Best 'breakthrough' coaching candidates

Could Penn State coach Bill O'Brien be lured back to the NFL next season? Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/MCT via Getty Images

The NFL divides into distinct groups once the regular season runs its course. While 12 teams prepare for the playoffs, others line up candidates to fill newly created head coaching vacancies. The contrast is striking given the narrow line that sometimes separates them. The Chicago Bears come to mind for firing Lovie Smith last offseason after becoming the sixth team since divisional realignment in 2002 to miss the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

The firing and hiring game is about to begin anew. The Houston Texans, without a head coach since firing Gary Kubiak three weeks ago, will have company as early as Monday. Predicting how team owners will proceed can be futile even for underlings with direct access to them, but with assists from league insiders, a clearer picture of the leading candidates emerges. We take a closer look at the freshest ones -- those without NFL head coaching experience -- and break them into categories.