8 best Patriots coaching candidates to replace fired Bill Belichick, from Jerod Mayo to Mike Vrabel

The Patriots will start next season with a new head coach for the first time since the turn of the millennium.

ESPN reported Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft have reached a “mutual decision” to start fresh after the franchise’s worst season since 2000. The legendary coach who led the Patriots to six Super Bowls alongside Tom Brady could still continue coaching in the NFL, but it wasn’t immediately clear what the 71-year-old would do next.

It won’t be easy for the Patriots to replace Belichick, whose departure comes less than 24 hours after friend and Alabama counterpart Nick Saban’s retirement shocked college football. Belichick is one of just three NFL coaches to record 300 career wins and is regarded league-wide as one of the best coaches of all-time.

As such, the Patriots will need to carefully choose a replacement. That may lead them to entrust the job to candidates with an intimate knowledge of the organization — or perhaps another high-end retread who would command similar respect to the venerable Belichick.

Still, completely changing course entirely and targeting one of the rising, young coaches in the league can’t be ruled out either. Kraft may be looking to add another coach to the fold who can hold the fort for another 24-year stint.

Here’s a look at the top coaching candidates that could interview with the Patriots as they look to change their coach for the first time in 24 seasons.

MORE: Latest updates on NFL coach firings for 2024

Patriots coaching candidates for 2024

Jerod Mayo

  • Team: Patriots
  • Position: Inside linebackers coach

Mayo became the Patriots’ potential heir apparent to Belichick once Josh McDaniels left the squad to take on the Raiders’ coaching job. Mayo, 37, established himself as a key part of the team’s defensive play-calling after joining the team in 2019. New England’s defense has performed well under his leadership so Kraft and Co. may view this as an opportunity to keep one of New England’s strengths intact in the post-Belichick era.

That said, it’s worth noting that Eric Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal reported that Mayo “has rubbed at least some people the wrong way in the building since his extension.” That could impact his standing in any potential battle to become New England’s new coach.

Still, the Krafts seem to like Mayo, whose knowledge of the organization could be a boon to his case to coach the team. He played for the Patriots from 2008 to 2015 and won Super Bowl 49 with them. Many former players have found success as coaches in recent years, as they have been able to motivate their players in ways that other coaches haven’t.

Also, Mayo has rewarded the Patriots’ loyalty as he has gotten interview requests for coaching jobs in recent seasons. The Krafts may opt to reward that loyalty especially considering that Mayo wants to remain with the team.

“I love it here in Boston,” Mayo said before the 2023 NFL season while explaining his decision to stay in New England. “I pretty much was raised here in Boston. I came here in 2008. It would take a lot for me to leave. This is where I want to be, and I feel the same way from the coaching staff and also from Mr. Kraft. I wanted to be here because I feel like we do it right here.”

MORE: Why Robert Kraft sees Jerod Mayo as potential Bill Belichick replacement

Mike Vrabel

  • Team: Titans
  • Position: Head coach

If the concerns about Mayo ultimately prevent him from earning a head coaching nod, Vrabel would be the ideal hire for the Patriots. In fact, he might be the team’s best option anyway, as he has proven to be one of the best coaches in the league in recent seasons.

The Titans endured a down year in 2023, but Vrabel was working with a roster completely devoid of talent. His teams in Tennessee have always overperformed — especially the one that earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC following the 2021 season — and he particularly enjoyed success in developing players on defense.

The Patriots may view Vrabel as a more proven version of Mayo because of this. The Titans coach comes with the same organizational experience as Mayo too, as Vrabel played for the Patriots from 2001 to 2008 and won three Super Bowls with the franchise. That, plus his 53-45 coaching record could convince New England to chase him.

The only question surrounding Vrabel is whether he will be available. He has performed well with the Titans, and Tennessee could opt to keep him around. That said, if general manager Ran Carthon, who inherited Vrabel, wants to bring in his own man to run the show, Vrabel could shake loose. If that happens, the Patriots would probably represent the top landing spot for the 48-year-old.

Brian Flores

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Brian Flores

  • Team: Vikings
  • Position: Defensive coordinator

Flores has been an overachiever during his NFL coaching career, much like Vrabel. Case and point, he took over a Vikings defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in most major categories last season was shredded by Daniel Jones in the playoffs and turned them into a strong unit.

Entering Week 17, the Vikings ranked 16th in yards allowed per game (330.2) and 12th in points allowed per game (20.8). Comparatively, Minnesota ranked 31st and 28th in those categories under Ed Donatell last season respectively.

Suffice to say, that’s a major turnaround for the Vikings. Flores was the key to making that happen.

Once again, if the Patriots are looking for a defensive-minded replacement for Belichick, Flores makes sense given his performance and his decade-plus of experience for the Patriots. Add in that Flores had a 24-25 record as Miami’s head coach despite possessing a weak roster early in his tenure and he looks like a potential high-end hire to replace Belichick.

Josh McDaniels

  • Team: None
  • Position: Former Raiders head coach

McDaniels is coming off his second failed stint as an NFL head coach, so it’s hard to imagine that the Patriots would make him their successor to Belichick. Still, his strong performance with the team under Belichick may lead Kraft and Co. to kick the tires on him.

During his time with the Patriots, McDaniels routinely oversaw some of the NFL’s most successful and explosive offenses. He worked quite well together with Tom Brady, who posted a record-breaking 50-touchdown season under him in 2007, so maybe the Patriots will be convinced McDaniels can do some of that same work with whichever quarterback they add during the 2024 NFL offseason.

The more likely scenario would be for McDaniels to return to the Patriots as their offensive coordinator, whether it’s under a new coach or if Belichick is surprisingly retained. Still, Kraft could give McDaniels an interview simply to see what he offers as a candidate.

Even so, it might be hard for McDaniels to get another head coaching job given his career record of 20-33 and the chemistry issues that have emerged as a part of his teams.

MORE: Why the Raiders fired Josh McDaniels, explained

Jim Harbaugh

  • Team: Michigan
  • Position: Head coach

The first four candidates on this list all had ties to the Patriots. Harbaugh does not, but considering the difficulties the team would face in moving on from Belichick, landing a proven, veteran coach to replace him wouldn’t be the worst idea.

Harbaugh has a proven track record as both an NFL and college coach and has slowly but surely turned Michigan into a national championship contender. He may have more interest in joining a team like the Chargers, who have Justin Herbert and a lot of offensive weapons, but he could be intrigued by the organizational stability that New England can offer.

Either way, the Patriots should have an interest in Harbaugh. He has a career coaching record of 44-19-1 and helped turn both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick into quality NFL starting quarterbacks. He could do the same thing in New England if given a chance to select a quarterback in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft.

Perhaps if Harbaugh wants to coach toolsy Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy at the NFL level the 60-year-old coach could convince the Patriots to bring them aboard as a package deal. If not, New England doesn’t seem a likely landing spot for Harbaugh, but Kraft will still be intrigued by Harbaugh’s ability to recruit coaching talent and develop players.

Ben Johnson

(Getty Images)

Ben Johnson

  • Team: Lions
  • Position: Offensive coordinator

OK, now it’s time to look at some of the hottest first-time coaching candidates who don’t have Patriots ties. Johnson seems to be the biggest name on the coaching market, as the 37-year-old has the Lions on pace to be a top-five offense in total yards and points per game for a second consecutive season.

Johnson is one of the NFL’s most creative play-callers and has worked wonders with Jared Goff since his promotion to offensive coordinator. Sure, Johnson has only been calling plays for a couple of years, but he has the upside for which many owners are seeking in young, offensive-minded coaches.

Given the Patriots’ offensive issues and the likelihood that they will be selecting a quarterback atop the 2024 NFL Draft, New England should have an interest in Johnson. Pairing him with someone like Caleb Williams or Drake Maye would give them an organizational reset that they desperately need.

The only question is whether Johnson would be equipped to handle the pressure that comes with replacing Belichick. That said, if he has even half of the swagger that Dan Campbell possesses, he should be able to handle New England’s lofty expectations.

MORE: Meet the NFL’s 7 rising coaching candidates from Ben Johnson to Dave Canales

Frank Smith

  • Team: Dolphins
  • Position: Offensive coordinator

The Patriots could also look within the division to poach an up-and-coming offensive coach from one of their opponents. The Dolphins have had New England’s number in recent seasons under Mike McDaniel, so it stands to reason that the Patriots could be interested in hiring McDaniel’s offensive coordinator.

Smith, 42, is in his second season with the Dolphins and has helped turn Tua Tagovailoa from a potential draft bust to an MVP candidate. Miami’s offense has been one of the most explosive in the NFL under McDaniel and Smith and while the former calls the offensive plays, Smith has played a big part in implementing the team’s effective offensive scheme.

The Patriots could sell themselves on Smith transforming their offense into one of the most dynamic vertical attacks in the league — if they get the personnel to support him. During his career, Smith has also worked for McDaniel and three Super Bowl-winning coaches — Sean Payton, Jon Gruden and John Fox.

That could assist Smith in his potential quest to replace Belichick. At the very least, his impressive résumé will draw the attention of Kraft.

Mike Macdonald

  • Team: Ravens
  • Position: Defensive coordinator

The Patriots have been a paragon of consistency during their dynastic run. Few teams have matched their consistency during that run, but one is the Ravens.

Baltimore has won two Super Bowls during Belichick’s time with the Patriots and is the NFL’s top team entering the 2024 NFL playoffs. Thus, it stands to reason that New England could target one of the Ravens’ top assistants in the hopes that they can get the Patriots back to their winning ways.

Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken should interest teams, but Macdonald seems like the hotter coaching candidate at this time. The 36-year-old has only coached with the Ravens at the NFL level and has just one year of experience as a defensive play-caller, but he has taken Baltimore to new heights in 2023.

The Ravens have the league’s best defense according to DVOA and they racked up a whopping 60 sacks during the season. Veterans like Jadeveon Clowney, Kyle Van Noy, Geno Stone and more have enjoyed career-best years playing under Macdonald, and he showed a knack for getting the most out of the talent that he has.

The Patriots may believe that Macdonald could be the man needed to keep the team’s defense playing well in the post-Belichick era. His youth, upside and born-in-Boston roots could also make him an intriguing target, so don’t sleep on the youngster getting a look as the Patriots consider shaking things up.

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