Sanders hasn’t just captivated the college football world with his early success as Colorado’s boss. He’s also quickly piqued the interest of NFL decision-makers who are curious whether his unique coaching style can translate to the professional level.
The Athletic polled 10 high-ranking team decision-makers to gauge the league’s opinion on Sanders, and seven of them predicted Sanders would receive interview requests for the offseason head-coaching hiring cycle. The other three didn’t rule it out but believed it was too early to make a prediction.
“I’d definitely want to bring him in to hear what he has to say,” an executive said. “He’s a smart guy and a good coach who has had a lot of early success. You’d want to pick his brain to see if it could translate. He knows how to motivate his players. He’s crushed the transfer portal, and maybe that would carry over into team building through free agency.”
The Pro Football Hall of Famer became a first-time head coach in 2020 for Jackson State and led the program to a 27-6 record over three seasons, but he really made waves when he flipped top-rated recruit Travis Hunter from Florida State, legitimizing Sanders’ standing as a premier draw despite a relative lack of program resources.
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Colorado then hired Sanders in December, and he went into recruiting overdrive in the transfer portal. He brought over his son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Hunter and numerous other highly regarded recruits to the Buffaloes.
They’re off to a 3-0 start and ranked No. 19 in the country — already an impressive feat considering Colorado was 1-11 last season while getting outscored, 534-185. It had been their sixth consecutive season without reaching four victories.
“He clearly has a plan to develop young men,” an executive said. “It’s worked to this point. He has no issue putting people in position to do what they do best, doesn’t seem to micromanage and knows his strengths.”
Sanders has an obvious ability to relate to his players, and there’s a belief that his success in the transfer portal would carry over into NFL free agency. He has also proved he can generate a spotlight his players appreciate, and Sanders has done an interesting job of manifesting motivation through different types of adversity, self-created or otherwise.
Several of the executives characterized Sanders as a CEO-type of head coach who can oversee the operation from a grander scale, which is an important characteristic for a head coach. He has also hired highly regarded assistants, offensive coordinator Sean Lewis and defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, and Sanders delegates responsibilities to his assistants to draw upon their expertise.
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And though there have been some prolific college coaches who have failed spectacularly at the NFL level, the executives believed Sanders shouldn’t be lumped in with that group. That’s because Sanders has played in the NFL at the highest level and should understand how to get the most out of players because he’ll understand what they need to be at their best. Generally speaking, past college-to-NFL failures happened because those coaches believed they could work with professionals identically as they did with student-athletes, and that’s been a disastrous recipe.
The desire for NFL teams to interview Sanders would be to assess his plan to run a locker room, develop players, build a staff, work with the front office with roster construction and sustain that success year over year.
“I love the energy he creates, and his players respond to it,” a general manager said. “I would think you have to at least sit down and talk with him. He’s a leader, smart, a great marketer and has the (credibility) as a player and now adding to it as a coach.”
“I am where I’m supposed to be. … All you recruits out there, baby you know I ain’t hard to find.”
— First Take (@FirstTake) September 15, 2023
But there are two important questions. First and most importantly, would Sanders even want to jump to the NFL? With the new name, image and likeness rules and transfer portal, Sanders essentially has untapped resources to build out his roster rather than having to deal with the salary cap and a draft system designed to maintain parity. A few of the executives believed Sanders wouldn’t want to leave the college game, though that wouldn’t stop them from trying to bring him in for an interview.
And if Sanders maintains this success, it’s only a matter of time before higher-profile programs with even bigger budgets come calling. The Alabama job might be the most coveted in the nation when Nick Saban retires, and there’s a belief in league circles that time isn’t far away.
There is no shortage of big-time programs with deep pockets that would surely be enticed by Sanders’ success and marketability if their current coach stumbles.
“I think he gets (NFL head-coaching interview) offers this year,” an evaluator said. “But I believe he is better in college where he can tilt the scales and dominate the talent pool with his ability to recruit. I think he would be successful in NFL, too, but could really create a long-term powerhouse in college.”
A general manager agreed.
“I just think Deion can dominate for an extended time in college,” the GM said. He’ll have to deal with parity in the NFL. He might not have the same impact (in the NFL that) he has in college because he will be limited in how many guys he can bring in and attract because of the cap and draft.”
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The second key question relates to the rest of the season. Though Colorado has knocked off national runner-up TCU, Nebraska and Colorado State, the schedule will get far more difficult over the next two months.
It visits No. 10 Oregon on Saturday, hosts No. 5 USC a week later and has four more currently ranked opponents over its final five games. How will Colorado respond if it loses a couple in a row or gets blown out on national television?
“They beat the teams that they should beat,” a general manager said. “I’m interested in seeing how he adjusts his offense when the elements in Colorado change.”
There are plenty of variables at play in the coming months, but the NFL has been captivated by Sanders’ showing at Colorado. There’s enough reason to believe his system would translate to the professional level, just like there’s cause for concern over Sanders’ relative shortage of head-coaching experience.
But if there’s any belief whatsoever that Sanders can coach — and obviously that’s the case — organizations owe it to themselves to invite him for an interview.
After all, the most important factor is often the most apparent.
“He has been successful at everything he’s done,” a general manager said, “on and off the field.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Maddie Mayer / Getty Images)
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The New York Times