Nathaniel Hackett, Byron Leftwich, Patrick Graham among young NFL coaches to watch

Who is this year’s Sean McVay — the young, up-and-coming coach who may get an NFL head job sooner than later?

This is the fifth year I’ve asked the question in this space. And in the previous four cycles, over half of all head-coaching hires (14 of 27) came from that year’s edition of this list, which focuses on a specific demographic: under age 45 and seeking their first NFL head-coaching opportunity. Last year alone, Brandon Staley (Chargers), Arthur Smith (Falcons), Dan Campbell (Lions), Robert Saleh (Jets) and Nick Sirianni (Eagles) all landed their first jobs while being under 45.

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Maybe this is the year the pendulum swings back. There’s a strong group of candidates with previous head-coaching experience (Dennis Allen, Todd Bowles, Leslie Frazier, Vance Joseph, Josh McDaniels, Raheem Morris, Doug Pederson, Dan Quinn), as well as several top assistants who don’t meet the age criteria to appear here (Eric Bieniemy, Brian Daboll, Matt Eberflus and Don “Wink” Martindale, among others). It stands to reason that the pool of young first-timers has drained somewhat, given that it has produced three or more hires in each cycle since the Rams tabbed a 30-year-old McVay in January 2017 and shook up the NFL world with their immediate turnaround.

Then again, it’s a good bet some NFL teams will continue to look at the success of other names that appeared here in recent years — including Matt LaFleur with the Packers, Kevin Stefanski with the Browns, Zac Taylor with the Bengals and Mike Vrabel with the Titans — and focus on finding the next one, even if that coach might not be “ready” just yet.

Here’s a short list of young coaches who figure to draw interest in the coming cycle, based on dozens of recent conversations with NFL executives, coaches and others close to the search process. The candidates are listed in alphabetical order.

Candidates this year

Panthers OC Joe Brady, 32: Despite leading the 24th-ranked scoring offense with the Panthers last season in his first year as an NFL coordinator, Brady received five interviews (Texans, Chargers, Falcons, Jets, Eagles) for head-coaching jobs back in January. That speaks to how highly regarded Brady is as an offensive mind. He’s humble and engaging. But Brady is still young — five years ago, he was a graduate assistant at Penn State, before spending two years with the Saints and then having his breakout year with Joe Burrow at LSU in 2019 — and there have been some growing pains in Carolina. He’d need to surround himself with experienced people to help get his own program off the ground. How Brady adapts the Panthers’ still-struggling offense in the coming weeks after Cam Newton’s return will be fascinating, and potentially a plus on his resume.

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, 41: For several years, Campbell has been chased by NFL teams — including the Jets and the Lions, who made a strong pitch to lure him to Detroit back in January. Coming off a Fiesta Bowl win, Campbell opted to return to the Cyclones and signed a contract extension through 2028. But his reputation as a culture-builder with a good mind for offense has him squarely on the NFL radar, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the calls keep coming.

Titans OC Todd Downing, 41: Mike Vrabel has already groomed two head coaches — Matt LaFleur and Arthur Smith — in the OC spot by training them on how to set a culture with the Titans, and Downing could be next. He was on a head-coaching track (and on this list) as the Raiders’ offensive coordinator back in 2017, before he and the rest of Jack Del Rio’s staff were washed out of Oakland to make room for Jon Gruden. Now in his 17th season as an NFL assistant, Downing is known as a grinder with the right demeanor for the job, and he has shown he can be successful in different ways. Keeping the Titans’ offense on track without Derrick Henry, who was having an MVP-caliber season before suffering a foot injury in Week 8, will only help his cause.

Giants assistant HC/DC Patrick Graham, 42: The Jets requested an interview with Graham for their head-coaching job in January, but he declined and signed a contract extension with the Giants that made him one of the NFL’s highest-paid defensive coordinators. A one-time Yale defensive lineman, Graham is now in his 20th year coaching, with the past 13 being spent in the NFL (including a Super Bowl XLIX win with New England). He’s passionate, has high expectations and can be hard on players in a way that makes them love him more.

Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett, 41: Before the Falcons interviewed Hackett for their head-coaching job last year, Aaron Rodgers reached out to endorse Hackett for the job. That’s how popular Hackett is around Lambeau Field. Now in his 20th season in coaching and 13th in the NFL, Hackett is creative, thoughtful, extremely high-energy and a little quirky, in a way that helps him connect with and inspire this generation of players. Matt LaFleur calls the plays, but Hackett presents multiple times a week — his Friday “gold zone” meetings are legendary — and creates tip sheets for players on the game plan every day. If there’s one guy who will inject life into a program that’s been putting people to sleep, it’s Hackett.

Chiefs QB coach/passing game coordinator Mike Kafka, 34: A fourth-round pick by Andy Reid’s Eagles in 2010 who bounced around the NFL as a quarterback for parts of six seasons, Kafka has innate leadership traits and has earned a strong reputation as a QB tutor since reuniting with Reid in Kansas City as a quality control coach in 2017. He was promoted when the Bears hired then-Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy in 2018 (the same year Patrick Mahomes took over as QB1), and the plan has been for Kafka to move up again to OC when Eric Bieniemy gets his head-coaching shot after so many interviews in recent years. That still hasn’t happened, and Kafka now is on the head-coaching radar himself. His Chiefs contract is also set to expire after the season, and he could end up elsewhere as a play-calling OC in 2022 if a head job doesn’t materialize.

Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich, 41: One of the surprises of the last hiring cycle was Leftwich not getting a single interview request, even as he called plays for Tom Brady and a Bucs offense that made a Super Bowl run. That figures to change this time around. The 10-year NFL quarterback was once a backup in Pittsburgh under then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who hired Leftwich as QB coach in Arizona in 2017 and brought him along to Tampa two years later. An uninspiring stint as the interim OC for a doomed Cardinals team three years ago under Arians’ successor there, Steve Wilks, is further in the rearview now. And Leftwich continues to show he can manage a room with veterans such as Brady, who’s more than two years older than his OC and has made his love for Leftwich clear.

Patriots ILB coach Jerod Mayo, 35: Still in just his third year in coaching, Mayo already has been on the radar for a couple of years as a legitimate candidate. The Eagles interviewed him for their head coaching job in January and came away impressed with his rare leadership traits. Before going into coaching, Mayo played eight seasons for Bill Belichick in New England, running the defense and relaying the signals for most of that time, including as a rookie to the veteran likes of Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Vince Wilfork. He now serves as the de facto coordinator of the NFL’s No. 2-ranked scoring defense. His pedigree and makeup are intriguing.

Cowboys OC Kellen Moore, 33: A six-year NFL backup QB who dove right into coaching as Dallas’ QB coach in 2018, Moore is highly regarded for his football IQ and creativity. He has already had one head-coaching interview, with the Eagles in January. 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 to surround himself with experienced people. But the tools are there.

Rams OC Kevin O’Connell, 36: A one-time Patriots third-round draft pick, O’Connell is now in his seventh year of as an NFL coach and third as an OC, including an interim play-calling stint in Washington in 2019 before he joined Sean McVay’s staff in L.A. That staff has been an incubator for head coaches who are currently having success, even though Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor, like O’Connell, watched McVay call the plays. In every other way, O’Connell functions as a true OC, from scripting to installing, while also working closely with QB Matthew Stafford. The Rams’ decision to block O’Connell from following Brandon Staley to the Chargers (among other teams) shows how valuable he is to them. And O’Connell’s expanded duties this year after some staff departures are helping prepare him for the next step.

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, 38: This is Riley’s fourth year on this list, and frankly, he might stay here until he ages off it. That’s how good Riley has it in Norman, where he coached consecutive Heisman Trophy winners (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray) who went No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft, and he might have another in the making with dynamic freshman Caleb Williams. Never say never, but it would take the perfect job to lure him away.

49ers DC DeMeco Ryans, 37: A two-time Pro Bowl linebacker who played 10 NFL seasons, Ryans is now in his fifth year as a 49ers assistant and first as Robert Saleh’s successor at DC. He’s another candidate whose leadership traits would have to win out over his relative inexperience for him to get a shot this soon. But don’t be surprised if he gets interviews.

Colts special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone, 39: A 10-year NFL special teams standout who won Super Bowl LI as a member of the Patriots’ staff, Ventrone started his coaching career as a special teams assistant in 2015 before getting the Colts’ coordinator job three years later. He learned under the likes of Bill Belichick, Frank Reich and longtime NFL special teams coach Brad Seely. Ventrone is detailed. He has presence. He’s experienced in game management and is known as a good talent evaluator who understands big-picture roster management, in a job that already requires him to work with the entire team. Ventrone coaches players hard, and they respect him for it. Head-coaching hires from special teams posts are rare, but Ventrone is one to watch.

Others to watch in coming years

  • Dolphins DBs coach Gerald Alexander, 37
  • Chargers secondary coach Derrick Ansley, 39
  • Titans DC Shane Bowen, 34
  • Colts OC Marcus Brady, 42
  • Rams RB coach/assistant HC Thomas Brown, 35
  • Patriots TE/FB coach Nick Caley, 38
  • Bengals OC Brian Callahan, 37
  • Dolphins LB coach Anthony Campanile, 39
  • Ohio State coach Ryan Day, 42
  • Bears passing game coordinator/QB coach John DeFilippo, 43
  • Bears DC Sean Desai, 38
  • Bills QBs coach/passing game coordinator Ken Dorsey, 40
  • Cowboys DL coach Aden Durde, 42
  • Clemson OC Tony Elliott, 41
  • Rams secondary coach/pass game coordinator Ejiro Evero, 40
  • Bills special teams coordinator Heath Farwell, 39
  • Vikings special teams coordinator Ryan Ficken, 41
  • Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, 40
  • Buccaneers OLB coach Larry Foote, 41
  • Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon, 38
  • Michigan OC Josh Gattis, 37
  • Packers QB coach/passing game coordinator Luke Getsy, 37
  • Dolphins WR coach Josh Grizzard, 31
  • Boston College coach Jeff Hafley, 42
  • Washington DBs coach Chris Harris, 39
  • 49ers special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, 41
  • Chargers DC Renaldo Hill, 43
  • Ravens special teams coordinator Chris Horton, 36
  • Browns pass game coordinator/DBs coach Jeff Howard, 38
  • Vikings QB coach Andrew Janocko, 33
  • Eagles QB coach Brian Johnson, 34
  • Texans OC Tim Kelly, 35
  • Browns DL coach Chris Kiffin, 39
  • Vikings OC Klint Kubiak, 34
  • Jets OC Mike LaFleur, 34
  • Florida State LB coach/defensive run game coordinator Chris Marve, 32
  • 49ers OC Mike McDaniel, 38
  • Saints assistant HC/DC Ryan Nielsen, 42
  • Jaguars OLB coach Zach Orr, 29
  • Broncos DBs coach Christian Parker, 29
  • Browns TE coach Drew Petzing, 34
  • Rams TE coach/passing game coordinator Wes Phillips, 42
  • Bengals QB coach Dan Pitcher, 34
  • Lions DBs coach/passing game coordinator Aubrey Pleasant, 35
  • Iowa State running game coordinator/RBs and WRs Nate Scheelhaase, 31
  • Chargers run game coordinator/OL coach Frank Smith, 40
  • Eagles OC Shane Steichen, 36
  • Packers OL coach/run game coordinator Adam Stenavich, 38
  • Chargers special teams coordinator Derius Swinton II, 36
  • Colts senior offensive assistant Press Taylor, 33
  • Washington WR coach Drew Terrell, 30
  • Washington OC Scott Turner, 39
  • Seahawks OC Shane Waldron, 42
  • Illinois DC Ryan Walters, 35
  • Ohio State LB coach Al Washington, 37
  • Ravens DL coach/run game coordinator Anthony Weaver, 41
  • Chargers LBs coach Michael Wilhoite, 34

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