By Peter Engler and Robert Simpson
At the end of the 2020 season, we applied a number of statistics to identify promising young assistants who might be strong NFL head coaching candidates by 2022. Using that same methodology, we’ve identified the top new assistant/coordinator hires for 2021 — one of whom was on our previous list:
DeMeco Ryans, 49ers Defensive Coordinator
The longtime player and former Defensive Rookie of the Year has been a quick riser in the coaching ranks of the 49ers, joining as a defensive quality control coach in 2017 before ascending to coach the ILBs and now the entire defense. He’s cut his teeth and helped improve the defense. Joining a team coming off the league’s worst ranking in both scoring and total defense, Ryans has led modest improvements each year, jumping to the 13th-best total defense by 2018 and top-five finishes in both 2019 and 2020. Ryans has a tall task following in the shoes of Robert Saleh, but he has the pedigree to actually improve on Saleh’s work.
Aaron Glenn, Lions Defensive Coordinator
Another new defensive coordinator and former longtime player, Aaron Glenn comes from New Orleans, where he was the Saints’ DBs coach. Similar to Ryans, Glenn joined the team on the back of a 7-9 season due in large part to the league’s worst scoring defense and second-worst pass defense, led by Delvin Breaux and late-career versions of Brandon Browner and Jairus Byrd. Although his first few years didn’t see a jump into the top echelon of pass defenses, a closer look reveals an improvement of over an eighth of an expected point per play. While this doesn’t sound like much, it’s one of the top marks in the league and saves roughly 80 points per season. In 2020, a difference of that size split the second- and 17th-best scoring defenses, so the Lions would be ecstatic if he can replicate his success in the Motor City.
Joe Cullen, Jaguars Defensive Coordinator
Although this study evaluated coaches of every position group, our third consecutive new defensive coordinator shows the care that teams took this year with their top defensive hires. A former Umass-Amherst team MVP as a nose guard, Joe Cullen has been advancing slowly through the coaching ranks and broke into the NFL in 2006 with the Lions, where four different players recorded career-high sack numbers over his tenure. In his most recent role as the DL Coach for the Ravens, he’s developed Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon while getting career-high sack seasons from Lawrence Guy and Timmy Jernigan as well as a Pro Bowl for Brandon Williams. Hired after the Ravens posted their worst scoring defense since the first year of the franchise, Baltimore hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since and Cullen’s unit has put up three seasons of top-five rush defense. Although the focus in Duval is on Urban Meyer, Trevor Lawrence, and the offense, Cullen might be the most important factor in a future return to the playoffs.
Ken Flajole, Chiefs OLB Coach
The rich get richer as Kansas City – a team that has won double-digit games in seven of the past eight seasons with two Super Bowl appearances – poached a top defensive coach from the Eagles. Although his playing career peaked as an all-conference LB in the second division of the NAIA, Flajole quickly jumped into college roles as the defensive coordinator for Montana, UTEP, Richmond, Hawaii and Nevada before getting his NFL shot. Joining the Eagles and their league-worst run defense after the 2015 season, Flajole’s unit jumped to league average in his first season before dominating in 2017 en route to a Super Bowl title. Although Philadelphia couldn’t replicate that success, the LBs continued to hold up their end of the bargain with two more top-10 seasons against the run despite starting Day 3 selections like Nigel Bradham and Nathan Gerry. When the Chiefs have made two straight Super Bowls despite subpar rush defense, the addition of Flajole should terrify opposing offensive coordinators.
Aubrey Pleasant, Lions DB Coach and Passing Game Coordinator
The final defensive member, Aubrey Pleasant, has grabbed every opportunity available to him, from coaching the DBs of Grand Blanc H.S. to a coaching internship with the Browns and even an offensive role with Washington. Leaving the Rams CB room this offseason to join Dan Campbell’s staff, the Lions hope that Pleasant can bring his expertise to a young team just like he did in L.A. Although his 2017 addition to the Rams’ coaching staff came on the back of an astounding 13 straight seasons without a winning record or a positive point differential, the Rams went 43-21 over Pleasant’s tenure. During that time, he managed to impressively incorporate midseason acquisitions like Jalen Ramsey and Marcus Peters into four consecutive top-15 pass defenses and the top spot in 2020. If Pleasant can help Jeff Okudah reach that level of performance, the Lions will be thrilled.
Rob Leonard, Dolphins OLB Coach
Richard Smith, Raiders LB Coach
Charlie Strong, Jaguars ILB Coach
Jonathon Gannon, Eagles Defensive Coordinator
Todd Wash, Lions DL Coach
Shane Waldron, Seahawks Offensive Coordinator
Coming up in the early-aughts Patriots coaching tree, Waldron followed Charlie Weis to Notre Dame before bouncing around the northeast for several years and getting his career back on track in 2016 with the Washington Football Team. Jumping to the L.A. Rams in 2017, he’s continued his ascent with his hands consistently on the passing game despite changing titles. Although the Rams hadn’t seen a scoring offense rank better than 21st since the days of Marc Bulger, Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt, that changed immediately as the 2017 season saw a full 31-spot improvement to the league’s best scoring offense. After going 0-7 as a rookie with a 54.6% completion percentage, QB Jared Goff went to the next two Pro Bowls while receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods made a name for themselves. Despite the talents of Russell Wilson, D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks had only the 16th-best pass offense in 2020, so Waldron has an enormous opportunity to put this team back into Super Bowl contention.
Brian Johnson, Eagles QB Coach
Called out in our previous articles on the topic, the former cover athlete of NCAA Football 10 and winningest QB in University of Utah history went undrafted and lasted only two months playing in the UFL. He returned to Utah and continued to prove his ability, this time as a coach. Coaching some of the most productive offenses in the country with Mississippi State and Houston, Johnson made his way to Florida and rose to the coordinator role in 2020, leading the top pass offense in the country with 378.6 passing yards and 3.8 passing TDs per game as well as a 67.9% completion rate. If he can coach up Jalen Hurts, the Eagles could surprise this year and Johnson will have his choice of NFL coordinating roles.
Andy Bischoff, Texans TE Coach
Continuing the spread of former Ravens coaches around the league, Andy Bischoff was hired by Marc Trestman’s dominant staff with Montreal in the CFL, and followed Trestman to Chicago and later Baltimore. Although Trestman left for Toronto, Bischoff has stayed in Baltimore as the assistant TEs coach since 2018. As one of the offenses that uses TEs the most, Bischoff has been put to work developing Pro Bowler Mark Andrews and a host of complementary pieces for the NFL’s best rush offense over his tenure. Joining a Texans offense that has questions at the position behind young players like Ryan Izzo, Brevin Jordan and Kahale Warring, Bischoff will have his work cut out for him. Fortunately for Houston, he’s shown the ability to excel in unconventional situations.
Joe Bleymaier and Greg Lewis, Chiefs WR Coach and RB Coach
Following a reshuffle of the offensive coaching staff stemming from Deland McCullough’s departure to serve as the RBs Coach of Indiana, Joe Bleymaier and Greg Lewis will both be taking on new responsibilities in 2021 as the coaches for the WRs and RBs, respectively. Bleymaier has a career of quality control coaching at all levels before being named the Assistant QBs Coach in 2018, while Lewis has been a longtime receivers coach who joined K.C. in 2017. Anyone familiar with the league at that time can immediately point to the ascension of Patrick Mahomes, but the 2017 season spent working with the then-rookie behind the scenes and getting him on the same page with his receiving corps undoubtedly had an impact on the league MVP and Super Bowl champion. With their new roles, Bleymaier and Lewis will continue to innovate and push the league’s scariest offense further into the stratosphere.
Todd Downing, Titans Offensive Coordinator
Rounding out our list is new Titans coordinator Todd Downing. An internal promotion from the TEs position, Downing has coached in the NFL since 2005 and coordinated the Raiders to their fifth-best scoring season of the past 16 years. After getting hired by Tennessee in 2019, Downing has done his best work developing Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firkser into the most productive seasons of their career. With former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith moving to Atlanta, Downing now takes over the direction of the other stars in the offense. However, experience teaching tight ends to act as both blockers and receivers has historically set up coaches well for coordinating jobs, and the Titans stand to benefit.
Luke Steckel, Titans TE Coach
Desmond Kitchings, Falcons RB Coach
Rob Sale, Giants OL Coach
Kevin Koger, Chargers TE Coach