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Detroit Lions head coach candidate power rankings: The search closes in

After some revealing comments from Rod Wood, the Lions’ top candidates are becoming clearer.

Kansas City Chiefs Practice Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

It feels like we’re getting close to the Detroit Lions hiring their next head coach. On Tuesday, team president Rod Wood told reporters that he assumes one of the candidates that they’ve either interviewed already or schedule and interview with will be the team’s next head coach.

So that has drastically shifted our Week 6 Lions head coach candidate power rankings. As of now, there are only six candidates who we know have interviewed or will interview with the team. It is possible there are more candidates we don’t know about—in fact, there almost certainly will be. However, that also means that there are likely candidates in our power rankings (for which we have no confirmation of interviews) who were never truly considered.

Let’s try to sort that out in our latest rankings.

Week 1 rankings
Week 2 rankings
Week 3 rankings
Week 4 rankings
Week 5 rankings

1. 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh

Trending: Leader in the clubhouse

There’s a very good chance Saleh has coached his last game as 49ers defensive coordinator, and he went out on a pretty solid note. Through three quarters, the 49ers defense allowed just 109 yards of offense and six points to a Seattle Seahawks team trying to win the one-seed in the NFC.

Unfortunately, things fell apart in the fourth quarter as the Seahawks put up three touchdowns and 91 rushing yards in the final 15 minutes alone. To be fair, one of those scores came after the 49ers fumbled inside their own 20-yard line, but it’s not exactly the finish Saleh was hoping for.

Overall, Saleh seems like the best candidate for the kind of qualities the Lions are looking for, and his hometown roots make it a pretty perfect pairing.

2. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy

Trending: Up

Being the second candidate to interview for the Lions’ head coaching job has to mean something. Bieniemy is a hot candidate everywhere, and though he may end up landing somewhere else, he’s still very clearly in the mix in Detroit.

There’s little to take from the Chiefs’ Week 17 performance, seeing as they benched their starters with the top AFC playoff seed wrapped up. However, I suppose optimists could point to Chad Henne’s stat line—23-of-32 for 218 yards, 2 TDs and a passer rating of 111.2—as a sign of good coaching.

3. Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley

Trending: Steady

Oklahoma racked up 55 points and 435 RUSHING YARDS against No. 7 Florida on the way to a complete blowout in the Cotton Bowl last week. Granted, the Gators were not regarded as a top-tier defensive team, but this was still a ridiculous performance from OU.

Oklahoma will finish the season seventh in points scored and 10th in yards per play.

The question with Riley is in two parts: are the Lions even interested, and is there any way to pry him from Oklahoma? The first remains to be seen, but let’s examine that for a second. Rod Wood said on Tuesday that of the interviews they’ve already requested, he believes they will find their next head coach. Riley isn’t among the reported interviews thus far, but interview requests for college coaches don’t have to go through the NFL. Those tend to be a bit more secretive, so I would not be surprised to see a college coach or two still in the mix.

As for prying Riley from Oklahoma, that still feels pretty unlikely to me.

4. Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell

Trending: Up

Like Riley, I believe Campbell could certainly still be in the mix simply due to college interviews being more behind the scenes. As for his performance this week, the Cyclones scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions and cruised to an easy 34-17 over the Oregon Ducks.

Iowa State ended the season 34th in the country with 332.9 points per game and 34th in yards per game (436.3). Not bad for a college that had never finished in AP’s top 10 before Campbell arrived. They’ll almost certainly finish there now.

5: Lions interim head coach Darrell Bevell

Trending: Steady

Bevell completed his interview with the team on Tuesday, but I think the bigger news is how big of a fan he’s got in the Lions’ front office. Before even answering any questions from media, here’s what the team president had to say about Bevell, completely unprompted:

“I really want to compliment Darrell Bevell and what he did really the last five weeks. It’s a very tough assignment to step into an interim head coaching assignment during the season. I think the players rallied around him. Darrell did a great job organizing things, then was thrown a curveball in the middle of his five-game stretch with the COVID-19 situation and the close contacts with the coaches that we lost for the Bucs game. But even with that, I think we came through it and (that’s) a testament to Darrell for that.”

I’m not entirely convinced this was just a customary interview.

5. Saints assistant head coach/TE coach Dan Campbell

Trending: New to the list

Campbell is reportedly one of the Lions’ interviews scheduled to take place next week, and because he’s made their list, he has to be on this one, too. Campbell has been a waiting-in-the-wings type of candidate for a couple years now, and this could be the year he actually lands a job.

He’s been heavily involved in the Saints’ successful running game and is considered a great leader. He also hasn’t spent his career just in one place, as he was the tight ends coach for the Dolphins for five years. He even got his shot as a head coach there, serving in the interim role for the final two months of the season after Joe Philbin was fired. After a 1-3 start with Philbin, Campbell led the Dolphins to a 5-7 record down the stretch. A team that hadn’t scored more than 20 points in the first four games, averaged 20.4 in the final 12 games, including scoring 82 points in the first two games as head coach.

6. Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith

Trending: Up

Arthur Smith is currently on the Lions’ short list of officially requested interviews, which already puts him in good standing. He’s also coming off another 40-bomb performance—the Titans’ fifth of the year—as they took down the Texans on a last-second field goal to lock up the AFC South.

Derrick Henry finished with over 2,000 rushing yards. Ryan Tannehill finished with the fifth-highest passer rating in the NFL. The team was fourth in scoring, second in yardage and fourth in DVOA.

The reason why he’s near the bottom of the Lions’ actual candidates is simply because he’s in such high demand. Literally all six teams with a head coach vacancy have put in an interview request for him, and he’s simply not going to accept them all. In fact, Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press is reporting that Smith may not meet with the Lions after all.

7. Former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis

Trending: New to the list

I’m still not sure how serious of an interview Marvin Lewis is, but the fact that he was the first Lions interview is certainly significant. Perhaps the Lions were simply looking at a veteran coach for some guidance, perhaps he’s a serious candidate. Lewis certainly has all the personality requirements that Rod Wood said the team was prioritizing this time around:

“ I would say they focus on leadership, culture, teamwork, awareness of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and what we’re really looking for is a culture that is open, inclusive, where everybody is pulling together as a team, and in one word, communication is paramount and everybody is doing the right thing for the Detroit Lions. So, the people that we’re looking for and the people that we’re bringing in to interview.”

8. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll

Trending: Cold

Daboll is a brilliant offensive mind, and he proved it again on Sunday, blowing apart a very, very good Dolphins defense to the tune of 56 points and 455 yards of offense despite benching Josh Allen at halftime. The Bills had little to play for, and the Dolphins had everything on the line. Still, Daboll’s offense tore apart a Dolphins defense that entered the week as the No. 1 scoring defense. The Bills beat them up so bad they finished sixth.

So why is Daboll down all the way at eight? Well, because there hasn’t been even a hint of interest from the Lions. And after hearing Wood speak, it’s easy to see why.

The Lions are interested in hiring a leader over a schemer. I thought this quote from Wood was extremely telling:

“As we go through the interview process, hopefully we find people that we’re 100% confident will be the right people for the organization. And as I said in I think one of the previous calls, that’s very different than how we approached the search for Bob (Quinn) and Matt (Patricia), where we were more focused on candidates because of their accomplishments as opposed to criteria that had been established before we started interviewing with them.”

I just don’t think Daboll—who spends his game days in the booth—has yet established himself as the kind of leader the Lions are looking for despite impressive accomplishments on the field.

9. Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald

Trending: Back on the countdown

Northwestern used to be the laughingstock of the Big Ten, but now they’ve won four bowl games out of the last five years. Their latest win came over the Auburn Tigers in a 35-19 game that was only close briefly in the third quarter before the Wildcats scored three straight touchdowns.

The inconsistently-reliable Jason La Canfora says the Lions are one of three teams that “have him on their radar,” and says that Fitzgerald will weigh his options in the upcoming days. Fitzgerald has turned down requests several times in the past, so he still seems like an unlikely hire, but he’s certainly one of a few college coaches who could enter this search late.

10. Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus

Trending: Down

The Colts found their way into the postseason thanks to another solid defensive performance. Mike Glennon was sacked six times and fumbled once, as Indianapolis allowed just 283 yards of total offense and 4.4 yards per play. Granted, this was against the Jaguars. This week’s playoff game against the Bills should put Eberflus’ unit to the test.

However, he’s trending down, again, because it just seems like there’s little interest on the Lions’ side. Detroit can’t interview Eberflus until next week, but we still haven’t heard a peep. I’m not sure we see another current NFL coach enter the mix.

Off the list: Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman

Trending: Down

After some mid-season criticism, Roman appears to have the Ravens offense headed back in the right direction just in time for the postseason. After averaging just 20.6 points per game in Weeks 8 through 12, the Ravens finished the season by averaging 37.2 points per game in the final five.

The Lions can’t interview Roman yet, but like Eberflus, there just doesn’t seem to be much buzz between the two. It may be time to stop dreaming about this one.

Off the list: Former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer

Trending: Down

Though Meyer could be another former college coach that enters the search late, it appears he may cost a lot (or not?) and the Jaguars seem like the team most interested. Given his sketchy past, I’m not sure he’s the kind of culture hire the Lions are looking for, even with Chris Spielman’s OSU ties.