With the news of longtime NFL defensive coordinator Wade Phillips being available after the Los Angeles Rams announced that they will not be retaining him after three years with the team, he becomes an interesting name to watch for defensive coordinator for the Browns next season. Phillips has plenty of experience as he has been a defensive coordinator or head coach every single year since 1981 with the exception of 2001 and 2014. He’s 83-69 in his career as a head coach and is incredibly well-respected around the league as one of the top-tier assistants in football even winning the AP NFL Assistant Coach of the Year award in 2015 with the Denver Broncos.
Phillips is also used to coaching elite pass rushers with his last three teams featuring JJ Watt, Von Miller and most recently, Aaron Donald coaching them to two Defensive Player of the Year awards, seven First-Team All-Pro awards and 2x they were sack leaders. He also coached NFL legends Reggie White and Myles Garrett’s mentor, Bruce Smith. Phillips has led some of the best defensive units in the league several times. His defense generates great production out of the star players and Myles Garrett would likely be an unstoppable force with Phillips running the defense. The question is, who would be the best fit at head coach that would gladly bring Phillips along?
My personal favorite theory would be to fully trust Paul DePodesta and the analytics department and hire Kevin Stefanski if that happens to be their choice once again. Stefanski is the perfect fit for Baker Mayfield and this Browns offense, but his biggest question mark as a head coach is who he would want to run the defense for his team. Since he is an offensive coordinator for the Vikings, he will likely bring along longtime coach Gary Kubiak as the offensive coordinator to help implement an incredibly productive offense, but he might have some weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball. Matching a young, brilliant offensive mind like Stefanski with two respected, experienced coordinators in Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips, the Browns might finally have a dream coaching staff. Any issues Stefanski might have with experience, the two old-school coordinators who have had success as NFL head coaches would bring it in spades.
If Wade Phillips were to be hired as defensive coordinator, though, the defense would definitely undergo some relatively large changes. First, the base defense would switch from 4-3 to 3-4, which I am not exactly a huge fan of, but Phillips’ defense is extremely unique. While the base resembles a 3-4, he will often substitute the nose guard out for an extra defensive back that makes the defense resemble more of a 4-3 nickel package look with the only difference being that the ends are standing up. That’s good news for DTs Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi because they will not have to be asked to do things out of their comfort zones. Aaron Donald moving to “defensive end” from defensive tackle raised some eyebrows, but he was still attacking from the interior and ended up having his best season with 20.5 sacks in 2018, so there should not be too much cause for concern with the interior guys. Myles Garrett would have to stand up, but it’s reasonable to think he can do basically anything because he’s such a premier talent and Olivier Vernon is capable having played well in one season in a 3-4 registering seven sacks in 11 games in 2018.
The switch to the 3-4 certainly benefits the linebackers a ton because if the Browns let Joe Schobert walk, they will only be left with really Christian Kirksey, Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki. Kirksey plays well in either defensive alignment, but he needs to be healthy enough to play and Mack Wilson certainly fits the mold as Alabama runs a 3-4 and Takitaki played both edge and off-ball linebacker in college, so he definitely has the versatility to make the change as well. As for the defensive backs, the switch doesn’t matter all that much considering that they typically just worry about coverages. The cornerbacks will greatly benefit, though, going back to more man defense under Wade Phillips and the safety position needs to be overhauled anyway, especially if Randall walks in free agency. Prototypically, NFL teams are quite successful having the FS be a rangy ball-hawk playmaker while the SS can play a large role in run support in the box.
The defense would definitely need to be patched up starting with the safety position since it needs the most work and the rest is just filling in the holes where necessary. One hole created by the switch will still be the need for a one technique nose tackle that will just eat blockers and clog the middle in run situations, but these guys like former Browns DT Danny Shelton are relatively easy to find and always seem to be available for cheap. Depth and quality at linebacker still need desperately improved, but the need becomes less glaring with only two off-ball positions in the scheme. Beyond that, the Browns are still starved for depth at the edge and interior DL positions as evidenced by the huge drop off in talent level after the fiat unit we saw when suspensions and injuries mounted.
There are definitely holes on the defense, but once the safety position is patched up and depth is added, the unit could be one the best in the league under Wade Phillips. And if there is any question as to why he would agree to coach here under Stefanski, he just took a job under a young offensive-minded head coach in Sean McVay. Beyond that, I think all it would take to convince him is two words, Myles Garrett. I am sure he would love to work with Garrett and he could unleash him in a variety of ways to push for the Defensive Player of the Year at the heart of the success of one of the best defenses in the NFL.