2014 IDP Impact of Defensive Coordinator Changes

As with most NFL off-seasons, there have been a multitude of changes and turnover at the coaching positions this year around the NFL, and defensive coordinator has been no exception. 10 of the 32 teams will enter the 2014 season with a new defensive coordinator. As fantasy players, it's important for us to understand how these changes in defensive scheme and philosophy will affect the value of the IDPs on each of these respective teams.

That said, I've broken down each of the situations where new defensive coordinators will be installed and tried to provide some insight as to how that will affect IDP value accordingly as well as try and point out any sleepers to target in 2014 fantasy football drafts.

If you are interested in learning more about specific defensive schemes and/or want a list of all the current defensive coordinators and schemes broken out by team, check out the articles listed below:

Guide to NFL Defensive Schemes
2014 Defensive Coordinators and Schemes

As always, if you have any questions or notice any errors or inconsistencies, please feel free to post a note within the comments section of this article or shoot me an email. You can also find me on Twitter @theidpguru where I am available 24/7 to answer questions or just to BS about football.

Now without further ado, on to the article.

Buffalo Bills: Mike Pettine ---> Jim Schwartz
With previous defensive coordinator Mike Pettine taking the head coaching job in Cleveland, the Browns will turn to recently fired Lions' Head Coach Jim Schwartz. Despite his underachievement as a head coach in Detroit, Schwartz is as experienced as they come on the defensive side of the ball: he was the linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns from 1993-1995 under Bill Belichick and the Baltimore Ravens’ outside linebackers coach from 1996-1998 under Ted Marchibroda, and, most notably, the Tennessee Titans’ defensive coordinator from 2001-2008 under Jeff Fisher.
During his eight-year span as defensive coordinator in Tennessee, the defense ranked in the Top 10 in overall defense three times and were in the top six in run defense five different times, allowing just nine rushers over 100 yards in 64 total home games. Schwartz ran a 4-3 style defense with the Titans, where he and defensive line coach Jim Washburn extensively used the "Wide 9" alignment (which they carried over to Detroit). This defensive wrinkle lines speed rushers up well outside of the tight end in an attempt to get better angles on rushing the quarterback and has turned players such as Jevon Kearse, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Cliff Avril into double-digit sack artists. However, this alignment has drawn criticism in recent years as offenses have figured out ways to exploit the widened gaps on the defensive line by attacking the defensive front with a heavy dose of aggressive running plays.

Schwartz inherits a Buffalo defensive unit that finished second in the league in sacks and interceptions, but struggled badly against the run. As a defensive coordinator, Schwartz has historically had great success in defending against the run, which could bode well for Buffalo.

Schwartz has backgrounds in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes dating back to his early coaching days with the Ravens in the 1990s and the Bills have the personeel to fit either scheme. Regardless of scheme, Schwartz is known for his aggressive, attacking style of defense and he will surely bring that to Buffalo. That said, I'd guess that Buffalo transitions back to an aggressive, attacking style 4-3 scheme which still incorporates a lot of Wide 9 philosophies. If this is indeed is the case, the value of Mario Williams will skyrocket while the majority of the other IDPs' value will remain roughly the same as last season.

Cincinnati Bengals: Mike Zimmer ---> Paul Guenther
Guenther was an obvious choice to be the successor to former, long-time defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer who left his post for greener pastures as the head coach in Minnesota. Guenther joined the Bengals' staff in 2005 coaching various positions and groups over an eight year period. He became the linebackers coach in 2012 where he quickly made a name for himself for his outstanding work with Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamar, and Taylor Mays.

There was some worry Guenther would follow Jay Gruden or Mike Zimmer to their new respective teams so the Bengals moved quickly and signed him to a three year deal to ensure that never had a chance to happen.

Promoting Guenther gives the Bengals the continuity they desired heading into this coming season. The defense has been a strong unit in each of the past three season and there's no reason to believe that will change with Guenther at the helm in 2014. The defensive philosophies, terminology, and structure will all likely remain unchanged. That said, there is not likely to be much value change with the IDPs in Cincinnati as a result of this coaching change.

Cleveland Browns:
Ray Horton ---> Jim O'Neil
Make no mistake, Jim O'Neil landed in Cleveland as a direct result of Mike Pettine becoming the Browns new head coach. The two enjoy very strong ties, dating back to their high school days in Philadelphia where both played football under Pettine's father, Mike Pettine Sr. From there, the two worked together on Jets' defensive coaching staff under Rex Ryan and when Pettine was hired as the defensive coordinator in Buffalo this past season, he made sure to bring along O'Neil as the outside linebackers coach. The two have become attached at the hip similar to how Pettine was once attached to Rex Ryan.

This said, Pettine and O'Neil will run a hybrid defense very much similar to the one that proved effective in Buffalo last season. The Bills ranked 10th in total defense and were second in sacks (57- a franchise record) and interceptions. Pettine said he will handle the play-calling duties initially until he feels O'Neil has become comfortable to handle on his own.

Schematically, expect the Browns to vary their looks a lot. If last season was any indicator, the Browns will likely use a nickel formation as their baseline defense in a lot of games, but will often move interchangeably from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to even a 5-2 in some cases. The defensive backs will be expected to play both man and zone interchangeably. This defensive philosophy isn't drastically different than the one installed by Ray Horton last year, so players shouldn't have a difficult time adjusting.

The one Browns IDP I'm going to keep a very close eye on this off-season is Barkevious Mingo. First off, it will be interesting to see whether league management systems classify him as a DL or LB this coming season. Regardless, I think he can rise to Mario Williams-like status in this system and is a prime candidate to be this year's Justin Houston. I also expect T.J. Ward to get more blitzing opportunity and to remain an elite fantasy DB. D'Qwell Jackson is a bit of a question mark as he seemed to regress a bit last season and may lose favor with the new coaching staff if he can't step up his game.

All in all, this should be one of the more interesting defensive situations to monitor for IDP purposes.

Houston Texans: Wade Phillips ---> Romeo Crennel
Crennel is considered my many to be one of the better defensive coordinators of the last 10-15 years. He served as the Patriots' defensive coordinator from 2001 to 2004, helping them win three Super Bowls in the process. He was then hired out of New England to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, a role in which he held for four seasons. He then became the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs and was promoted to head coach in 2012 before getting fired the next season after going 2-14.

Despite his credentials as an effective defensive coordinator, Crennel hasn't been the most fantasy friendly coordinator during his career, especially when it comes to defensive linemen. Since 1993, Crennel has been a head coach, defensive coordinator, and defensive line coach for 19 different squads; not a single defensive end has had double digit sacks during that span. This is not good news for J.J. Watt's fantasy value.

It's still unclear what role Watt will play in Crennel's defense, but Romeo is known to be a hard headed, old school football coach, so there's a chance he will continue to run his archaic 2-gap, 3-4 scheme a majority of the time. He did say upon his hiring however that they will be running a multiple defense and they you will see "a little of everything."  

If I had to guess, I would imagine it's going to be a mix of 3-4, 4-3, and 1 and 2 gap principles. The Texans just don't have the personnel at this point to effectively run the traditional 3-4, 2 gap system Crennel typically installs. You need big, space eating players both among the defensive line and linebacking crew (think Ted Washington, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson, etc.). Additionally, a 2-gap, 3-4 defense in today's pass-heavy league is difficult to be successful with since you don't have much diversity in your pass rush and you put a lot of pressure on your secondary to stop throws. Most importantly, it would just be a huge waste of J.J. Watt's talent.

Nevertheless, this is an important situation to keep your eye on. If we see a lot of 2-gap, it's probably time to devalue Watt a bit. Even if we don't, we may want to be cautious when drafting him as Crennel has had a horrible track record with getting the most out of his defensive ends, at least in terms of fantasy production.

Tennessee Titans:
Jerry Gray ---> Ray Horton
Horton has shown over the last several seasons that he is fully capable of making IDP studs out of his defensive players. He did it with Daryl Washington in Arizona and with T.J. Ward in Cleveland. He coached and apprenticed under defensive guru Dick LeBeau in both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and derived many of his defensive pressure concepts and creative blitz schemes from him.

Horton's connection with new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt goes back to their days together on the Steelers coaching staff and most recently in Arizona, when Whisenhunt hired Horton as defensive coordinator in 2011. In his first two seasons as a defensive coordinator in Arizona, he signficantly improved the defensive play. He took over a group that ranked 29th in total defense and improved to 18th in 2011 and 12th in his second and final season. In his one season with the Browns, Horton took a team previously ranked 23rd in defense to the 9th best in the NFL.

Horton likes to blitz A LOT. He blitzed on 47.4% of pass plays in 2012, which is substantially above the league average of 31.6%. A lot of these blitzes come from the inside linebackers firing through the A and B gaps (i.e. Cross Fire Zone Blitz). This style of blitzing has made fantasy studs out of Daryl Washington and Lawrence Timmons over the past couple of seasons.

All in all, the Titans' front seven personnel isn't a great match for Horton's style of defense. However, many said the same thing about Cleveland last year, and they had great results. Ropati is certainly big enough to play a 5-technique at one of the end spots and Jurrell Casey might be able move to end as well. Akeem Ayers would move to OLB and there's a chance Zach Brown could move to OLB, but he may not be big enough. If Derrick Morgan can't put on enough weight, he may have to transition to a stand up pass rusher (which would kill his fantasy value). 

It will be interesting to see if Horton gives Colin McCarthy another chance at locking down a starting ILB position and if so, if he will put him in that "Daryl Washington" role. If so, McCarthy is going to be a dangerous sleeper this upcoming season. However, my gut is telling me that the Titans bring in a linebacker in free agency or via the draft to be the centerpiece of the defense. There's also a chance Horton uses Zach Brown as his predominant A-gap blitzing linebacker.

As far as the secondary goes, the Titans DBs were already fantasy-friendly and should be able to thrive even more so in the coming year under Horton's aggressive scheme. Bernard Pollard is a UFA, but if he is brought back he could have a MONSTER season. Also, there's a chance Michael Griffin gets cut and the Titans go with George Wilson at the other safety position. If this is indeed the case, Wilson becomes another great fantasy sleeper to highlight come draft time.

Similar to previous seasons, expect there to be a lot of fantasy value on this defense.

Dallas Cowboys: Monte Kiffin ---> Rod Marinelli
Despite initially stating the he had no intention to move on from Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator, Jerry Jones announced that Rod Marinelli was being promoted to the new defensive playcaller with Kiffin getting demoted to assistant head coach/defense.

The Cowboys defense was absolutely putrid last season and finished as the worst defense in Cowboys history. The lone bright spot on the defense however was the amazing coaching job put forth by Marinelli in keeping a serviceable defensive line on the field despite dealing with a ridiculous amount of injuries. He managed to get the most out of players such as Jason Hatcher and George Selvie.

Don't expect there to be many changes to the defensive scheme, if any, from last year. He had great success as the defensive coordinator in Chicago for three seasons and will look to bring that aggressive, takeaway style of defense to the Cowboys this season.

DeMarcus Ware should have a bounceback season and Sean Lee should continue to be a top 5 fantasy linebacker as long as he can stay healthy. Barry Church had perhaps one of the most surprising fantasy seasons ever with a staggering 135 total tackles (107 solo). I highly doubt that Church comes close to those numbers in 2014 and is likely to be overvalued.

Detroit Lions: Gunter Cunningham ---> Teryl Austin
Austin and new Lions head coach Jim Caldwell have worked together on three different teams for a total of seven seasons. They first joined up on Joe Paterno's Penn State coaching staff in 1991 where Austin was a graduate assistant. They then worked together at both Wake Forest and most recently for the Ravens.

Austin is not expected to drastically change Detroit's defensive scheme, but there will some changes in the nuances of the defense, such as blitz packages. The team will continue to run a 4-3 as that best suits the existing personnel and helps avoid some of the rebuilding process that goes with many coaching changes.

The front four of the defense will continue to abide by 1-gap principles which should keep the fantasy value of Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh steady at the very minimum. The player to keep a close watch on this off-season is Ezekiel Ansah. Despite struggling through injuries for a good portion of the season, he showed flashes of elite level pass rushing capabilities in his rookie season. He could be set up for a Jason Pierre-Paul type breakout sophomore season.

Minnesota Vikings:
Alan Williams ---> George Edwards
Edwards jumped to the professional ranks in 2002 as an assistant defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for the Washington Redskins, and became the defensive coordinator for the team the following season. He was the linebackers coach with the Cleveland Browns in 2004, and served in the same role for the Miami Dolphins from 2005 to 2009. He then became the Bills defensive coordinator from 2010-2011, and finally returned to the Dolphins linebacker coaching position in 2012, holding that position through this past season.

In the three seasons Edwards has spent as defensive coordinator (one with the Redskins and two with the Bills), his defenses have finished 25th, 24th, 26th in yards allowed; 24th, 28th, 30th in points. Not exactly the best finishes. Edwards and new Vikings head coach, Mike Zimmer, did work together while in Dallas and Edwards was mainly brought along as he's a believer in Zimmer's defensive scheme and philosophies.

Make no mistake, this will be Mike Zimmer's defense. That said, expect it to run in a similar fashion to the Bengals defense. The 4-3 alignment will stay intact and the cornerbacks will be expected to play a lot of man coverage which will be a bit of change from previous seasons. The fantasy value of the front seven should remain largely unchanged, but I do have some slight concerns that we may see a dip in production from DB1 Harrison Smith.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bill Sheridan
---> Leslie Frazier
After going 21-32-1 in three-plus seasons with the Vikings, the 54-year-old Frazier will be moving on to Tampa Bay to serve as the new defensive coordinator under new head coach Lovie Smith. Despite his lackluster record as a head coach, Frazier coordinated Minnesota's defense from 2008-2010, and his units ranked sixth, sixth, and eighth in total defense. Additionally, Frazier worked as an assistant coach under Tony Dungy in Indianapolis and is a major advocate of the Tampa 2 defensive scheme that Smith prefers to run. Simply put, Frazier is a fantastic fit under Lovie and has an excellent track record as a defensive coordinator.

Frazier said in his introductory press conference that the Bucs will employ a defensive scheme similar to the one Smith used in Chicago. That means that we are quite likely to see a good amount of Tampa 2 looks within Tampa Bay's base 4-3 defense. Unlike the attacking style defense the Bucs had with former coach Greg Schiano, the Tampa 2 is a zone-based scheme that calls for the bulk of the pressure to come from the front four while the linebackers stay back in coverage. It is a system that requires speed and athleticism more than size and thump.

Although Tampa Bay has two major pieces of this style of defense already in place with an elite 3-technique defensive tackle in Gerald McCoy and weak side linebacker Lavonte David, they still have a few missing pieces they will need to acquire this off-season. They need to find a defensive end that can beat double teams, chip blockers, and get to the quarterback the way Simeon Rice did in the team's hay day. They will also need to find a cornerback that is smart, disciplined, and willing and able to come up and stop the run.

Darrell Revis is perhaps the best cornerback in the league, but he's not a great fit for this system. There is some flexibility in the scheme however to best utilize the All-Pro talents of a player like Revis and put him in predominately man coverage situations. Lovie Smith did it with Charles Tillman in Chicago and Leslie Frazier did it with Xavier Rhodes last season in Minnesota.

Lastly, I would expect the Bucs to look for a replacement for Mason Foster at the middle linebacker position. Despite being a fixture at the position since the Bucs drafted him in the third round in 2011 and being a perfect fit for Schiano's attack-oriented scheme, he lacks the coverage skills needed to excel in the Tampa 2. He had the second-worst average of yards allowed per snap in coverage last year among all inside linebackers according to Pro Football Focus, and gave up more touchdowns (four) than all but two inside linebackers.

If all goes to plan, I would bank on both McCoy and David having monster fantasy seasons in 2014. I think McCoy could wind up being one of the bigger surprises of the season. Make sure and highlight him on your rankings list come draft season.

St. Louis Rams: Tim Walton
---> Gregg Williams
I'd be pressed to say anyone was surprised by this hiring. Williams and Jeff Fisher are longtime buddies. Williams had served as the defensive coordinator under Fisher in Tennessee from 1997-2000 and was originally handpicked by Fisher to be the Rams defensive coordinator back in 2012 before Williams was suspended indefinitely by the NFL for his involvement in the BountyGate scandal and eventually released by the Rams. He was reinstated ahead of the 2013 season and spent last year as a senior defensive assistant for the Titans. By most accounts, it was actually Williams, and not defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, that ran the defense. 

Williams inherits a Rams' defense that was third in the NFL in sacks (53), ninth in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (102.9) 13th fewest points per game (22.8), 19th in fewest passing yards allowed per game (242.1), and 17th in fewest total yards per game (365.4).

There will be no sweeping changes in terms of the Rams general defensive philosophy, but Williams will certainly add his own flavor. He adheres to an aggressive, blitz-heavy 4-3 defensive scheme which should fit well with the Rams' current personnel, including a strong front seven led by defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.

Williams is a creative and versatile coordinator who is great at tailoring his defense around players' individual strengths (e.g. Roman Harper). He's not afraid to mix and match between 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, but he's likely to run mainly 4-3 looks with the personnel he has to work with. His corners tend to play a lot of man-to-man coverage, often times pressing, while doing a lot of blitzing.

I would imagine the fantasy value of the front seven will remain largely unchanged. 2nd year player T.J. McDonald is a player to track though as he has nice high upside potential in this defense. The cornerbacks may see a bump in value as well.

Last Updated: February 2, 2014

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