Jim Harbaugh Landing Spots: Possible Teams Include Cardinals, Panthers, and More

    If Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh decides to return to the NFL, which teams might hold the most appeal?

    While Jim Harbaugh hasn’t worked in the NFL since 2014, rumors are again swirling that the Michigan head coach could return to the pros. Harbaugh, who ranks sixth all-time in head coach winning percentage (.695), took the 49ers to three consecutive NFC title games and a Super Bowl during his last NFL stint. Which teams will be on his radar if he returns this year?

    Jim Harbaugh Landing Spots

    Harbaugh was a finalist for the Vikings’ head coaching position last offseason, and his second meeting with Minnesota reportedly lasted nine hours. However, the Vikings never offered him the job before selecting then-Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell as their new head coach.

    Following his dalliance with Minnesota, Harbaugh said his NFL interest was a “one-time thing” and told Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel that he’d stay in Ann Arbor as long as the university wanted him. Harbaugh received a new contract that bumped his salary by roughly $3 million per year and included myriad incentives.

    However, NFL clubs haven’t backed off of their pursuits of Harbaugh. NFL Media reported in late December that pro teams were doing background work on Harbaugh. In early January, sources told The Athletic that Harbaugh would accept an NFL offer if he received one.

    On Jan. 5, Harbaugh released a statement indicating he would return to Michigan in 2023, but his language was far from definitive.

    “As I stated in December, while no one knows what the future holds, I expect that I will be enthusiastically coaching Michigan in 2023,” Harbaugh said.

    Another domino dropped last week when Yahoo! Sports reported that Harbaugh is under NCAA investigation for potential rules violations. Harbaugh could face scrutiny for failing to cooperate with investigators — a Level I violation — and several Level II violations, including “meeting with recruits during a COVID-19 dead period.”

    If Harbaugh decides to flee the college ranks and rejoin the NFL, his next team would only have to pay Michigan a $3 million buyout, a fee nearly every pro team would be willing to absorb.

    Let’s run through five teams that could make sense for Harbaugh, beginning with an NFC West club that hasn’t yet parted ways with its head coach.

    Arizona Cardinals

    The Cardinals are widely expected to fire head coach Kliff Kingsbury once the regular season concludes on Sunday. Arizona is also expected to part ways with general manager Steve Keim, who took an indefinite health-related leave of absence in December.

    Firing Kingsbury would create an opening for Harbaugh, but the absence of Keim — who’s worked for Arizona for 23 years — might create even more appeal. With Keim gone, the Cardinals would be revamping their organization from top to bottom.

    Harbaugh could acquire decision-making and roster control power that he never had with the 49ers. If Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill would give Harbaugh carte balance to remake Arizona’s personnel, the Michigan coach wouldn’t have to worry about the sort of interpersonal struggles that eventually led to his departure from San Francisco.

    The idea of working with Kyler Murray might attract Harbaugh, but Murray regressed in 2022 before suffering an ACL tear that will likely prevent him from starting the 2023 campaign on time. Interesting pieces like Marquise Brown, Trey McBride, and Isaiah Collins are in place on both sides of the ball, but Arizona’s offensive line and cornerback room desperately need work.

    The Cardinals have roughly $26.5 million in available cap space next season, but that figure could jump to north of $50 million if Arizona trades DeAndre Hopkins and cuts several veterans. Yet, Arizona may not be able to field a competitive team in 2023 if Murray is sidelined for a significant period of time.

    Carolina Panthers

    Carolina may keep interim head coach Steve Wilks in place after he boosted the team’s outlook down the stretch. But Panthers owner David Tepper has already spoken to Harbaugh about the club’s head coaching vacancy, and Tepper — the NFL’s third-wealthiest owner — wouldn’t have any trouble meeting Harbaugh’s salary requirements.

    The Panthers won’t have much cap space with which to work next season, but they boast extra second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023 as a result of the Christian McCaffrey trade. DJ Moore, a solid offensive line, and defensive playmakers like Brian Burns, Frankie Luvu, Jaycee Horn, and Jeremy Chinn form an excellent base of talent in Carolina.

    MORE: Will the Raiders Trade Derek Carr?

    Still, the Panthers desperately need a quarterback. After years of striking out on veterans like Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson, Carolina will likely use the 2023 draft — where they currently hold the ninth overall pick — to find their next signal-caller.

    Harbaugh may also be swayed by the competition — or lack thereof — in the NFC South. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be a shell of themselves if Tom Brady departs in free agency. The New Orleans Saints figure to be in salary cap hell for a few seasons. Like the Panthers, the Atlanta Falcons don’t have a long-term quarterback, and their roster is also much worse than Carolina’s.

    Denver Broncos

    Tepper is rich, but the Waltons — the Denver Broncos’ new owners — are worth nearly $60 billion. If they want Harbaugh, they can go all-out to get him.

    Indeed, Denver has already reached out to Harbaugh to gauge his interest in an interview, while Mike Klis of 9News suggested Harbaugh and former Saints head coach Sean Payton are at the top of the Broncos’ wishlist. Harbaugh has a relationship with former Broncos general manager (and current consultant) John Elway through their Stanford ties.

    Harbaugh could be intrigued by working with an offense that contains weaponry like Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Javonte Williams, and Greg Dulcich. And he could potentially retain defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, who’s led a defense that’s among the NFL’s best.

    But there’s also a massive elephant in the room in Denver. Would Harbaugh want to coach Russell Wilson, who’s looked like a shell of himself in 2022 and is virtually un-cuttable until at least the 2023 offseason? Harbaugh certainly has the demeanor to correct any locker room dissension that Wilson might have directly or indirectly been responsible for, but that doesn’t mean he can fix Wilson’s on-field issues.

    Plus, Harbaugh would be walking into an AFC West headlined by Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. Division titles for Denver could be rare over the next decade unless things break precisely right.

    Houston Texans

    The Houston Texans haven’t yet fired Lovie Smith, and they may not want to hire their third head coach in as many offseasons. Houston is far from contending, but they would offer a nearly clean slate that Harbaugh could tweak to his liking.

    It’s hard to imagine Harbaugh going to Houston without being given personnel control. Some reports have indicated that Texans general manager Nick Caserio could be on the outs. If both Caserio and Smith leave town this offseason, Harbaugh would become Houston’s lead decision-maker.

    While the Texans have several notable youthful players on their roster (including Derek Stingley Jr., Jalen Pitre, and Kenyon Green), Harbaugh would likely be most interested in Houston’s draft pick and salary cap situation.

    Thanks to the Deshaun Watson trade, the Texans have extra first-rounders in 2023 and 2024. Plus, they should have nearly $47 million in cap space next year, the seventh-most in the NFL.

    If the Texans take Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud with the first overall selection in the 2023 draft and use the rest of their picks and cap space to augment that young quarterback, Harbaugh could conceivably have Houston competing for a division title as soon as next season.

    Indianapolis Colts

    Harbaugh is already very familiar with the Indianapolis Colts’ organization. As Indy’s quarterback from 1994-1997, Harbaugh posted a 20-26 record while taking the club to two playoff appearances and an AFC title game. He’s also in the Colts’ Ring of Honor.

    Colts owner Jim Irsay has maintained he will consider interim head coach Jeff Saturday for the full-time job in Indianapolis, but Zak Keefer of The Athletic said several sources are “convinced” Irsay will target Harbaugh as the Colts’ next head coach.

    MORE: Will the Cowboys Re-Sign Tony Pollard?

    Indy will likely secure a top-five pick, which could allow them to find a rookie quarterback instead of acquiring a veteran signal-caller for the fourth straight season. Still, the Colts will have a lot of need areas that must be addressed this offseason, and Harbaugh would likely want to have a strong input on how those problems are solved.

    That might be an issue if the Colts retain general manager Chris Ballard, which nearly every report has indicated they will do. Ballard built a strong Indy roster to begin his GM tenure, but he’s allowed the slate of personnel to fall into disrepair. If Harbaugh wants personnel control, the Colts might have to fire Ballard or diminish his role in the front office.

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