Which New Head Coach has the Best Defensive Coordinator?

Ranking the Defensive Coordinators for the new Head Coaches

By: Menachem Ickovitz (Twitter: @menudo_man)

As the old adage goes, “Defense wins championships.” The question on everyone’s mind is which new head coach has the best defensive coordinator. We previously ranked the offensive coordinators and now we will look at the defensive coordinators.

Much like when we ranked the offensive coordinators, none of the defensive coordinators are bad, but some are very unproven and that is what leads to their lower ranking.

7. Jonathan Gannon. Philadelphia Eagles

Jonathan Gannon is a young, relatively inexperienced coach. What he lacks in experience he more than makes up for in intellect.

He started his NFL coaching career with the Atlanta Falcons as a defensive quality control coach in 2007 for Bobby Petrino. Since then he has also worked for Mike Munchak, Mike Zimmer and Frank Reich.

Besides for his time as an assistant coach, he was also a scout for the St. Louis Rams from 2009 – 2011. Having been a scout, Gannon has a slightly different point of view than someone who has just been an assistant coach. 

6. Renaldo Hill, Los Angeles Chargers

 Renaldo Hill is a former NFL defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos. Having been a seventh round draft pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, being able to stay in the league from 2001 – 2010 is pretty impressive.

As a coach, he has worked for Adam Gase in Miami in 2018 and for Vic Fangio in Denver in 2019 and 2020. In 2019, Hill worked with new Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley.

He is as low as he is because of his lack of experience as a coach. However, because he was an NFL player for as long as he was, he isn’t in seventh place.

5. Jeff Ulbrich, New York Jets

Jeff Ulbrich is a former NFL linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. After his playing career was over he joined the Seattle Seahawks as an assistant special teams coach in 2010 and 2011. In 2011 the Seahawks hired a new defensive quality control coach named Robert Saleh.

After Ulbrich’s time with Seattle, he coached at UCLA for three seasons and then with the Atlanta Falcons from 2015 – 2020. While in Atlanta, Ulbrich worked for Dan Quinn, the longtime Pete Carroll assistant.

Now in New York, Ulbrich will be reunited with Saleh, another longtime Carroll assistant. If Ulbrich would be working for an offensive minded head coach, he probably would be a little higher on the list, but as anything that happens on defense will be credited to the head coach, Ulbrich’s impact is lessened.

4. Joe Cullen, Jacksonville Jaguars

Joe Cullen is an experienced defensive line coach. He has assisted Rod Marinelli, Jack Del Rio, Mike Mularkey, Rob Chudzinski, Lovie Smith and John Harbaugh. Now he is in his second stint with the Jaguars, now as defensive coordinator for Urban Meyer.

The defensive lines that Cullen has worked with have been statistically amongst the best:

  • With Detroit (2006 – 2008): four Lions players recorded career-high sack numbers.
  • With Jacksonville (2010 – 2012): the Jaguars were ranked sixth in yards allowed and fifth in yards per carry.
  • With Cleveland (2013): the Browns recorded 41 sacks, led by Jabaal Sheard’s 5 and 1/2.
  • With Tampa Bay (2014 – 2015): the Buccaneers ranked seventh in sacks and tackles for loss.
  • With Baltimore (2016 – 2020): During Cullen’s time with the Ravens they were in the Top 15 of rushing yards allowed each season.

With all the salary cap space and draft picks that the Jaguars have, Cullen is expected to have an influx of talent helping his defense. Expect to see the Jaguars build up their defensive line.

3. Aaron Glenn, Detroit Lions

Of the seven coordinators on this list, Aaron Glenn is one of the most exciting. Glenn played in the NFL from 1994 – 2008. In 2012 and 2013 he was a scout for the New York Jets and since 2014 he has been an assistant coach.

In 2014 as the assistant defensive backs coach for the 7 – 9 Cleveland Browns, Glenn helped three defensive backs, cornerback Joe Haden and safeties Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson make it to the Pro Bowl. In 2016, he joined the New Orleans Saints and worked with new Lions head coach Dan Campbell.

There is already excitement in Detroit that Glenn will have a positive impact on last year’s first round pick, cornerback Jeff Okudah. Okudah only played in nine games in 2020 for a total 41 % of the defensive snaps on the season.

Another big aspect of Glenn’s impending success with Detroit is the hiring of long-time NFL coach Dom Capers. Capers has been a head coach or defensive coordinator for 24 seasons and his knowledge will be a great asset for Glenn and the Lions.

2. Lovie Smith, Houston Texans

Lovie Smith is an experienced coach. From 2004 – 2012 he was the head coach of the Chicago Bears and in 2014 and 2015 he was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then from 2016 – 2020 he was a head coach in college at Illinois.

New Houston Texans head coach David Culley will rely on Smith’s experience. Smith’s coaching ability will be needed in full force as the Texans have already lost defensive end J.J. Watt and are expected to lose numerous other defensive players who are free agents.

The only reason why Lovie Smith is in second place on this list is that his defensive staff in Houston is a bit less experienced than the defensive staff in Atlanta. The truth is, Smith and Dean Pees are on a different level than the rest of the new defensive coordinators.

  1. Dean Pees, Atlanta Falcons

Dean Pees is one of the most respected defensive minds in the NFL. He has worked as a defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh and Mike Vrabel. Pees won Super Bowls as an assistant to Belichick and Harbaugh. Pees is coming out of retirement to join new head coach Arthur Smith’s staff.

Before becoming an NFL assistant in 2004, Pees spent 25 years coaching at the college ranks. Most notably, he was the head coach for Kent State from 1998 – 2003. While at Kent State, Pees coached future NFL players Joshua Cribbs and James Harrison.

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith has brought Pees and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone to assist him as they are both coaches Smith has worked with before and has a lot of respect for.

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