Jim Harbaugh NFL landing spots, ranked: Chargers, Raiders among best fits if coach leaves Michigan

Jim Harbaugh accomplished his No. 1 goal at Michigan by beating Washington in the national championship game. Now, there are questions about what will be next for the 60-year-old coach.

Harbaugh could opt to stay in Ann Arbor and continue coaching the Wolverines. That would allow him to bask in the post-championship glow and enjoy all the perks that come with winning a title.

However, Harbaugh could also use this victory as a stepping stone back to the NFL. He has flirted with a return to that level on several occasions during his nine-year stint at Michigan, but he ultimately decided to stay put each time.

Could this hiring cycle be different? Perhaps, as Harbaugh can now leave the school saying he accomplished all of his main objectives. He won a title, returned Michigan to national prominence and has a potential replacement in place in offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, who went 4-0 as the interim head coach while Harbaugh was suspended at the beginning and end of the season.

All that could convince Harbaugh that he can leave his alma mater in good hands and make the jump back to the pros for the first time since his stint with the 49ers from 2011 to 2014.

BENDER: Why Jim Harbaugh should coach Michigan in 2024 and ignore NFL siren song

Harbaugh will have no shortage of options if he does return to the NFL, as he will likely draw interest from each team with a coaching vacancy. Here’s a look at which of those teams might be the best fit for Harbaugh as he ponders his future.

Jim Harbaugh NFL landing spots, ranked

1. Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers represent Harbaugh’s best shot at competing for a playoff spot right away in his return to the NFL. Los Angeles has an offense that is built to win now, as Justin Herbert is among the best young quarterbacks in the NFL while the team has plenty of weapons around him in Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joshua Palmer and 2023 first-round pick Quentin Johnston.

Los Angeles has some concerns on the defensive side of the ball, but the Chargers aren’t without talent. Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack and Derwin James are a strong foundation, so with the help of a good defensive coordinator, Harbaugh can get the most out of that unit.

But really, going with the Chargers is all about getting an offense that is largely ready to win. If Harbaugh can just make some upgrades to the offensive line, they could reach their ceiling and become the challenger to the Chiefs that many believed they would be over the last couple of seasons.

2. Las Vegas Raiders

While the Chargers are the clear-cut top option available, things get murkier after that. One could make a case for several teams with the No. 2 spot on this list, but the Raiders have probably staked their claim to it.

The Raiders finished the season going 5-4 under interim coach Antonio Pierce, so it isn’t guaranteed that they will be looking to replace him. Still, Mark Davis has gone big-name hunting in the past and if he believes that the Raiders need a flashy coach to succeed in Las Vegas, they could pursue Harbaugh and eschew Pierce.

Harbaugh might be intrigued by the Raiders’ opening. They don’t have a long-term answer at quarterback, but with Davante Adams, Jakobi Meyers, Hunter Renfrow and Zamir White in the fold, they are positioned to be a plug-and-play starter away from a wild-card contender. That may work out well for Harbaugh, who could potentially consider drafting Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy to continue their successful partnership at the NFL level.

Meanwhile, the Raiders’ defense could be a bit shakier without Pierce there to coach it up. That said, they still have Maxx Crosby and plenty of young talent in the secondary. With some new additions, they could be ready for a breakout year if Harbaugh can bring in a quality coordinator.

BENDER: No one could stop Michigan, even when everybody wanted to

3. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons and Raiders jobs are looking quite similar at present. Each offense possesses playmakers who could soon have breakout years but lacks the quarterback needed to take advantage of their potential primes.

This is especially true for Atlanta, which has used consecutive first-round picks on Bijan Robinson, Drake London and Kyle Pitts but got very little out of them under Arthur Smith. Harbaugh would certainly do better with that collection of talent, and this is another spot where adding McCarthy to the fold could be a sensible choice if Harbaugh wanted to continue the duo’s run together.

The Falcons have a better offensive line than the Raiders, so that could ultimately serve as a tiebreaker between the two spots. So too could be any Godfather offer that Arthur Blank makes as the 81-year-old owner looks to win his way back to the Super Bowl.

That said, Atlanta’s defense is a bit further behind that of Las Vegas, so that will keep the Falcons in a close third right now. But if Harbaugh cares about the team’s offensive personnel above all else, Atlanta could end up being among his top choices.

4. Washington Commanders

The Commanders could be an appealing landing spot for Harbaugh as well, as new owner Josh Harris has expressed an interest in him. With Daniel Snyder out, Washington has a better chance of landing Harbaugh, but among the teams looking for a new coach, they have arguably the weakest roster. 

At present, the Commanders’ offense has Terry McLaurin and Brian Robinson, but not much else. Their offensive line is not looking good while 2022 first-round pick Jahan Dotson took a step back in his second season. Perhaps the receiving corps can be improved by finding a replacement for Sam Howell, but Curtis Samuel will be a free agent either way.

Between that and Washington’s problematic defense, Harbaugh may view the team as one that needs a rebuilding year before competing for the playoffs in a top-heavy NFC East. That said, the Commanders are armed with the No. 2 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft and own five of the first 100 selections.

So, between that and the team’s league-high $77 million in cap space, there are reasons to be optimistic about the opening. And if Harbaugh really wants to build a team in his image, the Commanders may allow him to do that.

MORE: Harbaugh says Michigan ‘innocent’ of off-field charges

5. Tennessee Titans

The Titans decided to fire Mike Vrabel the day after Black Monday. That could put them in the mix for Harbaugh if they seek out a proven replacement for the 2021 Coach of the Year.

The Titans have some intriguing tools that could draw Harbaugh in, but they need a bit more work on offense than most of the teams on this list. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins, tight end Chig Okonkwo and running back Tyjae Spears represent their top weapons, but quarterback is unproven with Will Levis in the phone.

In many ways, Tennessee is similar to Washington. It has some pieces that Harbaugh will like but needs a lot of improvement before it can realistically expect to compete for a playoff spot. The silver lining for the Titans is that they play in the AFC South, which is easier than the Commanders’ division.

That said, the Titans own the No. 7 pick compared to Washington’s No. 2 pick and have $71 million in cap space compared to the Commanders’ $77 million. So despite being close, Tennessee will check in just a hair lower than Washington. That may mean that the Titans have to look elsewhere for an innovative offensive mind.

6. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers are easily the least appealing option for Harbaugh among the NFL’s head coach openings.

Carolina finished with the NFL’s worst record in 2023 but doesn’t have its own first-round pick because of the Bryce Young trade. Young struggled immensely as a rookie, finishing the season with a 73.7 passer rating, good for the league’s low-water mark among its 32 qualified quarterbacks. He may not have had a lot around him, but he needs a lot of work and development.

Harbaugh may believe that he can get the most out of Young, but will he be willing to tether his NFL future to the Panthers’ impatient owner David Tepper? It’s hard to imagine that being the case.

So, while Carolina will likely land one of the top coaching candidates on the open market, it would probably be the least likely to land Harbaugh, at least on paper.

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