For the first time in three years, Black Monday has struck Cleveland as the Browns have fired defensive coordinator Joe Woods, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
The 2022 season was a frustrating one for the Brown and Orange’s defensive side, finishing in the bottom quarter of the league in rushing yardage, and in the bottom half of the league in scoring defense. Additionally, the season was mired by miscommunications, regression, and a general lack of effort on the defensive end. Players looked out of place, the scheme seemed unwilling to adapt, and the unit disappeared in the clutch.
Whoever the Browns hire next has a tall task of returning this unit to the top of the league. With head coach Kevin Stefanski focusing on the offense, the new DC should have free reign on implementing their vision. Additionally, they will have some premier players, including Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. Young stars-in-the-making like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Greg Newsome II, and Martin Emerson Jr. will be even more appealing to candidates.
So, here’s five potential replacements for Joe Woods as the Browns’ defensive coordinator.
1. Mike Zimmer – Jackson State Consultant
If the Browns want to look for an experienced candidate, Mike Zimmer certainly fits the bill. Zimmer has had a successful NFL career, heading the Minnesota Vikings from 2014 to 2021. Before that, he orchestrated some of the top defenses in the NFL. He also has AFC North experience after working as the Bengals defensive coordinator under Marvin Lewis from 2008 to 2013 during the Bengals’ playoff stretches. Five times, Zimmer-led defenses have finished top-10 in the NFL in scoring alongside six seasons within the top-10 in yards allowed.
One potential problem, however, is Zimmer’s scheme. Joe Woods runs a 4-2-5, meaning four down linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. Zimmer, on the other hand, runs a 3-4 scheme. This would cover up the lack of interior defensive line standouts, but would present more issues up front. Will Myles Garrett be as successful as a down lineman, or will he move to a standup backer position a la Von Miller? The linebacking room is another concern, as there would be four instead of two backers on the field at a time. With Deion Jones in the fold and Sione Takitaki looking like a solid off-ball backer, two of those spots are filled. But, will Andrew Berry and company take the position seriously? Organizational guardrails say no, which could put the team at odds with Zimmer.
But, Zimmer and Stefanski have history. Stefanski served on Zimmer’s offensive staff in Minnesota until getting the Browns head coaching job in 2020. Plus, Zimmer runs the aggressive, blitz-heavy defense that the Browns seem to favor. It’s not a perfect marriage, but, with Zimmer not heading to Colorado with Coach Prime, he’s on the market and could be coaxed into one last ride by an old assistant.
2. Jerod Mayo – New England Patriots Linebackers Coach
If the Browns decide to go for an up-and-coming candidate, as they did with Woods, Stefanski, and is a major guide for their roster construction, they can look to a former Cleveland head coach’s tree for a star candidate. Jerod Mayo, an eight-year NFL veteran, has quickly risen up the coaching ranks since his retirement from playing in 2015. Since 2019, he has been the linebackers coach and defensive playcaller for New England’s defense, regardless of what Bill Belichick will or will not say. In that time, the Patriots have boasted a top-10 defense each year except 2022, where they finished 11th. Mayo’s first season had the Pats claim the NFL’s defensive crown, finishing first in scoring and total defense.
On paper, Mayo seems like a great fit for Cleveland and the AFC North. He has talked about placing athletes at all positions – something the Browns have worked to do. Additionally, Mayo talks about bringing toughness to the field and winning battles at the line of scrimmage, which perfectly fits the AFC North grinding style.
There are some downsides to Mayo, however. The first is that, like Zimmer, he runs a 3-4 defense. Second is his proclivity for New England. Mayo has gotten some head coaching buzz, and interviewed for a few jobs last cycle before staying put in New England. In an interview with the Boston Herald, Mayo said that it would have to take a “great, great opportunity” for him to leave New England for anything other than a head coaching position. In that same interview, he went on to say “my goal is to be a head coach.” While Cleveland can’t provide him that role, the team and chance to prove his worth outside of Belichick’s gaze might be enough to push an offer over the top and pry the former linebacker away from the Patriots.
3. Jim Leonhard – Former University of Wisconsin Interim Head Coach
That’s right, Cleveland Browns legend, the Fair Catch God himself, Jim Leonhard. Browns fans with a steel trap of a memory like me may remember Jim Leonhard from his 2014 stint in Cleveland as a player, where played 16 games, tallying 43 tackles, a sack, and two interceptions. Most notably, he served as the “designated fair catch-er” when Travis Benjamin and Jordan Poyer (remember them?) struggled to catch the ball.
Now, Leonhard has been working hard as the heir-apparent in Madison until, well, he wasn’t. The Badger-alum served as the defensive coordinator under his former coach, Paul Chryst, for six seasons. With Chyrst shown the door earlier this season, Leonhard got the chance to lead the program. He did a good job, but not as good as the athletic department thought shiny new head coach Luke Fickell can do.
At Madison, Leonhard became known as one of college football’s premier defensive coordinators. He runs an aggressive 3-4 scheme that borrows from his former NFL head coach, Rex Ryan’s scheme. This includes an innovative 2-4-5 front that Leonhard runs against pass heavy teams to great effect. His teams have been adept at disguising coverages, albeit against college quarterbacks, and have performed well in one of the NCAA’s top conferences: the Big 10. In fact, since Leonhard took over as defensive coordinator in 2016, Wisconsin ranks in the top-five nationally in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense, opponent completion percentage, and opponent third down conversion percentage.
With Fickell now bringing in his own staff, Leonhard is on the market. He’s had NFL defensive coordinator buzz before, turning down a DC offer from the Green Bay Packers a year ago. Now is the perfect time for him to make the jump to the pro level.
4. George Edwards – Dallas Cowboys Senior Defensive Assistant
While the previous names were recognizable, George Edwards is one that most people don’t know. Well, most people except Kevin Stefanski. Edwards and Stefanski got to know each other well in Minnesota, where Edwards was the defensive coordinator for six seasons from 2014 to 2019. Since that stint in Minnesota, which we already discussed under Zimmer, Edwards has worked under Dan Quinn in Dallas.
Edwards, like our other candidates, prefers a 3-4 scheme, but his work in Dallas is focused on “linebackers and sub-package defenses.” These sub-package defenses are often used in passing situations, where the team breaks from their base defense, a 3-4 in this case, and puts more defensive backs on the field. For example, a nickel defense would look like a 3-3-5, while a dime would bring on another defensive back in exchange for either a linebacker or defensive lineman. With Edwards’s focus on this growing part of the game, we can assume he’d run a lot more sub-packages than other candidates. Sub-packages fit the Browns’ current talent the most, with more emphasis on defensive backs until the front seven can be sorted out.
One main concern with Edwards, however, is that he isn’t a defensive playcaller. Even in Minnesota, Zimmer handled the playcalling duties. In Dallas, it’s on Quinn. Stefanski and the rest of the organization have to be comfortable that Edwards has the skills to call defensive plays, even though he hasn’t yet. This could bring a learning curve that the Browns don’t want to get into, but prior relationships are something to consider when looking at NFL hiring processes.
5. Kris Richard – New Orleans Saints Co-Defensive Coordinator, Defensive Backs Coach
Richard was a hot name on the head coaching market a few years ago, and earned a co-defensive coordinator promotion last season when Dennis Allen took over the New Orleans Saints. For a team with the secondary being their deepest position, hiring a former defensive back and current defensive backs coach makes too much sense. It also helps that Richard has defensive coordinator experience with the Seattle Seahawks from 2015 to 2017. Richard was also the defensive backs coach during the Legion of Boom’s heyday.
He’s done great work in New Orleans already, creating one of the best ball-hawking secondaries in the league with standouts like Marshon Lattimore, Paulson Adebo, and former Saint C.J. Gardner-Johnson terrorizing opposing offenses. With Ward already a star and young corners Newsome and Emerson looking to take the next step, it makes sense that the Browns might look Richard’s way.
One major perk, though, is the lack of personnel changes required with a Richard hire. In Seattle, he mainly ran a 4-3 scheme, similar to Woods’s 4-2-5. The team doesn’t have to make drastic changes on the defensive side of the ball, and can continue to address their needs in the front seven. In his three years as defensive coordinator in Seattle, the Seahawks posted top-five defenses twice, with his final year slipping just outside the top-10 in both scoring and total defense.
Bonus: Vance Joseph – Arizona Cardinals Defensive Coordinator
We’re going to end on a bonus round, since Joseph may or may not be on the market. After a disappointing season in the desert, the Cardinals may make a huge shakeup by firing head coach Kliff Kingsbury. However, Joseph has been reported by Albert Breer to be the favorite to succeed Kingsbury in Phoenix.
If Joseph does hit the market, and doesn’t land a head coaching job, Cleveland could be just the spot. The former Broncos head coach (and subject of the iconic Sergio Dipp clip) runs an aggressive blitzing, press coverage defense that could translate well to the Browns’ defense. He does run a 3-4, but changes on the defensive side are assumed after firing the defensive coordinator.
Again, we don’t know if Joseph will be available, but if he is, I would expect him to be the subject of many a look from the Browns.
Regardless of who we prefer, the Browns will make their decision, and interviews should start soon. To stay up-to-date on the Browns’ defensive coordinator search and all offseason news, stay tuned in to The Dawgs Table at dawgstable.com, or on Twitter and Instagram at @DawgsTable.