Imagine you're Sean Payton. Usually teams are choosing from a group of candidates. Practically speaking, Payton is picking which team hires him.
There are five teams with a vacancy at head coach, and four of them have requested interviews with Payton. Which opening is the best? There's a lot that goes into ranking the landing spots.
Let's include the Indianapolis Colts, the one team with an opening that hasn't requested to talk to Payton, and rank which job is best:
5. Houston Texans
The Texans desperately need to nail a head coaching hire. Whoever is hired will be the team's fourth coach in four seasons. The Texans had two straight one-and-done coaches, which speaks to the horrible choices the franchise has made. Ownership is a big issue. And for a team that has an 11-38-1 record over the past three seasons, there's not a lot of exciting young players on the roster. Bad trades and mediocre drafts continue to hurt the franchise.
The Texans have the second pick in this year's draft but even that didn't work out great; Houston won in the regular-season finale and the Chicago Bears got the first pick as a result. Any team can turn things around with a good head coach and a couple good drafts. But until further notice, Houston is the NFL's dead-end franchise. About the only good thing to say about this opening is that the bar to cross for success is really, really low.
4. Arizona Cardinals
Kyler Murray probably wasn't a $230 million quarterback when he was healthy. But that's the contract he got last year, and that was before he tore his ACL late in the season. Murray might not be ready for the start of the season and for a quarterback who depends so heavily on his mobility, there's a chance he won't be the same player when he returns. Take that uncertainty and add it to a roster that is thin on blue-chip players.
The Cardinals don't have a great history either. They have the longest championship drought in American professional sports, they've won just one playoff game since the end of the 2009 season and have made the playoffs once since the end of the 2015 season. It's one of the NFL's perennial losing franchises, with an injured and probably overpaid quarterback and a roster that needs a lot of work. Not great.
3. Indianapolis Colts
Forget the Jeff Saturday circus, which made team owner Jim Irsay look like he's losing it. The Colts are a team that was favored to win the AFC South a few months ago. They need a quarterback — they have the fourth pick of the draft, which might solve that problem — but there are a lot of other good players on the roster.
Things went sour for the Colts in a hurry this season, the Saturday interim hire made the Colts a laughingstock, Irsay is as unpredictable as any NFL team owner, but at least there's hope that this won't be a long-term rebuild.
2. Denver Broncos
This job looked really bad when Nathaniel Hackett was fired. Then in the final two games, the team looked better, Russell Wilson played his two best games of the season and suddenly there was some hope (this is why we need to ignore the "what good would it do to fire the coach midseason?" crowd). Now perhaps you can sell a new head coach on Wilson's struggles being entirely due to Hackett.
Also, the new ownership group has as much money as any in the NFL, so it can spend lavishly on a new head coach. It's a franchise that also has been good for decades, though the post-2015 years have been lean.
Firing Hackett when the Broncos did, giving the team time to finish strong, made this opening look a lot better.
1. Carolina Panthers
Here's the difference between this job and the Broncos' job: One franchise has to contend with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert for the next decade, while the other has to deal with ... Desmond Ridder? Kyle Trask? Whoever the Saints find for 2023?
Carolina has a quarterback question too, but if it can answer that, the division is there for the taking. The rest of the roster isn't that bad and played well for interim head coach Steve Wilks. A new coach could walk into a first-year division title. Team owner David Tepper will spend what it takes to get that quarterback. He also looks tough to work for because he's impulsive and doesn't seem to understand the NFL business that well. Still, you'd probably rather have an overly aggressive franchise owner than a cheap one. There's a clear path for instant success and depending on how quickly the other teams figure out the quarterback position, the Panthers might run the division for a few years.