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Mike Vrabel drops a couple hints about the Titans defensive coordinator search

We can pretty safely narrow the list of potential candidates based on Vrabel’s comments to Titans Online.

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

There hasn’t been much news in the Titans search for a defensive coordinator to replace Dean Pees, but we got a couple nuggets from a reputable source on Thursday when Mike Vrabel gave Jim Wyatt some pretty insightful quotes about the direction the team is looking to take on defense. You can read the entire piece here (which includes the official announcement that Anthony Midget is going to be the defensive backs coach along with some comments on Midget from Vrabel), but I want to parse out a few of Vrabel’s comments that seem to lay clear the team’s direction.

Let’s start with his answer about the defensive coordinator spot:

“I would say to bring in a guy who hasn’t been in our system and done what we have done in Houston or here isn’t what I want to do. So whoever calls the defense, we are going to do pretty much what we have done. We are going to continue to add and enhance things, but to me that is not a big deal. I want guys that are loyal, that are great teachers and good developers.”

The first sentence would seemingly eliminate a huge chunk of the potential candidates while keeping the possibility that Vrabel himself would end up calling the defense in 2020 alive.

Veteran coordinators like Wade Phillips, James Bettcher, and Kris Richard who have no direct ties to Vrabel and/or the system that he’s worked in aren’t going to happen. Same goes for position coaches or college coordinators who don’t have previous connections.

It’s pretty clear that Vrabel feels good about the Titans general direction on defense and wants to keep as much continuity as possible. That’s understandable considering the fact that Tennessee’s 634 points allowed over the past two regular seasons is the fifth lowest total in the NFL over that time span.

I think this narrows our realistic defensive coordinator list to three options:

  1. Mike Vrabel calling the defense himself
  2. Promoting Shane Bowen from outside linebackers coach
  3. Hiring Bills defensive backs coach John Butler

We’ve already hit on the first two options to some extent, but let’s put some attention on number three here.

Vrabel’s comments specifically mention “what we have done in Houston” which would seemingly refer to the Romeo Crennel defense that the Titans coach cut his NFL teeth on during his first few years in the league.

John Butler spent four seasons in Houston from 2014 through 2017 as defensive backs coach with Midget as his assistant during that time. He has at least some experience as a defensive playcaller as well. Butler was the defensive coordinator for Bill O’Brien’s Penn State team for one season in 2013 before following the head coach to the NFL level (a defense that featured DaQuan Jones and Austin Johnson for what it’s worth).

The Bills secondary has been outstanding the last two years as Butler has helped develop Tre’Davious White into an All-Pro cornerback and gotten high level play from less heralded guys like Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde as well as undrafted free agent corner Levi Wallace.

Butler’s experience calling plays and working with Vrabel — including working under him during Vrabel’s one year as defensive playcaller in Houston — makes him easily the most interesting candidate if the Titans hire from the outside.

At this point, I’d be pretty shocked if anyone other than Vrabel, Bowen, or Butler was calling the Titans defense in 2020.

Turning to Tyrone McKenzie’s vacated inside linebackers post, Vrabel had this to say about his replacement at that spot:

Vrabel said he’s “still working through some things” when asked about McKenzie’s replacement, while saying “I am leaning toward a veteran coach.”

The words “veteran coach” make me think that it’s unlikely to see a promotion for a Titans defensive assistant to this role. Scott Booker is the most experienced of the team’s defensive assistants, but most of his work has been with the secondary.

Looking at Vrabel’s background for veteran defensive coaches that he’s crossed paths with previously — again looking for someone who already knows the system to some degree — and could be realistic fits for the role produces few results. Texans inside linebackers coach Bobby King coached under Vrabel in 2017, but it seems like this move would have been announced alongside Midget’s move if that was going to happen. Also, Bill O’Brien would have to sign off on the Titans talking to King.

There are two other names that fit the mold to some degree and are looking for work. First, is John Pagano. He has been the Texans outside linebackers coach and “senior defensive assistant” the last two years, but was fired by Houston during their coaching shake up announced earlier in the week. He’s been coaching in the NFL since 1996 so he checks the “veteran” box with authority and his defensive playcalling experience could be attractive if Vrabel is either going to call plays himself or promote an inexperienced guy like Bowen to the role. Pagano and Vrabel have never actually been a part of the same staff, but given his work under Crennel the last two years, you would expect them to largely speak the same language at least.

UPDATE [9:45 AM]: John Pagano has been hired by the Broncos as outside linebackers coach so we can mark him off this list.

The other name that pops up is Rob Ryan. The lesser known Ryan brother is looking for work after being a part of Jay Gruden’s staff in Washington that got fired at the end of last year. Ryan was Vrabel’s first position coach in New England so the two would be familiar with each other, and like Pagano, Ryan certainly qualifies as a veteran coach. He would also bring the coordinator/playcaller experience to lean on even if the Titans didn’t necessarily want him calling the defense himself. The long time DC coached inside linebackers for the Redskins last season.

Ryan’s twin brother Rex lives in Nashville and it would make a lot of sense for him to want to be here. Whether the Titans would want him is another question, but it’s an interesting fit either way.