By Peter Engler and Robert Simpson
Over the last two weeks, we released our list of top offensive assistants and top defensive assistants. The same methodology was used for finding both groups and will again be applied to find some coaches who may not be well-known names but ranked highly accoring to our system.
To reiterate, here is our methodology for finding these coaches: Each coach’s performance was compared to how the team was performing prior to the coach’s arrival. For this study, a team’s performance was quantified using Expected Points Added, or EPA. A refresher on EPA can be found here.
For each team in NCAA Div. I and the NFL, EPA was calculated on a per-play basis for each season to account for pace of play. It was also broken down into EPA per rush and EPA per pass, so coaches whose position groups are primarily involved in only one phase of the game (such as DB coaches or WR coaches mainly impacting the passing game) could be judged appropriately. NCAA teams only counted games against other FBS teams, so as to limit inflated performances against FCS teams.
Then the EPA per play of the coach’s current team was averaged for the three years prior to his arrival to establish a baseline of performance. This baseline was compared to the team’s average EPA per play the first three years of the coach’s tenure there (or as many years as he has been with the team if less than three). The more EPA per play the team gained during the coach’s tenure over the baseline before he arrived, the better the coach was judged to be.
This system of grading coaches is not perfect, and could be impacted by an influx of talent just as the coach is arriving to the team, but the majority of the coaches who were highly ranked by this system have been recently promoted or hired away by other teams. We have evaluated over 100 coaches using this system. Below are 10 coaches who performed well in our rankings and may be darkhorse candidates for job openings next offseason.
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Jon Embree, 49ers TE Coach
Although you might think that his notoriety comes from his current role working with George Kittle — the former fifth-round pick and All-Pro who is the owner of the second-most receiving yards by a TE in a season — Jon Embree has produced amazing results at every chance he’s gotten. Before developing Kittle, Embree was leading Cameron Brate and Chris Cooley to career-best years and Jordan Cameron to his only Pro Bowl. Even while working with one of the greatest TEs of all-time, Tony Gonzalez, Embree was the only coach to get two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons from the Hall of Famer. In his only role of the past 18 years in which he wasn’t coaching tight ends, a two-year stint as head coach at Colorado, defensive lineman Nick Kasa was converted to TE and developed enough to be a sixth-round draft pick. In short, Embree has been exceptional.
Mike Kafka, Chiefs QBs Coach/Passing Game Coordinator
A quick riser through the coaching ranks after his professional career, Mike Kafka joined Kansas City in 2017 as the offensive quality control coach and has quickly risen to his current role. Under Kafka, Patrick Mahomes has only lit the league on fire, winning the MVP and a Super Bowl with another appearance. The transition from Alex Smith was seamless, but it went underappreciated how Smith had the only 4,000-yard season of his career in Kafka’s first year out of a graduate assistantship at Northwestern. Clearly Kafka gets the best out of his group, and the future remains bright in Kansas City.
Sam Mills III, Washington DL Coach
He shares a name with his father, the only Panther to have his number retired, but Sam Mills III has been making a name for himself since entering the league in 2005. The defensive line of Washington almost single-handedly propelled them to a playoff spot last season (Mills’ first with the team), as DROY Chase Young took the league by storm and Montez Sweat improved on his own rookie campaign. In the prior two years, Mills was producing stellar sack numbers with an unheralded group in Carolina, putting up 88 combined sacks over the two years and integrating Brian Burns. With the investments the Washington Football Team has made in their secondary this offseason, it could be a dominant defensive follow-up in D.C.
Eric Henderson, Rams DL Coach
With the excellence that the team has shown defensively, it’s easy to see why a Rams coach would make this list. However, Eric Henderson joined after the team’s Super Bowl appearance, taking what was the league’s 20th-ranked scoring defense and building the top scoring, total, and passing defense in only two years. Aaron Donald has continued his streak of All-Pro seasons under Henderson, but Leonard Floyd and Dante Fowler put together their first double-digit sack campaigns while Morgan Fox and Samson Ebukam hit career-highs. Henderson has rapidly climbed the ladder, but his production is top-notch.
Jerry Olsavsky, Steelers ILB Coach
Coming up under Dick LeBeau and Keith Butler, Jerry Olsavsky has kept the tradition of outstanding linebacker play in Pittsburgh alive by developing multiple players into starters or better and keeping outstanding depth. He’s regularly coached players up, from Devin Bush and Robert Spillane to Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier. The results speak for themselves. Six seasons in charge of the ILBs, never finishing worse than league-average for scoring, and four seasons with a top-10 defense. With Olsavsky on board, that doesn’t look to change any time soon.
Jacob Peeler, Texas State Offensive Coordinator
You wouldn’t know it from some of the team’s struggles in 2020, but Texas State quietly brought in a highly promising coordinator before the season in Jacob Peeler. Fresh off sending A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf to NFL superstardom as their position coach at Ole Miss, Peeler took on a real challenge in moving to Texas State. The team had finished 121st in scoring, 121st in total offense, and 127th in rushing in 2019, so don’t hold it too much against Peeler that the team wasn’t competing with the dominant Coastal Carolinas and Louisianas of the Sun Belt in 2020. Rather, looking at the improvement the team made shows some of the impact Peeler brought in Year 1. They improved 52 spots in scoring, 35 spots in total offense and 30 spots in rushing behind a transfer QB from Memphis, a redshirt freshman RB and a JUCO transfer at WR. With another year to implement the system and build cohesiveness with such a new group of players, Peeler could start building something special.
Ryan Grubb, Fresno State Offensive Coordinator/QB Coach
Fresno State had been putting up good numbers in the first two years under Ryan Grubb, but the 2020 campaign saw an offensive explosion that put the unit up with the best in the country. With the fifth-best passing offense and 17th-ranked total offense, Grubb’s offense put up 35-plus points in half of their six games, and at least 19 in each of the other three. There were hints of that dominance in an injury-stricken 2019 season that saw 10 different OL combinations, but Grubb managed to put it all together in 2020 and should build on that in 2021 with a second year of transfer QB Jake Haener.
James Coley, Texas A&M TEs Coach
With some big stops on his resume and success at each, James Coley’s two seasons at Texas A&M have turned 265-pound Jalen Wydermyer into a John Mackey Award finalist and the team’s leading receiver, not to mention the school’s career record-holder for touchdowns by a TE. Coley was previously at Georgia — where the team went to three SEC Championship Games in his four seasons and he led Jake Fromm to the second-best completion rate in school history — or his prior stop as the offensive coordinator at Miami, where they led the country in explosive plays all three years and freshman All-American Brad Kaaya broke school records for passing yards and touchdowns. With the versatility and ability to develop his players and produce on the field, Coley might be able to make a jump to the NFL.
Brian Borland, University at Buffalo Defensive Coordinator
The Buffalo playcaller has built a consistently excellent unit. Before leading the 30th-ranked scoring defense in a 2020 season that saw Buffalo’s first AP ranking and their second consecutive bowl win, Brian Borland was leading seven defenders to all-conference selections in 2019 with a school-record 43 sacks. However, this success shouldn’t be a surprise to those who noticed Borland’s standout reign at DIII Wisconsin-Whitewater. In his 21 years there, including 13 as the defensive coordinator, the 2013 DIII Coordinator of the Year and 2015 Wisconsin FCA Hall of Fame Inductee led the team to nine national title games and won six of them. While it’s pretty clear that Borland has the talent to build fantastic defenses, he also was a nine-year women’s track & field coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater, leading a fourth-place finish at the 2000 Nationals and winning the DIII National Coach of the Year award. All he does is win.
Neal Neathery, Eastern Michigan Defensive Coordinator
With a 0.311 historical win percentage and four total bowl appearances, Eastern Michigan doesn’t have the most storied program on this list. However, defensive coordinator Neal Neathery is doing more than his part to turn it around. With an immediate improvement of 86.5 less yards allowed per game in his first season, the defense has continued to step up each year and excel at the end of games. In 2017, EMU gave up only 3.8 points per game in the final quarter, including 0 points at home, and the 2018 version was the fifth-best in the red zone and 10th after the half. With three bowl appearances so far in his five-year tenure, Neathery is making the moves to create a football tradition in Ypsilanti.