In a typical NFL season, the week after the final regular season game is perhaps the most depressing time of the year for those that didn't make the playoffs.
Currently, six teams are on the hunt for new head coaches, but not all job openings are considered equal. For reasons ranging from roster strength to resources, some vacancies are better than others. We ranked them in descending order of desirability.
1. Denver Broncos
Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak retired after two seasons with the team and less than a year after a Super Bowl victory. Though his 10th year as a head coach in the NFL did not lead to a playoff appearance this season, the 9-7 Broncos are easily the best landing spot for the top coaching candidates.
Denver's defense continues to perform at a high level against the pass, particularly when rushing the passer. The team totaled 42 sacks in 2017, 13.5 belonging to linebacker Von Miller and eight to fellow LB Shane Ray. Issues stopping the run persisted this year, in part because of the departures of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan in free agency and in part because of injuries suffered by Vance Walker, Brandon Marshall and DeMarcus Ware.
On offense, the Broncos went with the relatively inexperienced Trevor Siemian as their starting quarterback, and it is his development that could have Denver go from the offensive-minded Kubiak to another head coach whose expertise is on that side of the ball. Kickstarting a run game that ranked just 27th in yards and 20th in touchdowns this season will also be a priority for whoever takes over.
Top candidate: Kyle Shanahan
The Atlanta Falcons offense has been one of the most explosive in 2017, which belies offensive coordinator Shanahan's versatility as a head coach. He was able to get the most out of Robert Griffin III in 2012 while with Washington, then moved onto Atlanta's Matt Ryan -- a very different style of quarterback -- and successfully schemed around him as well. Shanahan is the hottest name in these early stages of coaching searches and should be able to pick his spot (he's reportedly eyeing the Broncos' vacancy). Don't forget: His father, Mike, spent 14 years as the Broncos' head coach.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
As one of the NFL's basement-dwellers, Jacksonville doesn't seem like the second-most desirable coaching openings. But appearances can be deceiving.
Coach Gus Bradley's failures were more about getting the most out of his collection of talented players than any lack of talent. General manager David Caldwell has tried to assemble a roster on both offense and defense that can grow and improve together. And it's that roster that makes the Jags an intriguing challenge for numerous candidates.
On offense, the Jaguars boast receivers Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns -- a trio any coach would love to build around. Yes, quarterback Blake Bortles regressed heavily in 2016, but he also played through two shoulder separations and a wrist injury; for these reasons, he could be salvageable as a starter. On defense, the team has added Jalen Ramsey, Dante Fowler and Myles Jack through the draft in recent years and Tashaun Gipson, Malik Jackson and Prince Amukamara on defense. The job of Jacksonville's next head coach is to finally take this collection of players and turn them into a solid team. Plus, Shahid Khan has proven to be the rare patient NFL team owner, having given Bradley four years. That should be an attractive selling point to potential candidates.
Top candidate: Doug Marrone
The Jaguars' assistant head coach and offensive line coach, Marrone was promoted to the interim head coach job following Week 15, and his team went 1-1 in the final two games of the season. If the Jaguars want continuity, that makes him the guy. But Jacksonville is also (rightfully) pursuing Shanahan, and Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars' inaugural head coach, has been rumored to be on the team's short list. But the 70 year-old Coughlin seems more likely to end up with the team in an executive capacity rather than as a coach.
3. San Diego Chargers
Given the rash of injuries that plagued the Chargers in 2016, it seemed somewhat of a surprise that general manager Tom Telesco and owner Alex Spanos would relieve head coach Mike McCoy of his duties. But San Diego won nine games in each of McCoy's first two seasons as head coach. In the past two, they have won just nine games combined. It was time for a change, especially since the Chargers could be on the verge of moving to Los Angeles.
The good news is that any new Chargers head coach would hopefully be inheriting a healthier roster than the one the team fielded in 2016. The bad news is that the Chargers have a number of key players set to be unrestricted free agents this offseason. Losing any or all of safety Jahleel Addae, linebackers Melvin Ingram and Manti Te'o or running back Danny Woodhead would significantly change the complexion of the team.
The uncertainty of location could scare off higher-level candidates. Still, the opportunity to coach a well-established starting quarterback in Philip Rivers is always a plus to any would-be head coach.
Top candidates: Teryl Austin, Sean McDermott
Most of the coaches San Diego desires are known for the defensive side of the ball, and for good reason. Though San Diego did well in preventing passing touchdowns and ranked tops in interceptions, they still gave up a 29th-ranked 423 points on the season. Five defensive coordinators are on their interview list: Tampa's Mike Smith, Miami's Vance Joseph, Detroit's Austin, New England's Matt Patricia and Carolina's McDermott.
Patricia would be a very strong candidate, but it seems like he'll return to New England for 2017. Austin was a hot name a year ago and McDermott's name has been thrown around as a future head coach for a few seasons, as well. Either one of those two would be solid additions to a Chargers team that clearly wants a defensive mind to replace McCoy.
4. Buffalo Bills
Rex Ryan wearing out his welcome in Buffalo was a matter of when, not if, given his history. And indeed, he did, being dismissed from his job after a Week 16 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn served as the interim head coach in the final week of the season; this is the same Lynn who was promoted from running backs coach in Week 2.
There are numerous questions that need to be answered for the Bills, ranging from retooling a defense that was supposed to improve under the Ryan's direction but instead took a step backward, as well as figuring out what the future holds at the quarterback position. Those uncertainties could be red flags for any outside coaching candidate. Team owner Terry Pegula and general manager Doug Whaley have shown a strong willingness to provide input on roster matters that typically belong to head coaches.
Top candidate: Lynn
Lynn managed to turn around the Bills' offense upon taking over coordinator duties, particularly in his speciality, the run game. After his promotion in Week 3, the Bills rushed for over 100 yards in 11 of their remaining games, including over 200 yards four times and over 300 once. Lynn's connection with the offense, particularly running back LeSean McCoy, makes him a heavy favorite to go from "interim" to "permanent" in Buffalo.
5. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams made the first head coaching change of the year following Week 14, finally dismissing Jeff Fisher after nearly five full seasons, none of which were above .500. The newly-relocated franchise has to not just improve its record, but also captivate a difficult NFL viewership market while developing second-year quarterback Jared Goff (a.k.a. the 2016 draft's No. 1 overall pick).
The Rams ranked 32nd in both yards and points in 2016. Goff went 0-7 once being named starter over Case Keenum. Running back Todd Gurley had 885 yards and six rushing scores, but averaged only 3.2 yards per carry. The defense notched only 10 interceptions and 31 sacks. Needless to say, the Rams are in search of significant, all-around improvement.
Top candidate: Josh McDaniels
The Rams appear to not know what they want, having interviewed or planning to interview no fewer than eight candidates, ranging from Patricia and Austin on the defensive side to McDaniels and Shanahan on offense. The best bet would be to bring aboard an offensive-minded coach to help mold Goff's future -- or at the very least, hiring a coordinator that has a history building up young quarterbacks. Shanahan could be a solid addition, but he's likely to have better options. The same can be said for McDaniels -- we'll go with him for now, although it may be a lesser-known name who ends up with the Rams job in 2017.
6. San Francisco 49ers
Just like Jim Tomsula in 2015, Chip Kelly was given only one year as the San Francisco 49ers' head coach. The only difference this time is that Kelly wasn't the only one to go; team CEO Jed York also decided to part ways with general manager Trent Baalke, after years of roster mismanagement and cultivated drama between his players, his coaches and the local media.
But that air of dysfunction won't clear simply because Kelly and Baalke are gone, which makes the Niners a hard sell for any of the top head coaching candidates this offseason. York isn't going anywhere, for one. There is also the matter of quarterback: Neither Colin Kaepernick (who will be voiding his contract in the coming months) nor Blaine Gabbert have proved to be the solution and it's likely the Niners' 2017 starter will be a rookie.
The defense has also seen an exodus of talent over the past two seasons, and as such, the team ranked dead last in both yards and points allowed this year, mainly because of their inability to stop the run. All statistical categories beyond the rushing offense were among the NFL's worst in 2016, which means the new GM-head coach tandem will have a lot of work to do. San Francisco is a great franchise with a winning history, but the lack of patience shown for coaches over the past few season could scare many candidates away.
Top candidates: Depends on the new top brass.
This is tricky, because the Niners need to fill their GM vacancy as well as the head coaching slot, and they may be working to achieve the former before the latter. Their GM interviewees are currently the Chiefs' director of football operations Chris Ballard, Vikings assistant general manager George Paton, Packers executives Eliot Wolf and Brian Butekunst and the Colts' vice president of football operations Jimmy Rayell. But that hasn't precluded the 49ers from putting some head coaching feelers out there; Washington coordinator Sean McCoy, Lynn, Shanahan and Joseph are on the short list.
But all of those coaching candidates might also be on a "wish list," one that the Niners may not see fulfilled this year. Depending on how the GM search goes and how quickly other teams fill their coaching vacancies, San Francisco might have to pull a 2015 Cleveland Browns, who essentially hired Mike Pettine as a -- to put it delecately -- not-first-choice candidate.