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 third year I've asked the question, and six names from the previouslists have been hired, including Matt LaFleur, Brian Flores and Zac Taylor in the most recent cycle. As I note every year, McVay -- a 30-year-old with three years of experience as a coordinator when the Rams hired him in January 2017 -- is a rare guy, and pretty much nobody has comparable experience at such a young age. Winless starts amidst intentional (Dolphins) and not-so-intentional (Bengals) rebuilds have some plugged-in people predicting a shift away from the wunderkind hiring trend. But McVay is coming off a Super Bowl appearance, and LaFleur's age certainly isn't stopping him from early success in Green Bay, so you can bet some NFL teams will once again look past the length of resume (or lack thereof) if they feel they have a shot to land the next superstar head coach.
The criteria here remains the same as past years: the age cutoff is in the early 40s, and the person can't have been a full-time NFL head coach before. Here's a short list of names to remember, based on dozens of recent conversations with NFL executives, coaches, players and others close to the search process:
New faces for this year's list
49ers DC Robert Saleh: His jacked-up sideline reactions have gone viral during the 49ers' 6-0 start. But there's a lot more to Saleh, 40, who has re-envisioned the Cover 3 scheme he learned under Pete Carroll in Seattle and later Gus Bradley in Jacksonville, implementing Wide 9 principles, split-safety defenses and creative third-down looks and blitzes. Saleh is charismatic. Players love and believe in him. He'll need to hire the right offensive coordinator, but all the tools are there.
Colts OC Nick Sirianni: A trusted assistant to Frank Reich going back to their days in San Diego, where he forged a close relationship with Philip Rivers, Sirianni has an excellent reputation across the league. The 38-year-old has a lot of energy, knows offense and holds players accountable. He turned down a chance to talk to the Browns about their opening in January, feeling he needed to focus solely on the Colts' Divisional Round game. But Sirianni is ready to interview this time and should be in demand.
Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski: He was impressive enough to get a second interview for the Browns job in January after just a three-game interim stint as Minnesota's play-caller. Promoted in January, Stefanski suggested the hiring of Gary Kubiak to help install the Shanahan brand of West Coast offense that has been clicking of late. Still just 37, Stefanski gained popularity among players while coaching several positions over 14 years with the Vikings, starting as an assistant to then-coach Brad Childress, who told me last year: "The best thing about [Stefanski] is he can keep a cool head when everybody else is losing theirs."
Baylor coach Matt Rhule and Iowa State coach Matt Campbell: Some NFL executives predicted a year ago that a college coach would get hired, and after Kliff Kingsbury made the leap, there's thought in league circles that another will follow -- if somebody pays the price to lure him. Rhule, 44, interviewed two years ago with the Colts and last January with the Jets, who might've hired him if he'd adjusted plans for his staff. Rhule's NFL experience, albeit limited (one season as the Giants' assistant OL coach in 2012), is a plus. His name only figures to be hotter with Baylor off to a 7-0 start. The Jets also wanted to interview Campbell, 39, who's known as a culture builder with a good mind for offense and innate ability to relate to anyone.
Bills OC Brian Daboll: If the Bills stay hot, it wouldn't be a surprise to see interest in Daboll, 44, who has a big fan in young QB Josh Allen. He's a likeable guy with offensive chops and an impressive pedigree that includes five Super Bowl wins over two stints as a Patriots assistant and a national title on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama.
Patriots ST/WR coach Joe Judge and ILB coach Jerod Mayo: In the past two years, three Bill Belichick proteges from this list (Mike Vrabel, Matt Patricia and Flores) got their first head-coaching jobs. Who's next? One possibility is Judge, 37, whom Belichick -- a big believer in the importance of special teams -- has been grooming, adding the receivers to Judge's title this year. Mayo, 33, only became an NFL coach about seven months ago. But he spent eight seasons playing for Belichick, calling the defensive signals for most of that time, and has strong leadership traits. Sure, it might be a stretch to think Mayo has a shot to run his own program already -- just don't be shocked if somebody requests an interview.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley: There may not be a more coveted candidate anywhere than Riley, 36, an offensive guru who has coached two straight Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks (both taken No. 1 overall) and now has Jalen Hurts on pace to break some NCAA records for the unbeaten Sooners. But it'd have to be a really good NFL job with a blue-blood franchise to lure him away. The phone will keep ringing until someone does.
Saints assistant head coach/TEs Dan Campbell: With the Saints off to a 6-1 start despite a slew of injuries, is this the year Sean Payton's tree grows a branch? Campbell, 43, is heavily involved in the Saints' running game and addresses the team weekly on opponent looks, keys to victory, etc. A 10-year NFL veteran as a player, Campbell played for Bill Parcells, who vouches for him as a leader. He'd need to hire strong coordinators and focus on setting the program. He has interviewed for four jobs over the past two years.
Jaguars OC John DeFilippo: One year after a bad fit in Minnesota ended in his December dismissal, the 41-year-old DeFilippo is re-establishing himself in Jacksonville -- and showing he does know how to run a balanced offense. Leonard Fournette's game is improved across the board, with the Jags boasting the NFL's No. 5 rushing attack, and rookie sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew has exceeded all expectations. DeFilippo's passion and work ethic are never in doubt. He has interviewed for three head jobs in the past.
Cowboys passing game coordinator/DBs coach Kris Richard: Some compare Richard, 39, to Mike Zimmer around the same age. He's savvy, understands the young generation of players and knows the game inside and out. Richard is perhaps the most vetted candidate on the list, having interviewed for five head-coaching jobs over the past three years. It'd have to be the right place, with the right GM.
Rams pass game coordinator/QB coach Shane Waldron: He interviewed in January for the Bengals job that went to Zac Taylor, then took over Taylor's daily responsibility of coaching the Rams' QBs. His role overseeing the pass game also continues to evolve, giving Waldron, 40, more time in front of the room to work on his presence. He previously had two stints under Belichick in a variety of roles in New England.
Others to watch in coming years:Cowboys LB coach Ben Bloom, 37; Giants DC James Bettcher, 41; Eagles special assistant Matt Burke, 43; Titans TE coach Todd Downing, 39; 49ers STC Richard Hightower, 39; Chiefs QB coach Mike Kafka, 32; Texans OC Tim Kelly, 33; Bucs OC Byron Leftwich, 39; 49ers run game coordinator Mike McDaniel, 36; Cowboys OC Kellen Moore, 31; Redskins OC Kevin O'Connell, 34; Cardinals WR coach David Raih, 39; Eagles QB coach Press Taylor, 31; Panthers QB coach Scott Turner, 37.