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The buzziest names to watch in the next NFL hiring cycle

The Lions have been far more viable on offense than most would have expected, and their performance against the Bills on Thanksgiving served as a coming-out party for their offensive coordinator. (Rick Osentoski/AP)
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The Detroit Lions are unlikely to reach the playoffs. They don’t feature a sexy passing game. They have been hapless for years, they don’t have a high profile, and they’re hardly famous for producing future head coaches.

They check almost none of the boxes one would expect in terms of employing a hot commodity in the 2023 head coaching cycle, yet they feature a rising young offensive coordinator who is generating far more heat and recognition that anyone would have expected a few months ago. First-year coordinator Ben Johnson, 36, began opening eyes at the start of the season, deploying a multiple and unique rushing attack that has helped the Lions be far more viable on offense than most would have predicted. Thanksgiving’s stout performance against an elite Buffalo defense was in many ways his national coming-out party.

Perhaps you heard Tony Romo gushing about Johnson’s gutsy play calls and intrinsic feel for putting his players in position to succeed. The CBS analyst was merely saying out loud what NFL decision-makers have been whispering since the summer. The more people study Johnson’s approach and schematics — and the more they hear how his players talk about him — the more buzz grows that he has the makings of a head coach himself, quite possibly in 2023.

“It looks like what Mike McDaniel is doing in Miami,” longtime NFL broadcaster and analyst Brian Baldinger told me. “All the shifts and motions. I really like when he’s doing with that offense.”

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Johnson has found a way to roll up points with far more regularity than anticipated. He is getting the very best out of Jared Goff, a system quarterback who was basically a salary dump in the Matt Stafford trade with the Los Angeles Rams. He has helped use shifts and motion to boost an unheralded receiver group and has kept reinventing a gap rushing scheme despite not having his most dynamic cog, D’Andre Swift, close to full health for much of the season. His unit is backed by a defense that is dead last in most key categories, yet Detroit’s offense spearheaded a recent three-game winning streak and nearly pulled off a huge upset of the Bills on Thursday.

“I like everything about the guy,” said one longtime NFL evaluator, who has been a part of numerous successful coaching hires. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss a coach under contract.) “He kind of came out of nowhere, but I’m buying him as a future head coach.”

The first-time play caller entered Week 12 with the Lions ranked in the top six in the percentage of drives that reach the red zone and in touchdowns per drive. He has served as a tight ends coach and quarterbacks coach and has an innate ability to process information and understand analytics, according to people who have watched him.

Johnson was a math and computer science double major who walked on at North Carolina and ended up playing quarterback for the Tar Heels. He was working in software development and writing code before getting into coaching, and he has studied all aspects of the offensive side of the ball, including working with offensive line guru Chris Foerster in Miami.

The Johnson buzz has spread through NFL circles by word of mouth, not via a massive PR push and decidedly without the kind of hype that tends to coalesce around prominent members of coaching staffs from playoff regulars. Lions Coach Dan Campbell, in his second year, didn’t win his first road game until this month, and if anything the Detroit coaches have battled for their reputations after the staff came under fire last season.

Suffice it to say, Johnson is making a very strong impression.

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“He’s special,” said another longtime personnel executive, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “What he’s had to overcome with injuries and from a personnel standpoint, the way they run the football, what he’s done for Goff: Not many coordinators are doing what he’s doing. You look at the film and the way his players respond to him. That’s how you evaluate a coach. That’s coaching.”

Is the age of ‘QB gurus’ waning?

NFL execs I’ve talked to are keeping a close eye on Arizona, Denver, Cleveland, Houston and Carolina as the teams with the highest probability of head coaching openings, with New Orleans also getting a few votes. Some are wondering if 71-year-old Pete Carroll would retire in Seattle, although they’re betting against it given the way that franchise has surged this season.

There is a growing consensus about some other young coaches in the league who, like Johnson, are primed to get serious traction in this hiring cycle. And some wonder, with running the football and strong defense back in vogue this season, whether the trend of seeking so-called “quarterback gurus” will be bucked.

“I think the candidates on the defensive side [among those without prior head coaching experience] are better,” said one NFL general manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not at liberty to talk publicly about other teams’ staffs. “You can’t keep chasing the next [Sean] McVay.”

If the Broncos fire overwhelmed rookie head coach Nathanial Hackett before the season ends — the execs I speak to regularly believe it is quite likely — it would make sense to promote defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero in his stead, with an eye to making him the permanent replacement. “He’s a rock star,” said one longtime NFL exec who has been a part of multiple successful coaching hires. Evero has vast experience on both sides of the ball and studied under longtime defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whose coaching tree continues to spawn more branches.

San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has a legion of supporters and has impressed teams in past hiring cycles. Jonathan Gannon, Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator, is expected to interview for multiple openings, and Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo also is well positioned. In a cyclical league, the pendulum swinging back to the defensive side of the ball wouldn’t surprise me.

Sean Payton tops splashy choices

In terms of former head coaches, there is little to no debate that Sean Payton will be the prize for any owner looking to make a splash. His Super Bowl résumé and ability to build an offense and get the most out of players puts him on a different level than the rest of this class.

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Some who know Payton well believe the Chargers would be a preference — something I have reported in this space before — as he enjoys living in Southern California and has family there. Working with Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, should that job become a possibility, would be a siren call.

Regardless, Payton will have his pick of jobs should he opt to return to the sideline, and it would be a surprise if he did not. At some point, Cardinals ownership is probably going to have to concede defeat on the Kliff Kingsbury experiment; Payton’s arrival in Arizona would likely force a complete rethink of the team’s football operations department, which, frankly, should already have been under consideration years ago.

Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier should be a head coach already. He did well during a stint in Minnesota and is as respected as one could be. Bills ownership has been leading the Frazier charge for a few years now, making the case for him running his own team. Perhaps this is the year. And coaching agents and NFL execs anticipate Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn jumping back in; he coached the Falcons previously. If George Paton remains the general manager in Denver, there are strong ties between him and Quinn.

Recently fired Colts head coach Frank Reich will also be heavily sought out. “He’ll get a job if he wants one,” the NFL GM said.