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    Ranking NFL Defensive Minds: Steve Spagnuolo, Mike Macdonald, Jim Schwartz, Brian Flores Among NFL’s Top Play-Callers

    Who is the NFL's best defensive play-caller? Steve Spagnuolo, Mike Macdonald, and Jim Schwartz can make a case.

    NFL defenses have never been more forward-thinking than in 2024. While the league is still driven by offense, defensive coordinators have started dictating the action rather than waiting to react. That means deciding when to send extra pass rushers, determining how to disguise coverages pre- and post-snap, and planning for potential roster contingencies.

    Who are the best play-callers in the NFL? Let’s rank every DC in the league.

    Ranking the NFL’s Defensive Play-Callers

    1) Steve Spagnuolo, Kansas City Chiefs

    Patrick Mahomes is the best football player on Earth, but the Chiefs wouldn’t have won their third Super Bowl in five tries without Spagnuolo coaching the club’s defense.

    MORE: How Chiefs Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo Went From Unsung Hero to Super Bowl-Winning Mastermind

    Never afraid to dial up pressure with exotic blitzes, Spags built a unit around star DT Chris Jones while integrating a hoard of young defensive backs. He wants to be a head coach again and has more than earned another shot.

    2) Mike Macdonald, Seattle Seahawks

    Macdonald’s Ravens defense ranked first in points per game, points per drive, yards per play, DVOA, and sacks despite battling injuries to key contributors. Known as a detail-oriented coach, Macdonald will now try to get the most out of Seahawks like CBs Devon Witherspoon and Riq Woolen and pass rushers Dre’Mont Jones and Uchenna Nwosu.

    3) Jim Schwartz, Cleveland Browns

    Although the Browns ranked first in defensive efficiency and success rate by a relatively wide margin, Schwartz did not receive a single interview request from the eight teams searching for a head coach this offseason. That might change after Schwartz won the NFL’s Coordinator of the Year award, but Cleveland is happy to have him back.

    4) Vic Fangio, Philadelphia Eagles

    After reportedly failing to connect with his players as the Miami Dolphins’ DC in 2023, Fangio departed for the Eagles this offseason, taking the job many believed he wanted last year. Interpersonal issues aside, Fangio remains the most influential defensive mind in the game. But he’ll have less talent to work with in Philadelphia than in Miami.

    5) Ejiro Evero, Carolina Panthers

    Evero outlasted his head coach in each of the last two seasons with the Denver Broncos and Panthers. He interviewed for HC positions this year, while Carolina blocked him from discussing lateral DC moves with other clubs. Evero is among the most in-demand coaches in the NFL and seems likely to take a step up in 2025.

    6) DeMeco Ryans, Houston Texans

    Ryans took on play-calling duties in his first season as a head coach, and the results were impressive. Houston finished in the top half of the NFL in most defensive metrics, while Will Anderson Jr., Jonathan Greenard, Christian Harris, Derek Stingley Jr., and Jalen Pitre all look like long-term building blocks.

    7) Aaron Glenn, Detroit Lions

    While Detroit’s defense regressed after its early season dominance, the unit played with an attitude that spoke well of Glenn’s coaching. An anonymous 2023 NFLPA survey showed that Glenn received the highest average rating from his players among NFL DCs. He interviewed for four head coaching roles this offseason and should be in the mix again in 2025.

    8) Brian Flores, Minnesota Vikings

    Handed a Vikings defensive portfolio lacking much high-end talent, Flores took a unique schematic approach in 2023. Minnesota blitzed more than any team in the league but also dropped eight into coverage at the NFL’s highest rate, per TruMedia. Defensive creativity has always been Flores’ hallmark.

    9) Lou Anarumo, Cincinnati Bengals

    A head coaching candidate after the 2022 season, Anarumo couldn’t keep the Bengals’ defense afloat in 2023. Cincinnati gave up more yards per play (6.0) than any team in the league while consistently allowing explosive gains. Growing pains were expected in a young Bengals secondary, but Anarumo is still considered one of the NFL’s top game planners.

    10) Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    The blitz and stunt king, Bowles used each tool at a top-five rate in 2023. Blessed with a veteran-laded defense last season, Bowles might have to try different approaches if he loses veterans like free agent LB Lavonte David or CB Carlton Davis, a potential cap casualty.

    11) Jeff Ulbrich, New York Jets

    Since 2022, the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers are the only teams to post more efficient defenses by cumulative EPA per play than the Jets. Ulbrich has called Gang Green’s defensive plays while mixing in first-round picks like Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson II with free-agent additions such as D.J. Reed and Quincy Williams to craft a dominant unit

    12) Dennis Allen, New Orleans Saints

    Although Allen hasn’t succeeded as an NFL head coach, he’s still an excellent defensive mind. His Saints units have typically been effective, and that performance landed him New Orleans’ top job when Sean Payton retired. The Saints’ front office mismanagement has forced Allen to work with a depleted roster.

    13) Ryan Nielsen, Jacksonville Jaguars

    As Atlanta’s DC in 2023, Nielsen worked with veterans like Jessie Bates III and Calais Campbell while getting the most out of unheralded young players like LB Nate Landman.

    MORE: NFL 2024 Salary Cap Boom Could Cause Key Shift in Offseason Strategies

    He’ll arguably have more talent with the Jaguars, at least up front, where Josh Allen and Travon Walker rush from the edge. Can Nielsen help resurrect former first-round LB Devin Lloyd’s career?

    14) Patrick Graham, Las Vegas Raiders

    Graham survived Josh McDaniels’ midseason firing; in fact, he did more than survive. The Raiders defense, ranked 26th in efficiency before McDaniels was canned, was second in EPA per play after he was let go in Week 8. Graham has taken five HC interviews over the past three hiring cycles.

    15) Matt Eberflus, Chicago Bears

    Eberflus’ Bears defense showed significant improvement down the stretch, allowing more than 20 points just once after Week 10. Dominant against the run all year long, Chicago got more pass-rush help after acquiring Montez Sweat at the trade deadline. Give Eberflus another edge defender, and the Bears’ defense could be elite in 2024.

    16) Mike Zimmer, Dallas Cowboys

    After spending the past two seasons as a collegiate consultant, Zimmer is back in the NFL. Replacing Dan Quinn is a tall task, but Zimmer has already suggested he won’t try to “reinvent the wheel” for an already excellent Cowboys defense. Getting better defensive tackle and linebacker production is the first item on his Dallas agenda.

    17) Teryl Austin, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Given Mike Tomlin’s defensive presence, Austin may never get much credit in Pittsburgh. But in recent seasons, he’s done a solid job working through injuries to star contributors like T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

    MORE: 2024 NFL Top 100 Free Agent Rankings

    Second-round cornerback Joey Porter Jr. immediately looked like an NFL starter in his pro debut and didn’t struggle with typical rookie DB hiccups.

    18) Gus Bradley, Indianapolis Colts

    The Colts know what they’re getting with Bradley — a zone-based defense that will allow underneath completions but limit explosive plays. Indy ranked fifth in sacks (60) in 2023 despite finishing in the league’s bottom half in pressure and QB knockdown rate. Bradley’s unit might have trouble getting that lucky again next year.

    19) Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos

    It’s hard to forget the Broncos giving up 70 points to the Miami Dolphins in a Week 3 destruction, but Joseph’s unit improved after that embarrassing defeat. From Week 4 on, Denver finished 11th in defensive efficiency, suggesting it could continue that performance into next season.

    20) Nick Rallis, Arizona Cardinals

    Just 30 years old, Rallis quickly settled into an identity in his first season as an NFL DC, deploying quarters coverage at a league-high 30.5% rate, per TruMedia. Aside from safety, the Cardinals didn’t have enough defensive talent at any position to give Rallis a genuine chance at success. That could change after Arizona spends its six top-100 picks in April’s draft.

    21) Shane Bowen, New York Giants

    The fact that Bowen is listed last is a testament to how many excellent DCs are employed around the NFL. Bowen deployed interesting fronts and successfully stopped the run as the Titans’ defensive coordinator, especially early in his tenure. The Giants already have Dexter Lawrence and Kayvon Thibodeaux in their front seven and could add more pieces in free agency or the draft.

    First-Year Defensive Play-Callers

    Eleven NFL coaches will take on defensive play-calling duties for the first time in 2023. With little to judge them on, we’ll list this group alphabetically.

    Bobby Babich, Buffalo Bills

    Babich received DC interview requests from three other teams before the Bills promoted him from LB coach. Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott called defensive plays last season, but the 40-year-old Babich will now have a chance to make his mark.

    DeMarcus Covington, New England Patriots

    While the Patriots’ defensive scheme might look similar under first-year HC Jerod Mayo, the coaching staff will feature new faces. Bill Belichick is obviously gone, while his play-calling son, Steve Belichick, took a DC gig at the University of Washington. Mayo will have a heavy hand in New England’s defensive scheme, but Covington is leading the charge.

    Jeff Hafley, Green Bay Packers

    Hafley seemed beyond thrilled to leave the duties of collegiate head coaching behind and join the Packers as their DC this offseason. A former NFL defensive backs coach, Hafley figures to play far more press-man coverage than former Green Bay coordinator Joe Barry, who often relied on more zone-based schemes.

    Jimmy Lake, Atlanta Falcons

    Lake’s short tenure as the University of Washington’s HC ended in 2021 when he shoved one of his players during an in-game brawl. He spent the 2023 campaign with the Los Angeles Rams, working with now-Falcons head coach Raheem Morris. While Morris called defensive plays in L.A., Lake will handle the responsibilities in Atlanta.

    Jesse Minter, Los Angeles Chargers

    Michigan’s defense was utterly dominant under Minter in 2023, giving up just 10.4 points per game, the fewest any Big Ten team allowed in nearly 30 years.

    KEEP READING: New Chargers DC Hints He Won’t Coach Two All-Pro Defenders in 2024: ‘Above My Pay Grade’

    Unsurprisingly, Jim Harbaugh is getting the band back together, and Minter was considered one of the college rank’s best defensive play-callers. The level of talent Minter has to work with after Los Angeles makes cap cuts remains to be seen.

    Zach Orr, Baltimore Ravens

    Orr has big shoes to fill after taking over for Macdonald, but the Ravens wouldn’t have promoted a 31-year-old to DC if they didn’t believe he was ready for the role. A former undrafted free agent, Orr was still playing for Baltimore as recently as 2016 (before a neck/spine condition ended his on-field career).

    Chris Shula, Los Angeles Rams

    The grandson of NFL legend Dave Shula, Chris Shula will try to replace Raheem Morris, who took over as the Falcons’ head coach this offseason. A collegiate teammate of Sean McVay, Shula worked his way up the Rams’ ranks after joining the organization in 2017, coaching L.A.’s linebacker and defensive back groups.

    Anthony Weaver, Miami Dolphins

    The Dolphins conducted a thorough DC search after parting ways with Vic Fangio and ultimately landed on Weaver, who’d been working as the Ravens’ associate head coach/DL. Weaver generated head coaching interest this offseason, interviewing with the Falcons and Washington Commanders.

    Joe Whitt Jr., Washington Commanders

    Long viewed as a future DC, Whitt will get his chance in Washington, where he’ll call plays instead of new head coach Dan Quinn. Whitt spent the last three seasons working with Quinn in Dallas, developing a robust Cowboys secondary that included Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland. He’ll have to start from the ground up with the Commanders, who allowed the NFL’s most points in 2023.

    Dennard Wilson, Tennessee Titans

    Wilson arguably should have been a coordinator after the 2022 campaign, when he guided the Eagles’ defensive back room to an outstanding performance. Eschewed for Philadelphia’s DC job, Wilson spent last season coaching up anonymous Ravens corners to high-end seasons. He could be a head coach by 2025 if the Titans’ defense is up to par this year.

    Vacant, San Francisco 49ers

    The 49ers surprisingly fired Steve Wilks after one season at the helm, moving on from the former head coach after their Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. San Francisco has yet to interview any external candidates, suggesting Kyle Shanahan could promote from within.

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