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Fifteen possible defensive coordinator candidates to replace Dean Pees

Mike Vrabel has a big hole to fill on his coaching staff with the announcement of Pees’ retirement.

Mac Engel: Cowboys defense has been average and their secondary is brutal Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Last year, the Titans were tasked with finding a replacement for offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur after he left to take the head job in Green Bay. This year, Mike Vrabel will need to fill the other coordinator spot with Dean Pees announcing his retirement on Monday.

I would guess that this news didn’t come as a huge surprise to Vrabel. After all, he did have to talk Pees out of retirement two years ago to come join his staff in the first place. Given how close those two are, it wouldn’t shock me at all if Pees gave him the heads up before the season even began that this would be his last year.

Replacing Pees will be tough. The Titans players always raved about how detailed and helpful the veteran coach’s notes were when studying opposing offenses. Kevin Byard credited a Pees tip about the right tackle’s stance indicating run or pass for his interception of Dak Prescott on a play action pass in Dallas two years ago. His defenses were always well-prepared and watching his seemingly endless array of creative blitzes and coverage rotations was particularly fun for me.

However, if Vrabel has shown anything over the last two years, it’s that he’s got a good eye for coaching talent. Here are some of the options that he could be looking at to replace Pees.

The In-House Candidates

Shane Bowen, Titans Outside Linebackers Coach

Bowen seems like the top internal candidate to me. He’s done a nice job developing Harold Landry as well as getting a lot out of some undrafted players in his position group over the last two years in Sharif Finch and Derick Roberson. Kamalei Correa is another example of a guy who showed marked improvement during his time working with Bowen.

During the Titans scrimmage in Nissan Stadium before the start of this season, Bowen was the coach given the playcalling duties for the defense while Arthur Smith called plays for the offense. That could possibly be a hint of a succession plan.

Bowen has no previous defensive playcalling or coordinating experience. He was a defensive assistant with Vrabel in Houston for two years before following the head coach to Tennessee. Prior to working with the Texans, all of Bowen’s experience came from coaching at the college level.

Tyrone McKenzie, Titans Inside Linebackers Coach

The other realistic internal candidate is McKenzie. He’s the guy that struck me as a future defensive coordinator/head coach type immediately upon watching him in interviews. His background is pretty strong too. Before coming to the Titans in 2018, he worked for David Shaw as a defensive line assistant at Stanford and then special teams/defensive assistant with the Rams under Sean McVay.

McKenzie played in the NFL for five years after being drafted by the Patriots in 2009 (the year after Vrabel had been traded to Kansas City). He was named a team captain for three of his five NFL seasons.

Both McKenzie and Bowen are young, up-and-coming coaches who have gotten a chance to learn under Pees for the last two years. When the offensive coordinator job came open last offseason, Vrabel chose to promote from within with Arthur Smith. That turned out to be an inspired choice as Smith led the Titans to their best offensive season in over 15 years. Does he think he’s got another young coach ready to make the leap this offseason?

The Veteran Defensive Coordinators

Wade Phillips, former Rams DC

The Rams made the surprising move to not renew Phillips’ contract after this season, making one of the best defensive coordinators of the past decade available and looking for work. Going from Dick LeBeau to Dean Pees to Wade Phillips would be quite the run of defensive minds through Saint Thomas Sports Park and it would be kind of fitting for him to finish his career with the franchise that his father had his best success with as a head coach.

From a scheme standpoint, Phillips runs his famous one-gap 3-4. That’s not a huge departure from what the Titans have done under LeBeau and Pees, but his lack of scheme flexibility is reportedly part of the reason he was not retained in LA. Mike Vrabel has preached from day one about “front multiplicity”, and for that reason, I get the feeling that this isn’t the best match despite Phillips track record of success.

James Bettcher, former Giants DC

Bettcher was once considered a top candidate for the Titans DC job before he chose the Giants. Whether he was ever actually offered the job in Tennessee is unclear, but we know that he interviewed with Vrabel at the Senior Bowl two years ago.

Things obviously didn’t work out for Bettcher in New York, but it’s hard to say how much of that was coaching and how much was a complete lack of talent on that side of the ball. He had great success as the defensive playcaller in Arizona under Bruce Arians and is known for a multiple front scheme similar to the one the Titans have employed under Vrabel and Pees.

Marvin Lewis, former Bengals HC

Lewis’ name was making the rounds in the head coaching market earlier this offseason, but he ended up coming up empty on that front. Currently a “special advisor” to Herm Edwards at Arizona State, it seems that Lewis might have some interest in getting back into the NFL.

Prior to his long run as Bengals head coach (where he compiled a record of 131-122 over 16 years), Lewis made his reputation as one of the league’s best defensive coordinators. He called plays for the Ravens defense during their most dominant run in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, including the 2000 Super Bowl team.

Romeo Crennel, former Texans DC

I think this has a very low likelihood of happening, but Crennel and Vrabel have extensive history together from their time in Houston. With Bill O’Brien moving on from his long time DC, it’s possible that Vrabel could call his old mentor and see if he’s interested in staying in the AFC South.

It’s more likely, in my opinion, that the 72-year old Crennel chooses to either retire or remain in Houston in some sort of advisory role.

George Edwards, former Vikings DC

Edwards did not have his contract renewed by Minnesota after this season, ending his six year run as the Vikings defensive coordinator. With Mike Zimmer in place as one of the very few defensive playcalling head coaches in the league, Edwards’ role has been more gameplan oriented during his time there.

The Vikings defense has annually been one of the best in the NFL, but how much of that credit is owed to Zimmer versus Edwards is certainly a question worth asking. During previous stops with the Redskins and Bills, Edwards has far less success.

Perry Fewell, former Panthers Defensive Backs Coach

Fewell has been around the NFL since 1998 primarily as either a defensive backs coach or defensive coordinator. He was most recently the defensive backs coach for the Panthers under Ron Rivera. He got promoted to the interim head coaching gig after Rivera was dismissed midseason.

His most successful stop came when he was coordinating the Giants defense from 2010 to 2014, including their surprise Super Bowl run in 2011.

The Up-and-Coming Position Coaches

Kris Richard, former Cowboys DB and Passing Game Coordinator

Richard has been considered a potential head coaching candidate for years now, but Mike McCarthy has chosen not to keep him on as part of the staff in Dallas. He built his reputation as the defensive coordinator of some of the “Legion of Boom” defenses in Seattle under longtime mentor Pete Carroll.

Richard is still highly thought of in NFL circles, but his preferred brand of Cover 3 attacking defenses might be what Vrabel has in mind.

Jerod Mayo, Patriots Inside Linebackers Coach

Mayo’s involvement in the Patriots outstanding defense this year was a little unclear for most of this season. At one point it was thought that he was calling plays for the New England defense (the Pats didn’t have a true defensive coordinator on staff), but it’s now believed that Steve Belichick (Bill’s son and the Patriots secondary coach) was actually the man behind the play sheet.

The connections here are obvious with the deep Patriots ties. Mayo was drafted and played right away as a rookie during Vrabel’s final year in New England. Coming from New England’s versatile, gameplan oriented environment, he’d be a natural fit on this coaching staff and is widely viewed as a future head coaching candidate.

DeMeco Ryans, 49ers Inside Linebackers Coach

Ryans is another former NFL linebacker that is now considered a rising star in the coaching ranks. His work with young Niners linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw have been a huge part of San Francisco’s defensive success this season.

Ryans, like several others in this category, lacks the playcalling experience right now, but everyone has to start somewhere.

Kris Kocurek, 49ers Defensive Line Coach

Kocurek is widely credited with the break out success of the 49ers defense. His work with the talented defensive line in San Francisco helped the team jump from 21st in the league in sacks in 2018 to 4th in the league in 2019.

The personnel certainly is a part of that jump — adding Nick Bosa to any defensive line will help the pass rush — but Kocurek’s reputation preceded him in this job. If the Titans defense could use anything, it’s a pass rush wizard.

The College Candidates

Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin DC

Vrabel has shown that he’s not opposed to reaching down to the college ranks for coaching hires. His first coordinator offer went out to Ryan Day who, at the time, was Ohio State’s co-OC under Urban Meyer. The 37-year old Leonhard had a 10-year NFL career that ended in 2014. He returned to his alma mater as a defensive backs coach in 2016 before quickly being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2017.

Leonhard’s Wisconsin defenses have been consistently been among the best units in college football for the last three years. Would he be willing to leave the school he played for and the state he grew up in for a chance to lead an NFL defense?

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati HC

Fickell is a proven defensive playcaller at the college level and he’s had some success as the head man in Cincinnati too, but the real reason he’s on this list is his relationship with Mike Vrabel. Fickell was Vrabel’s teammate at Ohio State and the best man in his wedding. The two former college roommates still run their 2nd and 7 charity together and Fickell gave Vrabel his first job in coaching in 2011 when Fickell was the interim head coach for the Buckeyes.

Would the chance to team up with his good friend be enough to lure Fickell out of his own promising head coaching path in the college game?

Jon Heacock, Iowa State DC

With the spread concepts of the college game continuing to filter more and more into the NFL, it makes some sense that the defensive coaches most accustomed to dealing with those looks would become more valuable. Heacock is known as one of the most innovative defensive minds in college football over the last few years, creating his versatile 3-3-5 defense that is widely viewed as one of the best anti-Air Raid approaches in the game.

Heacock also has an indirect connection to Vrabel through his brother, Jim Heacock, who was Ohio State’s defensive coordinator when Vrabel arrived at his first coaching gig.