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Candidates to fill the Giants’ defensive coordinator position

Who could the Giants look at to fill run their defense?

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The New York Giants have officially hired New England Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge to be their next head coach.

That move answers the most pressing question of the 2020 off-season, but it also opens the door to a number of other questions, starting with the make-up of this coaching staff. Judge has never been a head coach at any level, and while he has been praised by both Bill Belichick and Nick Saban (his two bosses as a football coach), that doesn’t erase the fact that this is his first time behind the big desk.

And for as much attention as the personnel aspect of team building gets, coaching matters quite a bit at every level of football. How Judge fills out his coaching staff will be fascinating to watch and go a long way toward determining what the Giants will look like in 2020 and how they develop their young roster over the coming years.

Will he hire other young coaches or look for experienced voices to offer counsel? What kinds of schemes will the Giants employ?

The Giants have struggled on defense in the three years since their dominant 2016 campaign, and that side of the ball bore the brunt of the criticism for their failures in 2018 and 2019. Getting that side of the ball back on track is almost as high a priority as developing Daniel Jones.

Let’s take a look at some of the candidates at whom Judge could look to fill out his staff.

The Big Names

Wade Phillips (Los Angeles Rams)

Any list of defensive coordinators has to start with Wade Phillips. The Son Of Bum (the 72-year old coach’s Twitter handle) has fielded some of the best defenses in the NFL over his lengthy career. If the Giants want to support their first-time head coach with experienced assistants, Phillips has to be their first call. His coaching career began in the 1970s and he has coached for 10 different teams, and been a head coach three different times (six if you include stints as an interim head coach).

On the field, Phillips runs a defense that is built on the one-gap 3-4 defense pioneered by his father, Bum Phillips, but tailored to fit the available talent and the needs of the modern NFL.

And while Phillips is the oldest coach on this list, his players have consistently reported that he makes an effort to be able to relate to young men a third his age — from learning the lyrics to Drake songs to keeping up on memes.

Kris Richard (Dallas Cowboys)

The Giants interviewed Richard for the job Judge was ultimately hired for. Richard was the Dallas Cowboys’ “de facto” defensive coordinator, calling plays despite Rod Marinelli being the actual defensive coordinator. Prior to coaching for Dallas, Richard coached for the Seattle Seahawks, following Pete Carroll from USC to Seattle in 2010. He started as their assistant defensive backs coach in 2010 before becoming their cornerbacks coach in 2011 and coaching the entire secondary in 2011. Richard is generally credited with the development of the dreaded “Legion Of Boom”, which was the backbone of Seattle’s championship defense.

He became Seattle’s defensive coordinator in 2015 and was released in 2017 after (reportedly) calling the defense more aggressively than Carroll preferred.

Richard is a proponent of measurable thresholds in secondary prospects, as evidenced by Seattle’s big and athletic secondary, but what attracted the Giants to him was his fiery leadership.

“Leadership” was the top trait listed by the Giants in their coaching search and Richard is widely praised by his players and regarded as a coach for whom players would gladly run through a wall. With the coaching upheaval in Dallas, Richard could be a candidate for the Giants’ defensive coordinator job.

Bret Bielema (New England Patriots)

Bret Bielema would certainly be the most familiar coach for Judge of the major names being bandied about. Bielema joined the Patriots’ staff in 2018 as a consultant to the head coach and was officially hired as their defensive line coach in 2019. Before joining the Patriots he was the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks from 2013 to 2017 and Wisconsin Badgers from 2006 to 2012 (he was Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator in 2004 and 2005).

If Judge wants a familiar voice who also has experience, Bielema could be an option.

Pepper Johnson (XFL)

Giants fans should be familiar with Pepper Johnson, who was drafted by, and spent seven seasons with, the Giants in 1986. Johnson transitioned to coaching after his playing career wrapped up and coached linebackers and defensive line for the Patriots from 2001 through the 2013 season. Since then he has coached for the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets and is currently the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Wildcats in the XFL. Johnson’s name has come up for the Giants’ defensive coordinator job a few times before, perhaps because of his connections to the franchise and Belichick.

Johnson is the least experienced of the “big” names, but he has coached a lot of very good front seven units as a position coach.

Deep Cuts

The Giants went outside the box and off the beaten path with the hiring of a 38-year old special teams coordinator to be their next head coach. Considering the way the last few days have played out around Giants-land, we should probably keep an open mind for the unexpected. It’s possible that rather than looking to established names, Judge cold look to some younger assistants.

Steve Belichick (New England Patriots)

In the same way that we have to consider Bret Bielma as a candidate for defensive coordinator, we should probably consider the younger Belichick. Yes, he might be young for the role, but he has been preparing for a coaching career since walking on to the Rutgers football team to learn the realities of being a player. Steve Belichick has been New Englands’ safeties coach for the last four year, and expanded his duties to the entire secondary in 2019. The secondary has been the backbone of New England’s defense in recent years, and Steve Belichick is seemingly being groomed for a greater role in a similar way that Bill Belichick has groomed numerous other coaches over the years, including Judge.

Chris Hewitt (Baltimore Ravens)

Keeping with the theme of plundering elite pass defenses in the hopes of improving a woeful Giants’ secondary, Chris Hewitt stands out. The Giants interviewed Ravens’ defensive coordinator Don Martindale for their head coaching job, so Baltimore’s defense must have impressed the Giants’ brass. Hewitt has spent seven years on John Harbaugh’s coaching staff, with his first two as an assistant special teams coach before moving to the defensive backfield. 2019 was Hewitt’s third year as Baltimore’s Secondary Coach, and over that time they have never fielded a defense (and pass defense) that was ranked lower than fifth in the NFL.

The Ravens run a multiple defense built on an odd front, similar to what the Giants ran under James Bettcher (and, barring a few slight alignment and nomenclature differences, under Steve Spagnuolo), so Hewitt might be able to begin adapting a scheme to fit the Giants’ players quickly.

Chris Kiffin (San Francisco 49ers)

Brother to Lane Kiffin and son to Monte Kiffin, Chris Kiffin has been around coaching his entire life. He has spent the last two years as San Francisco’s pass rush specialist, and over that span San Francisco has improved from a bottom-five pass rush to boasting the league’s second-best pass rush.

The Giants need to improve both ends of their pass defense, and improving on a pass rush which couldn’t create consistent pressure or get to the quarterback when the defense needed to get off the field would be a great place to start.

The College Ranks

Judge’s previous boss, Bill Belichick, has kept his finger on the pulse of the college game and has stayed in close contact with both Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. It’s also worth noting that Judge was very nearly hired by Mississippi State before the Giants acted to hire him. We should probably keep an eye out for candidates from the college ranks. They could bring new ideas, experience working with quickly getting young players up to speed, and prepared every week for the concepts being adopted by NFL offenses league-wide.

Brian Baker (Alabama)

Everywhere Brian Baker has gone, great defensive lines have soon followed. Baker has spent 2019 as Alabama’s Associate Head Coach and Defensive Line Coach, and was Mississippi State’s defensive line coach from 2016 to 2018.

Before going to Mississippi State, Baker spent 19 years coaching defense (largely defensive line, but he has coached other positions as well) in the NFL, coaching for the Los Angeles Chargers, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Rams, Carolina Panther, Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, and Washington Redskins during that time.

Baker is not only experienced at the NFL level, he has a connection with Mississippi State and experience coaching against a wide variety of offenses.

Glenn Schumann (Georgia)

Schumann and Judge should be familiar with each other — they were both on Alabama’s coaching staff at the same time. Where Judge was hired by the Patriots, Schumann became Alabama’s director of player personnel development and associate director of player personnel.

Schumann was hired by Kirby Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator before becoming Georgia’s head coach, in 2015. At Georgia Schumann was named the Co-Defensive Coordinator and inside linebackers coach. Not only has Schumann produced several top linebacker prospects, but he would already be familiar with several of the Giants’ defenders (notably, Dalvin Tomlinson, Lorenzo Carter, and DeAndre Baker). He would also be familiar with the scheme the Giants’ defense was assembled to run, as James Bettcher’s scheme is very similar to the one run by Kirby Smart at Alabama and Georgia.