Former New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton stepped away from the sidelines this season, but there’s a chance he’ll come back to the NFL as soon as 2023. If he decides to make a return next year, Payton will have a long list of suitors and should be able to have his pick of the litter. Where are the best landing spots for Payton next season, and what will he be looking for as he searches for a new team?
Potential Landing Spots for Sean Payton
Although Payton retired from coaching and is currently working as a FOX NFL analyst, his rights are technically still held by the Saints. New Orleans will allow him to leave for another team, but they will surely require draft-pick compensation.
Head coach trades aren’t all that common in the NFL. The Buccaneers acquired Bruce Arians’ rights from the Cardinals after he’d retired in 2019, but before that, we have to go back to 2006 to find another coach trade.
|R6 in 2019 (Bucs received 2019 R7 plus Arians)
|R4 in 2006
|R1 in 2002, R1 in 2003, R2 in 2004, $8 million
|R1 in 2000, R1 and R4 in 2001 (NYJ received 2001 R5 and 2002 R7 plus Belichick)
|R2 in 1999
|R2 and R3 in 1997, R2 in 1998, R1 in 1999
It seems unlikely that any team would sacrifice multiple first-round picks for Payton, as clubs did for Jon Gruden and Bill Belichick. Still, Payton has a Super Bowl trophy and an extended track record of success.
His 241 victories and .631 winning percentage rank in the top 25 in NFL history. And he’s only 58 years old – whichever team lands Payton could envision a decade-long run with him at the helm.
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Payton, meanwhile, will be searching for the same qualities any head coaching candidate looks for in interested teams: a young quarterback, a positive relationship with management, cap space (and the willingness to spend it), and draft assets.
“It would be the comfort level with ownership and the front office, with the leadership structure, with likeminded thinking,” Payton told Jeff Howe of The Athletic this week. “Are more of those opportunities out there? I don’t think many. I think there are a lot of dysfunctional teams in our league. There are some places where talent can die. I just want to avoid those places.”
Let’s take a look at a few teams that could have head coaching vacancies next offseason and assess whether they might be a fit for Payton. We’ll start with the two teams that have already made changes at the top of their staff.
The Panthers became the NFL’s first team to fire their head coach when they parted ways with Matt Rhule one month ago. Carolina subsequently opted against a firesale at the trade deadline, but they did ship Christian McCaffrey to 49ers, acquiring extra second-, third-, and fourth-round picks in the 2023 draft.
Despite their lackluster record, the Panthers have quite a few intriguing pieces on both sides of the ball, including receiver DJ Moore, left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, edge rusher Brian Burns, cornerback Jaycee Horn, and safety Jeremy Chinn. Their cap situation isn’t ideal, but they can open up nearly $20 million by cutting veterans like Shaq Thompson, Damien Wilson, and Marquis Haynes.
Payton has to be at the top of Panthers owner David Tepper’s wishlist, but the fit has a myriad of issues. First, Carolina doesn’t have a franchise quarterback. They could find one with what will likely be an early 2023 first-round draft choice, but the long-term future under center is currently unsettled.
Second, the Panthers play in the same division as the Saints. While we’ve seen intradivision player trades become more common in recent years, I can’t imagine New Orleans wants Payton to remain in the NFC South, so they could place a gargantuan price tag on his price tag if he wants to stay in the division.
Finally, Payton simply might not want to end up in Carolina. FOX’s Jay Glazer was definitive in late October, reporting that he’d spoken with Payton and walked away believing he won’t be the Panthers’ next head coach. Payton’s mindset could change over the next few months, but it might take some convincing.
The Colts’ recent decisions to bench Matt Ryan, fire Frank Reich, and hire Jeff Saturday as their interim head coach revealed a directionless franchise, and owner Jim Irsay’s rambling Monday night press conference did nothing to alter that view.
Like the Panthers, the Colts don’t have a young quarterback in place. But Indy also doesn’t boast the youthful pieces that Carolina has on its roster. There’s no franchise left tackle, pass rusher, or cornerback on the Colts’ 53. General manager Chris Ballard has spent too much money and draft capital on non-premium positions, leaving Indianapolis thin at spots that make a difference.
Ballard has been extremely conservative in free agency, ranking in the bottom of cash spending in each of the last four offseasons. We don’t know if Ballard will return in 2023, but even if he’s gone, that reticent fiscal strategy might be more indicative of ownership’s disinclination to spend.
If the Colts could find a signal-caller in next year’s draft, a Payton-coordinated offense featuring Jonathan Taylor, Michael Pittman Jr., and Alec Pierce would be intriguing. But the events of the past week might end any interest Payton had in Indianapolis.
Kliff Kingsbury and Cardinals general manager Steve Keim each signed recent extensions tying them to Arizona through 2027, but there’s no question Kingsbury is on the hot seat after getting out to a 3-6 start.
After losing five of their final six games last season (including a Wild Card round defeat to the Rams), the Cardinals are essentially out of postseason contention just midway through this year. Kingsbury’s offense has devolved into “What can Kyler Murray pull off?” and he seems to have frequent sideline clashes with his star quarterback on Arizona’s sideline.
Would Payton be interested in taking over in the desert if the Cardinals fire Kingsbury? He’d have to feel confident in Murray, who’s under contract through 2028, and he might also want to bring in his own general manager (which he could admittedly do elsewhere, too).
Keim has simply made too many recent mistakes. He doubled down on a Cardinals team that was the fourth-oldest in the league last season, re-signing veterans like James Conner and Zach Ertz to multi-year pacts, and he’s failed to seriously invest in Arizona’s offensive line.
Payton could take over decision-making authority for the Cardinals, but they might be in need of a mini-rebuild, and Payton may not want to embark on that sort of effort.
Dan Campbell engenders a lot of support thanks to his infectious personality, but it’s safe to say the on-field results haven’t been there during his first season and change with the Lions. He’s just 5-19-1 in the Motor City — if Detroit doesn’t feel he’s the coach to see the Lions into their next phase, they could make a change this offseason.
Detroit’s offense has cooled off since a hot start that saw them average 35 points per game over their first four contests, but this is still an offense that can compete every week. An excellent offensive line buoys a solid run game, and Amon-Ra St. Brown and — when he’s healthy — rookie first-round pick Jameson Williams are dangerous in the aerial attack.
Now, take a projected top-five draft pick, select Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, and drop them the Lions’ offense. That’s a package that Payton could get excited about — the opportunity to craft an offense around a franchise quarterback and develop a partnership like the one he enjoyed with Drew Brees.
Issues for a Detroit pitch to Payton? The Lions’ defense is the worst in football, so Payton would have to have a strong defensive coordinator and talent acquisition plan in place. And Detroit — with just three playoff appearances this century — could be guilty of the endless dysfunction Payton specifically wants to avoid.
While the Broncos’ front office and ownership had, at various times, publicly thrown their support behind Nathaniel Hackett, Denver’s 51-14 loss to the Rams in Week 16 was the final straw. The Broncos fired Hackett and will now begin their second head coaching search in as many offseasons.
The Broncos’ first-year owners, the Walton family, decided to move on after Hackett failed at nearly every facet of coaching. His offense never meshed with Russell Wilson’s skill set, his game and clock management were dismal, and locker room issues were begninning to emerge.
Denver could replace its rookie head coach with a Super Bowl winner in Payton, but that would assume Payton wants to work with Wilson. When Wilson issued his “This Is Not a Trade Request” list of preferred teams in 2021, the Saints were included, so we know the Wilson-Payton affinity goes at least one way.
Whether Payton thinks Wilson is still an elite NFL quarterback is anyone’s guess, especially after Wilson’s lackluster starter to the season. Wilson just signed an extension this offseason that Denver can’t realistically exit until at least 2025, so Payton would have to believe Wilson is capable of turning things around if he’s willing to take over the Broncos.
Los Angeles Chargers
Of all the teams that could theoretically have an opening this offseason, the Chargers offer the best combination of traits for any potential head coaching candidates. Justin Herbert is a top-five NFL quarterback, and Los Angeles has legitimate stars — Joey Bosa, Derwin James, Rashawn Slater — everywhere.
The Chargers are built to win now. Payton wouldn’t have to worry about setting the stage or waiting to strike. LA has the pieces in place to be annual postseason contenders. And who wouldn’t love to see Herbert in a Payton offense, especially after what he’s dealt with schematically the last two seasons?
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One possible downside for Payton would be entering the same division as Patrick Mahomes. Payton spent years battling Matt Ryan and Cam Newton in the NFC South, but Mahomes represents another echelon of obstacles. If Payton wants to round out his career with another Lombardi Trophy, the AFC West might not be the best place to reside.
Additionally, we don’t know if the Chargers job will even be open. Brandon Staley’s club would be in the playoffs if the season started today. But if LA’s defense — Staley’s specialty — doesn’t improve and the Bolts miss the postseason for the second consecutive season, Staley could be in danger.