Minnesota Vikings head coach he directs a Buffalo Bills defense that has the second most interceptions in the league since his appointment in 2017, his influence on the sideline having also earned him the experience-padding title of assistant head coach as of 2020. His defense was first in both points and yards allowed on the way to the AFC Divisional Round last season and has consistently slotted into the top 10 during his time with the team. Frazier interviewed with the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and New York Giants for their head coach vacancies last offseason, having also met with the Houston Texans in 2021 and the Indianapolis Colts in 2018.

Speak to those he coaches in Buffalo and most will admit to being surprised that he has been out of a top job for as long as 10 years. He generates a top-10 pressure rate while blitzing at one of the lowest rates in the league, with his defense comfortably top five in DVOA throughout the season. He continues to be successful despite losing Von Miller and Micah Hyde to injury for the rest of the year as well as spending time without the likes of Matt Milano, Gregory Rousseau, Jordan Phillips, Tre'Davious White and Jordan Poyer.

Ben Johnson - Detroit Lions offensive coordinator

The Detroit Lions are fun again. Fun while losing (something the Lions did a lot of last season) negates the fun somewhat, but there has been a change of mood this season in Detroit as the team targets a playoff berth. Ben Johnson's offense is partly to thank for that, his 'make yourself at home' message to Jared Goff with a perfectly-tailored system offering similarities to that which he led in college having reinvigorated a written-off quarterback while elevating Detroit's attack among the most entertaining in the league.

Johnson is loading up on the play-action from which Goff flourishes, varying personnel packages and formations with three-level route combinations and a diverse run game behind one of the league's best offensive lines. For those new to Ben Johnson, he is the man that iced Detroit's Week 14 win over the Minnesota Vikings by putting 6'5", 335-pound Penei Sewell in motion across the backfield before calling play-action and inviting Goff to throw to the wide-open offensive tackle to convert on third-and-seven inside the two-minute warning. The 36-year-old is only in his first full season as an NFL offensive coordinator after previous roles as position coaches with the Lions and Dolphins and it probably comes too early on this occasion, but his bold play-calling and invention are already putting him on the radar.

Frank Smith - Miami Dolphins offense coordinator

Frank Smith is a wildcard shout here, whose time is more likely to come a year from now, a few years from now, but you might be naive to ignore the potential. What kind of influence does he have in this high-powered Dolphins offense? To what extent does he contribute to the artistry of McDaniel's scheme? Few outside the building will know. Plenty will want to know when the hiring process gets underway come the start of next year. Smith is in his 13th season as an NFL coach having previously worked as run game coordinator and offensive line coach with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021 following roles as tight ends coach for the Raiders and Chicago Bears.

His and McDaniel's Miami are baiting linebackers with a refined play-action game and scaring defenses into soft zone with the vertical speed of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle to vacate yards-after-catch space over the middle of the field and ruling a world of horizontal defense with pre-snap motion into counter-flow jet sweeps. They create uncertainty out of condensed 'who is running where?' formations and isolate defenders in spread with shrewd spacing and multi-level route packages. Press man coverage is beginning to face them at an increasing rate, so how do Smith and McDaniel hit back? If you are a head coach-needy team, you would do well to bring him in for a chat and find out more, at the very least. Again, could be premature, but any offensive mind linked to this Dolphins team warrants attention.

Who else?

Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore have become recurring names on the coaching cycle in recent years as they work towards top jobs, former Colts head coach Reich is likely to come into consideration after his midseason firing, Giants defensive coordinator 'Wink' Martindale has boosted his stock through his blitz-heavy scheme in New York, Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron has played a part in one of the stories of the season with Geno Smith and Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris remains highly-regarded despite the team's post-Super Bowl slump.

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