Pick 6: The hot candidates this year for NFL head coach vacancies

Fans are fretting, hoping and wondering. Private planes are flying all over the place. Media-fueled rumor mills are spinning at warp speed.

Yes, we're in the middle of head coach hiring season, that brief-but-intense, unscheduled-but-imminent period that rivals the free agent market, mass mock draft production and even the playoffs in attention-getting on the NFL calendar. Seven teams have been participating this time, and Houston and Tampa Bay have already finished the task. That's left Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota, Tennessee and Washington to fight over the pool of candidates, many of whom have multiple teams on their interview list.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, in discussing his club's search last week, revealed 13 categories of potential head coaches he claimed were no better than another in producing on-field success. The popular players in the 2014 version of the annual game beyond the gridiron, though, have fallen into only a handful of groups.

Here's a look at six of the most-sought-after candidates, in alphabetical order:

DARRELL BEVELL: Seattle's offensive coordinator for the last three seasons, Bevell helped develop a young Russell Wilson into one of the most-polished quarterbacks in the league. The Seahawks traded for dynamic wide receiver Percy Harvin, but a hip injury limited him to one game and Seattle still finished tied for eighth in the NFL in scoring. That was despite a ball-control offense that produced the second-fewest pass attempts in the league. Bevell's prior post was offensive coordinator for the Vikings for five years, and he was Brett Favre's quarterbacks coach for his last three seasons in Green Bay.

TODD BOWLES: Arizona's defensive coordinator this season, Bowles supervised a unit that surrendered the fewest yards rushing in the NFL and helped the Cardinals become one of the most subtle surprises of 2013 with a 10-6 record. He was promoted to defensive coordinator by Philadelphia partway through the previous year, and in 2011 he was interim head coach in Miami for the final three games. The Dolphins won two of those after firing Tony Sparano. Bowles was a cornerback in the NFL for eight seasons, seven with Washington. He won a Super Bowl with the Redskins.

JAY GRUDEN: Cincinnati's offensive coordinator for the past three years, Gruden has the most famous surname in the bunch, though not of his own accomplishment. His older brother, Jon Gruden, was the head coach for Oakland and Tampa Bay, winning a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers before winding up in the broadcast booth. He has helped orchestrate a productive offense with the Bengals, though the playoff-game struggles of quarterback Andy Dalton have contributed to three straight one-and-done postseason appearances. Gruden was an assistant under his brother with the Bucs and also a head coach in the Arena Football League.

RAY HORTON: Cleveland's defensive coordinator for one year, Horton served the same role for the Cardinals the two seasons prior to that. The Browns struggled in the standings yet again this year, but they had the semblance of a decent defense, ranking ninth in the league in yards allowed. Horton played 10 seasons in the NFL as a safety with Cincinnati and Dallas, and he won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys.

KEN WHISENHUNT: San Diego's offensive coordinator this season, Whisenhunt engineered a revamp of the system that helped quarterback Philip Rivers produce one of the best years of his career and the Chargers finish fifth in total yards. Whisenhunt has substantial head coach experience, too, with six seasons in charge of the Cardinals that featured a trip to the Super Bowl for one of the NFL's most woebegone franchises.

MIKE ZIMMER: Cincinnati's defensive coordinator for the last six years, Zimmer has 20 years as an NFL assistant on his resume. The Bengals were third in the league in yards allowed and fifth in points against. He's widely considered the most overdue candidate on the market this time, with interviews for previous vacancies the past two winters. Zimmer also ran the defenses in Dallas for seven seasons and another year in Atlanta.

Honorable mentions: Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman.


AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org