NFL coordinator grades: Assessing the hires from across the league during 2023 coaching cycle

In this NFL coaching cycle, there have been more than a dozen coordinator hirings so far, with several more soon to come.

Aside from head coaches, these are the most important assistants across the 32 organizations, many of whom dictate the offensive, defensive and special teams philosophies their teams will run. In many cases, their schemes can influence the acquisition of personnel in free agency, trades and the NFL draft. And while coordinators can adapt to their new teams and players, we can assess the quality of the new hires based on their track records at previous stops.

After the first six hires were made, not a single coach of color was among the new coordinators. In the second wave, more progress has been made in that arena, with four coordinators of color being hired.

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Kellen Moore has been the Cowboys' offensive coordinator for the previous three seasons.
Kellen Moore has been the Cowboys' offensive coordinator for the previous three seasons.

Here's a rundown of all the new coordinator hires and a grade for each.

Ryan Nielsen (Atlanta Falcons)

This fit does make sense to a certain degree. Nielsen's expertise is on the defensive line, where he was an assistant in New Orleans for five seasons before he became co-defensive coordinator last year. In the past four seasons, the Falcons have ranked last (3.74%), last (3.12%), 26th (4.64%) and 29th (5.22%) in sacks per pass attempt. The directive is clear: fix the pass rush.

Since he joined the Saints staff in 2017, New Orleans recorded 282 sacks, second-most in the NFL in that span. Nielsen, 43, is still somewhat of an unknown commodity. This will be the first time he calls plays, and it's safe to assume there will be a learning curve. He's a relatively young coach with tons of potential. This grade may seem low, but if he's as good as his previous bosses made him out to be, he could wind up as one of the better hires of this cycle.

Grade: C+

Ejiro Evero (Carolina Panthers)

While the Panthers should be faulted for overlooking a capable head coaching candidate who was in house in Steve Wilks, they landed a rising star in Evero, who had several head coaching interviews. Though he has only been a coordinator for one season, last year in Denver, Evero comes from the Vic Fangio coaching tree, though he aggressively mixes in more blitzes.

Carolina should be thrilled for several reasons. But the work Evero did with Broncos cornerback Patrick Surtain II should serve as a preview for what Evero can do with Panthers corner Jaycee Horn. Adding in edge rusher Brian Burns, linebacker Shaq Thompson and versatile safety Jeremy Chin, and Evero will have plenty of athleticism to work with. The first goal will be to shore up the other safety spot and to solve Carolina's lack of turnover production, after it tied for 27th with only 17 takeaways in 2022.

Grade: A-

Jim Schwartz (Cleveland Browns)

This move presents a clear upgrade over Joe Woods, whose teams were often gashed early in games and struggled against the rush. In particular, Cleveland's defensive line should be thrilled, no one more than defensive end Myles Garrett. Schwartz loves putting his most athletic pass rusher out wide to allow his speed to disrupt offenses and stack sacks.

Schwartz has loads of experience and his impact on the Titans the last two seasons was instantly palpable. In 2020, Tennessee ranked last in third-down efficiency (51.87%) and sacks per pass attempt (3.02%) and 28th in total defense (398.3 yards per game). The next season, the Titans ranked sixth in third-down efficiency (36.67%), 13th in sacks per pass attempt (6.85%) and 12th in total defense (329.8).

Grade: B

Brian Schottenheimer (Dallas Cowboys)

Coach Mike McCarthy essentially put his job on the line by deciding to move on from Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator and taking over the offense. McCarthy will be the one to call plays, so this will be his show, fully. Still, Schottenheimer is a coordinator whose offenses have lacked consistency and creativity. It wasn't until his most recent stint as a coordinator, in Seattle from 2018-20, that production crept into the top third of the league rankings.

Schottenheimer favors zone rushes inside the tackles and play-action passes. While his play calling often became predictable, he won't carry that responsibility, allowing him to focus on building the week-to-week script of McCarthy's offense. Still, the Cowboys could stand to take more risks and embrace more contemporary offensive philosophies. Schottenheimer spent 2022 as a consultant for the Cowboys, but his schemes are outdated and, with his hiring, Dallas downgraded from Kellen Moore.

Grade: D-

Kellen Moore (Los Angeles Chargers)

L.A. unquestionably improved from previous offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who often hamstrung star quarterback Justin Herbert with a short passing game. That happened despite Herbert's excellent arm strength and accuracy on strikes down the field and the talent the Chargers had at receiver last season.

In his four seasons as the offensive coordinator of the Cowboys, Moore oversaw the unit reach peak efficiency at times, though Dallas' offenses did occasionally sputter when some key players went down with injuries. Still, Moore relied heavily on play action and rollout passes and — given Herbert's ability to fire passes with velocity while on the move — this should be an excellent pairing for the 24-year-old passer coming off a career low in touchdown passes (25). The speed with which L.A. hired Moore after he became available indicates exactly how valuable the Chargers felt he would be on the open market.

Grade: A

Mike LaFleur (Los Angeles Rams)

As a rookie play caller when he took over the Jets' offense in 2021, LaFleur's stint was uneven and often predictable. The Jets, though, had an erratic quarterback in Zach Wilson, and LaFleur's work with backup-turned-eventual-starter Mike White showed promise of what could've been with more stability at the position. Still, the Jets offense stagnated late in the season, when a playoff berth was still within grasp.

This is a low-risk move for Los Angeles because this is head coach Sean McVay's offense, which — if you go back far enough — is a variation of current 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan's offense. McVay calls the plays and almost certainly won't cede that responsibility to LaFleur. But prior to his arrival in New York, LaFleur had spent seven consecutive seasons serving different offensive roles under Shanahan. This is about getting another like-minded coach in the building to enhance and refine what already works in the offense.

Grade: B-

Vic Fangio (Miami Dolphins)

It took longer than anticipated, but the Dolphins pulled off a coup and landed the defensive coordinator who was most in demand. Fangio is currently working as a consultant for the Eagles, who are about to face the Chiefs in Super Bowl 57, but his imprint is all over the league.

He may not have had success as a head coach in Denver, but he is a proven commodity as a coordinator. What makes his hiring even more appealing is that his staple defense — which uses two deep safeties to prevent downfield passing plays — has been copied across the league as a template to slow the explosive passing offenses (think Kansas City, Buffalo, Cincinnati) that we have seen in recent seasons. Essentially, Fangio's scheme assures that the back line won't get beat deep, forcing quarterbacks to slow their processes, eventually relying on short passes. In the modern NFL, his defense has staying power.

Grade: A

Brian Flores (Minnesota Vikings)

If his track record at previous stops is any indication, Flores will ask Vikings corners to press opposing receivers in man coverage, while presenting confusing pressure packages to disguise where blitzes are coming from. But do expect Minnesota to blitz.

The idea is that, if a quarterback needs to take split seconds to diagnose where the pressure will be coming from, he will be forced to process quickly and is more susceptible to mistakes. Then, the tight coverage on the outside should allow for more turnovers. The Vikings did actually do well there, tying for eighth in the NFL with 25, but Minnesota yielded far too many explosive plays in the passing game, ranking 31st in passing yards allowed per game (265.6). Flores despite his often blunt and unrestrained demeanor, frankly, should be a head coach. The Vikings got a steal.

Grade: A

Bill O'Brien (New England Patriots)

This is a total familiarity play, as O'Brien returns to New England, where he coached five seasons from 2007-11. He started out as an offensive assistant, working his way up to receivers coach (2008) then quarterbacks coach (2009-10) and finally culminating as offensive coordinator in 2011. This time, O'Brien won't have a 22-year-old Rob Gronkowski or Wes Welker or — most importantly — a 34-year-old Tom Brady.

Still, the Patriots were in disarray last season because they lacked identity. That wasn't a surprise, considering the offense was a collaborative effort between Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. Bringing O'Brien back makes sense. New England needs to give stability to quarterback Mac Jones, who will enter his third season and will have worked with four different offensive or co-offensive coordinators in that span. O'Brien won't revolutionize the scheme; he'll rely on foundational philosophies. As for Jones, who basically had to beg to be "coached harder," he shouldn't have that same issue with O'Brien.

Grade: B+

Joe Woods (New Orleans Saints)

Head coach Dennis Allen will still be running the defense in New Orleans, so Woods' hiring represents a move to add another familiar face in the building. Allen and Woods worked together back in 2014, when Allen was the head coach of the Raiders and Woods was defensive backs coach. That year, Allen was fired after Week 4.

Since then, Woods has been the coordinator at Denver and Cleveland, but his defenses had the unfortunate trademark of starting seasons slow. While the Browns did improve this past season starting with a Week 12 overtime victory against the Buccaneers, that progress was felt most in the secondary. Cleveland's rushing defense, however, ranked 25th, allowing 135 yards per game. With the Saints, Woods will likely be asked to focus on the secondary. That's what suits him best.

Grade: C-

Nathaniel Hackett (New York Jets)

As a rookie head coach, he was a disaster. Still, Hackett has plenty of experience, having served as an offensive coordinator for seven-and-a-half seasons. While he’s a favorite of Aaron Rodgers', Russell Wilson’s struggles in Denver spell serious concern for whoever is under center in New York.

Hackett's best string with a passing offense was with the Packers. In 2020, Green Bay led the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (48:5), and they ranked ninth and eighth in passing yards in 2020 and 2021, respectively. The issue? Packers coach Matt LaFleur called plays. While in Jacksonville in 2017, the Jaguars led the league in rushing with 140 yards per game, but Hackett has had mixed results since then on the ground. New York lacks stability at quarterback and has a coaching staff that doesn't have a ton of job security; the Jets likely weren't ever going to be a destination for top candidates.

Grade: D+

Steve Wilks (San Francisco 49ers)

No other coordinator is walking into a better situation than Wilks, who inherits the NFL's top defense. Frankly, Wilks won't have to do as much as others on this list, but what he will bring is aggressive, blitz-heavy tendencies to hurry the opposing quarterback's process. Still, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan indicated that he doesn't want the defensive scheme to be altered too much, so expect the Niners to continue to line their defensive linemen stretched out, highlighting their speed and athleticism.

The previous two coordinators to hold this job, Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans, went on to head coaching jobs. The grade here reflects some of San Francisco's previous success in developing assistants, but Wilks has plenty of experience and shined this season as Carolina's interim coach, only underscoring that this is a home run.

Grade: A-

Tim Kelly (Tennessee Titans)

For the third time in five seasons, the Titans are switching offensive coordinators. And also for the third time in five seasons, Tennessee opted to fill the role with someone who was already on staff. Kelly was the passing game coordinator on the 2022 Titans squad that ranked 30th in passing offense (171.4 yards per game).

To be fair, Tennessee's offensive personnel, especially on the offensive line, needs some overhauling. And the Titans need more depth at receiver and they're counting on Treylon Burks to take a big step. Kelly represents a move toward continuity, and familiarity; both he and coach Mike Vrabel worked as assistants from 2014-17. Kelly's time in Houston, however, was uneven. Promoting Kelly was a predictable move and it puts a lot of pressure on Vrabel, with his assertion that the offense needs tweaking and not transformation.

Grade: C-


Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL coaching news: Grading all coordinator hires across league