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7 up-and-coming individuals to keep an eye on under the guidance of a legendary coach

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For the first time in 24 years, the New England Patriots are in the market for a head coach.

On Thursday, days after the worst season of his New England tenure skidded to a thud and a 4-13 record, reports broke that Bill Belichick and the Patriots would part ways. It’s the end of a long and prosperous run that took a franchise that had been the northeast’s analog to the Cleveland Browns and turned it into one of the game’s most fearsome opponents. Belichick won six Super Bowls with the team. From 2011 to 2018 the AFC title game didn’t get played without him. He helped turn Tom Brady from the 199th overall pick to the game’s greatest quarterback. Now someone has to follow that up.

New England can offer an owner, Robert Kraft, who has proven to be a supportive winner. It ha a defense still capable of being one of the league’s best. And the Patriots possess an offense that sure does have a bunch of players on it, yes sir. The first priority for whomever winds up following this legend will be finding a solution to a quarterback problem that’s plagued the team since Brady departed for Tampa. That won’t be all, as the team’s four wins in 2023 attest. Who will be the top candidates to take on this challenge? Let’s start with the most likely choices.

Top Candidates

  • Jerod Mayo

    Current job: Linebackers coach, de facto defensive coordinator, New England Patriots

    If Robert Kraft is looking to make an in-house hire, he’ll look no further than Mayo. The former Pro Bowler has spent 13 of the last 17 years in New England in some capacity, whether that was as a hard-hitting inside linebacker or as the team’s linebackers coach and, later, defensive play-caller. In that stretch, his defenses have shined despite the cascading gray around him. New England has ranked in the top 10 when it comes to yardage allowed in all but one of Mayo’s seasons on staff. He’s helped turn a linebacker corps of non-stars like Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai and Anfernee Jennings into the center of one of the NFL’s most consistent units. He’s a branch of the Belichick coaching tree ready to sprout. While that hasn’t worked out for pretty much anyone who has hired a Belichick assistant in the past, they all had the disadvantage of doing so outside of New England. Mayo would provide stability through transition and keep the team’s most useful tendencies intact. He’d also be given a fleshed-out staff and actual general manager to help wean the team off some of the bad habits that doomed the end of the Belichick regime.

  • Mike Vrabel

    Current job: None, but was the head coach of the Tennessee Titans the previous six years

    If Robert Kraft is looking to make an in-house hire, he’ll look no further than Mayo. The former Pro Bowler has spent 13 of the last 17 years in New England in some capacity, whether that was as a hard-hitting inside linebacker or as the team’s linebackers coach and, later, defensive play-caller. In that stretch, his defenses have shined despite the cascading gray around him. New England has ranked in the top 10 when it comes to yardage allowed in all but one of Mayo’s seasons on staff. He’s helped turn a linebacker corps of non-stars like Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai and Anfernee Jennings into the center of one of the NFL’s most consistent units. He’s a branch of the Belichick coaching tree ready to sprout. While that hasn’t worked out for pretty much anyone who has hired a Belichick assistant in the past, they all had the disadvantage of doing so outside of New England. Mayo would provide stability through transition and keep the team’s most useful tendencies intact. He’d also be given a fleshed-out staff and actual general manager to help wean the team off some of the bad habits that doomed the end of the Belichick regime.

  • Jim Harbaugh

    Current job: Head coach, Michigan Wolverines

    Let’s go from one prickly, out-of-touch authoritarian beloved by his players (when winning) to another. Harbaugh landed his rover on college football’s ultimate prize after failing to escape the surly bonds of gravity for so long. He earned a national title at his alma mater and, with NCAA investigations closing in on improper recruiting and employing someone who went to great lengths to clandestinely film opponents’ signs, may opt for the NFL. It’s a very easy joke to compare all that to Belichick. Let’s just agree it’s interesting and move on. Anyway, Harbaugh has known nothing but success as a head coach regardless of the challenge. He’s won at the University of San Diego, Stanford, the San Francisco 49ers and Michigan. He’s an old school coach who gets young players to buy in and pull together in service of a greater good. He’s arguably 2024’s hottest coaching commodity; the question is whether or not he wants to leave Ann Arbor to perform CPR on the Patriots’ flatlining offense.

  • Ben Johnson

    Current job: Offensive coordinator, Detroit Lions

    Johnson has proven he can take an intelligent, but flawed, quarterback and revive his value with a motion-heavy offense designed to create wide openings downfield. If he’d like a new challenge, he can take over a quarterback room headed by Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe and the third overall pick in a draft starring two blue chip quarterback prospects. The 37-year-old is a rising star who’s going to get hired for a top job somewhere this winter. He’s made the Lions, led by a quarterback the Los Angeles Rams no longer wanted to pay, a top five offense in each of his two years as a coordinator and has been a driving force behind the franchise’s first division title in three decades. He’s been lauded by coaches and players for his ability to communicate, weaving suggestions into a tapestry of defense-shredding plays that maximize the talent of the guys around him. Johnson is capable of lifting up veterans and rookies alike, which is going to be a useful skill for a team with highly valued draft capital and what’s estimated to be the third-most salary cap space in the NFL in 2024. And with the Patriots in dire need of an offensive overhaul, he may be the smartest choice they could make.

  • Mike Slowik

    Current job: Offensive coordinator, Houston Texans

    Kyle Shanahan disciples are the new Sean McVay disciples. All the kids are saying it. Slowik spent six seasons with Shanahan in San Francisco, watching him glean extended playoff runs with Jimmy Garoppolo, then Brock Purdy behind center. Then he went to Houston, where he and DeMeco Ryans took over the league’s 30th ranked scoring offense and transformed it into the league’s 13th-best unit behind a rookie quarterback and a handful of young players drafted on Day 2 or later. Getting the Texans to the playoffs has pushed Slowik’s rocket into the atmosphere.

  • Eric Christian Smith

    Current job: Offensive coordinator, Washington Commanders

    Brian Flores is a name that’s getting thrown around a lot thanks to his connection to Belichick and the franchise. But if New England is going to go with a defensive playcaller who cut his teeth on the Patriot Way, Mayo feels like the much more likely candidate. Instead, let’s turn to another assistant who has been a hot name in coaching circles over the past decade. Bieniemy helped Patrick Mahomes find his groove and briefly made Sam Howell a viable quarterback before coaxing the best football of Jacoby Brissett’s career out of the journeyman in a tiny sample size this fall. He’s a stoic playcaller capable of finding room for athletes in his offense — and maybe turning guys like Demario Douglas, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyquan Thornton into something more than just guys you ignore on your fantasy football waiver wire. Of course, there’s also the concern that the combination of Mahomes and…

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