Filling the Browns Defensive Coordinator Position: A Baker’s dozen of candidates for Kitchens

Photo from Sporting News

When the Cleveland Browns fired head coach Hue Jackson following a week eight loss against the Steelers, the search for the next head coach had begun. The Browns could have gone in many different directions but they opted to go with one that no one saw coming as early as two months ago. Following the completion of seven head coaching interviews, the Cleveland Browns have promoted Freddie Kitchens from offensive coordinator to head coach, according to Chris Mortensen of ESPN.

Kitchens carries a 21-year coaching resume into his first time becoming a head coach at any level. He began his professional coaching career in Dallas with the Cowboys under the great Bill Parcells and 14-years later he has become the 17th head coach of a franchise that began under the leadership under the great Paul Brown.

Among his resume, Kitchens spent 11 years with the Arizona Cardinals, surviving a near-death experience and a regime change following the firing of Ken Whisenhunt. Kitchens has been credited with the revival of Carson Palmer in the final years of his career with the Cardinals, turning him into an MVP candidate as the team’s quarterback coach. His most recent success is the most important and that, of course, was the job Kitchens had done with the Browns offense and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield in an eight-game interview.

No one could have guessed that Kitchens would become the head coach of the most attractive opening in all of football — but no one guessed general manager John Dorsey would draft Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick. Kitchens success with Mayfield and the Browns offense ultimately became appealing to the Browns management that there was no way that they could break up their most successful marriage to date.

The NFL is transitioning to a league that values pairings of young, smart, and creative offensive-minded head coaches to pair with their franchise quarterbacks. The Los Angeles Rams, of course, began this trend with the hiring of Sean McVay to revive Jared Goff and as of last season, the Chicago Bears followed that trend by pairing Matt Nagy with Mitch Trubisky. Now, this coaching cycle has featured the pairing of Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay; Kliff Kingsbury and Josh Rosen in Arizona; Adam Gase and Sam Darnold with the Jets; and now Kitchens and Mayfield in Cleveland.

One thing that made McVay and Nagy so successful early on in their young head coaching careers was their selections of their defensive coordinators. McVay tabbed the then 70-year old Wade Phillips to anchor his defense and Nagy elected to keep then 59-year old Vic Fangio around in Chicago. Already in Green Bay, LaFleur has decided to keep former Browns head coach Mike Pettine along with the Packers and Kingsbury has been linked to possibly bring in 68-year old Dom Capers.

If the Browns would like to sustain success under Kitchens, he (like the rest) will absolutely want to hire a strong presence to direct his defense. With Gregg Williams not coming back, Kitchens and the Browns will be on the lookout for a defensive coordinator of their own. Here are x names that Kitchens should and may pursue to fill the void:


Dom Capers, Former Packers DC

According to a report from NFL Network, Capers has been “kicked around in Arizona” as a potential option to lead the defense alongside Kingsbury. I am sure the Cardinals, who went out of their way to mention that McVay and Kingsbury were friends, will strongly pursue Capers to be their defensive coordinator in Arizona. Despite interest from the Cardinals, the Browns can absolutely put a wrench in their plans.

A Cambridge, Ohio, native and Mount Union graduate, Capers, began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Kent State and also coached defensive backs at Ohio State from 1982-83. Most attractive of all, Capers spent nine years in Green Bay with the Packers; working in the same organization as Dorsey, assistant general manager Eliot Wolf, and executive vice president of football operations Alonzo Highsmith.

Capers knows what it takes to lead a Super Bowl and even spent eight years as head coach between the Panthers (4) and Texans (4). He brings the value of playoff experience to the table and a 33-year long resume of working in the NFL. I believe the Browns brass will make a strong case for Capers and he is one that would be a no-brainer hire for me.

Chuck Pagano, Former Colts HC

Pagano is not an entirely unfamiliar name among those around Berea. He spent the 2001-04 seasons as the defensive backs coach, working alongside Bruce Arians, who was the then offensive coordinator of the Browns. As the former head coach of the Colts, Pagano employed Bruce Arians to be his offensive coordinator and they found plenty of success in Indianapolis in the one year they were together.

Despite interviewing for the Denver Broncos job, Pagano was passed up for Fangio. Pagano, a 58-year old, has familiarity with both the Browns and the Baltimore Ravens as a defensive coach in the AFC North. He spent one season as the coordinator in Baltimore, before being hired by the Colts in 2012.

As a former head coach, Pagano would be another fantastic hire for Kitchens and the Browns. He has plenty experience in the postseason and has spent 18-years in the NFL. If Cleveland misses out on Capers, keep an eye on Pagano as a guy to make his way back to Cleveland.

Vance Joseph, Former Broncos HC

Another former head coach, Joseph did not exactly receive the fairest of opportunities in Denver. The Broncos never figured out their quarterback situation in his two seasons and as a result, had Joseph packing his bags early.

Joseph spent time as a defensive coordinator with the Dolphins before being hired by the Broncos. He also has familiarity in the AFC North, spending time in Cincinnati with the Bengals as their defensive backs coach. Additionally, he also coached defensive backs at Bowling Green State University which is just 100 miles away from the Browns facility in Berea.

The Bengals could snatch Joseph up to be their head coach or Adam Gase could reunite with his former defensive coordinator in Miami, now in New York with the Jets. Joseph is a long shot but would be another name that would make lots of sense for the Browns.

Billy Davis, Former Ohio State LB Coach

This name may only seem familiar to Ohio State fans, as Davis spent the last two seasons as the Buckeyes linebackers coach. He, like Pagano, is a name familiar to those in Berea. Davis was the Browns’ assistant linebackers coach in 1999 and the team’s linebackers coach from 2011-12. He is a Youngstown native and a graduate of Cincinnati — with plenty of ties to the state of Ohio.

Kitchens and Davis were hired in together with the Cardinals, and Davis even spent two years as their offensive coordinator. Additionally, he spent a total of five years between the 49ers (2) and Eagles (3) as their defensive coordinator. He also was hired under Ron Wolf in 2000 with the Packers as their assistant defensive line coach — he worked with John Dorsey in Green Bay, as well. Another plus is he also spent three seasons in Pittsburgh as a defensive assistant with the Steelers from 1992-1994.

With Ryan Day taking over as the Buckeyes’ next head coach, Davis is not returning to Ohio State. His familiarity with Kitchens, Dorsey, the Browns, and the state of Ohio could make him a potential match-maker in Cleveland for a third stint.

Kevin Greene, Jets OLB Coach

Call this your longshot, darkhorse candidate. The 2016 Hall-of-Fame inductee, Greene had a storied 15-year NFL career, winning a defensive player of the year award in 1996, leading the NFL in sacks in 1994 and 1996, and being elected to three First-Team All-Pro selections and five Pro Bowls.

Greene began his coaching career with the Packers in 2009 as their outside linebackers coach and then migrated to the Jets for two seasons under Todd Bowls at the same position.

The Browns have shown they are not afraid to put the team in a position with coordinators that have not had experience before. Wolf and Dorsey both spent time with Greene in Green Bay and have a good idea of the type of coach Greene has become. Like I said, a big-time darkhorse but one name just to keep a small eye on.

Other names

Kris Richard: He is currently the defensive passing game coordinator in Dallas and may even end up as the next head coach of the Dolphins. The Cowboys would absolutely like to keep him.

Brian Flores: He is currently the Patriot’s linebackers coach and someone the Browns interviewed as a potential head coach. Flores may get the head coach job in Miami but if not, maybe he leaves New England for Cleveland for titles and name recognition.

Steve Wilks: One-and-done with the Cardinals and now on the market. Wilks had success in Carolina with the Panthers as their defensive coordinator.

Brenston Buckner: He worked with Kitchens in Arizona as the defensive line coach for five seasons. Also played for the Steelers and Bengals, and coached with the Buccaneers last season.

Matt Burke: He was the defensive coordinator last season with the Dolphins and worked with the Bengals from 2014-15.

Joe Woods: He was the defensive coordinator last season with the Broncos and coached at Kent State, and our Jake Bruns’ alma mater, Muskingum.

Steve Spagnuolo: Last served as the Giants defensive coordinator and is a free agent. Was the head coach for the Rams from 2009-2011 and spent time with Bowling Green State University and the Baltimore Ravens.

Jack Del Rio: Former Raiders and Jaguars head coach, and spent time as the Super Bowl defensive coordinator for the Panthers.  He was also the coordinator for the Broncos and spent time with the Ravens as their linebackers coach.