Ejiro Evero, Ben Johnson and DeMeco Ryans among young NFL coaches to watch

Raiders DC Patrick Graham, 43: Not much has gone right this season for the Raiders, who are 2-7 under new coach Josh McDaniels. But you can’t forget that Graham got another interview for the Vikings head coaching job a year ago and the Jets tried to interview him the year before that as well. A former Yale defensive lineman, Graham is now in his 21st year of coaching and has spent the last 14 years in the NFL (including a Super Bowl XLIX win with the 2014 Patriots). He is passionate, has high expectations and holds players accountable.

Ravens STC Chris Horton, 37: A seventh-round pick out of Washington who played three NFL seasons as a safety, Horton joined the Ravens as an intern in 2014, was promoted to assistant special teams coach the following year and succeeded Jerry Rosburg in his current role in 2019. Horton is the presence and confidence of John Harbaugh, the former special teams coordinator. The Ravens ranked No. 1 in Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings for 2021, and not just because of world-class kicker Justin Tucker. Harbaugh has given Horton ownership of the operation, and Horton has run with it, coaching players on both sides of the ball into one of the best units in the NFL.

Lions OC Ben Johnson, 36: Those who have worked with Johnson say he has one of the sharpest minds in the NFL. (How many guys move on to the football team at quarterback while earning degrees in math and computer science, like Johnson did at North Carolina?) So it’s no surprise that the Lions’ offense found life midway through the 2021 season when Johnson and head coach Dan Campbell, who spent four years with Johnson on the Dolphins in the headquarters, took the reins. Johnson has coached quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends in the past, and he has a good feel for the overall picture. Is he ready to hold his own program in one year with the title of coordinator? It is unknown. But his reputation will get him in the room sooner rather than later.

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Giants OC Mike Kafka, 35: The Giants have been one of the NFL’s best surprises under new coach (and alum on this list) Brian Daboll, thanks in part to Kafka’s tenure as a play-caller on a team lacking in horsepower at receiver. A fourth-round pick by Andy Reid’s Eagles in 2010, Kafka bounced around as an NFL quarterback for six seasons. Kafka has natural leadership traits and earned a strong reputation as a QB tutor after teaming up with Reid in Kansas City as a QA. coach in 2017. Last season, Kafka was QB coach/passing game coordinator for the Chiefs, who had one of the best passing attacks in the NFL; this season he is the OC of a Giants team that boasts the league’s leading rusher in Saquon Barkley. Kafka can run both sides of the offense at a high level, which should make him intriguing to teams that need not only a head coach, but a plan to fix the offense.

Jets OC Mike LaFleur, 35: It’s probably a little soon for the younger brother of Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who continues to develop as a playmaker and leader. But if the Jets continue to win with a very young core, it won’t be a shock to see Mike LaFleur get an interview request or two. He is personable and from the same Shanahan/McVay offense tree that has produced many other successful head coaches. In 2021, the Jets played four different QBs in one five-game stretch, ranking first in the NFL in yards per game. This season, the Jets are 5-1 since Zach Wilson returned from injury despite all sorts of offensive line woes and the loss of starter RB Breece Hall. That adaptability will serve LaFleur well whenever his opportunity arises.

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Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich, 42: Leftwich got a long look as a head coaching candidate last year, interviewing with the Jaguars and Bears and receiving an offer from the Saints. The 10-year NFL quarterback was a backup in Pittsburgh under then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who hired Leftwich as QB coach at Arizona in 2017 and brought him to Tampa two years later as OC. The Bucs offense hasn’t been as prolific this season, but let’s not forget how dangerous the offense was in Leftwich’s first three seasons, which included Tampa’s run to Super Bowl LV when Tom Brady came aboard.

Patriots ILB coach Jerod Mayo, 36: Still in his fourth year of coaching, Mayo has held head coaching interviews with the Eagles (in 2021) and Broncos (in 2022). Before entering coaching, Mayo played eight seasons for Bill Belichick in New England, directing the defense and running the signal-calling for most of that time, including as a rookie with veterans like Mike Vrabel, Tedy Brusch and Vince Wilfork. He now serves as the de facto coordinator for a Patriots defense that has played well again this season and ranks among the league leaders in sacks and takeaways. Mayo’s pedigree and makeup are intriguing.

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Cowboys OC Kellen Moore, 34: A six-year NFL backup QB who took over as Dallas’ QB coach in 2018, Moore is respected for his football IQ and creativity. And he was busy last January interviewing the Jaguars, Broncos, Dolphins and Vikings for their head coaching jobs. (The Eagles also interviewed Moore the year before.) Like many really young coaches, Moore has a lot to learn about the big picture of running a program. He would need a good plan for his staff and experienced people. But the tools are there.

49ers DC DeMeco Ryans, 38: The Vikings were so impressed with Ryans after his first interview last January that they asked to fly him for a short time. Ryans responded by doing something that almost never happens: He declined and told the team he felt he needed more time to develop. It speaks to Ryans mentality and maturity. He is a two-time Pro Bowler in 10 NFL seasons as an NFL linebacker. He is now in his sixth year as a 49ers assistant and second as defensive coordinator. Despite the injuries, Ryan’s unit shows up week after week, playing fast and physical. And he prides himself on making an impact on players on and off the field. His leadership qualities outweigh his relative inexperience, and this could be Ryans year – if he decides to be ready.


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