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Ranking the defensive play-callers for every NFL team

As many as 10 teams may enter Week 1 with a new defensive play-caller, and the new leaders are days away from working in their new roles in full practice sessions. Here is how teams' defensive bosses stack up. 

 
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First-time play-caller: Josh Boyer, Dolphins defensive coordinator

First-time play-caller: Josh Boyer, Dolphins defensive coordinator
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The Dolphins' defensive play-calling duties remain uncertain, but head coach Brian Flores gave the reins to first-time defensive coordinator Patrick Graham last season. Boyer, who has worked with Flores for the past 14 seasons, seems the best bet to call signals for Miami this year. Boyer coached the Patriots' cornerbacks for seven seasons, and that tenure included Darrelle Revis' final elite slate (2014) and Stephon Gilmore's breakout year (2018). Last year, Boyer coached a skeleton crew Dolphins secondary -- one that did not wilt in a stunning Week 17 road upset in New England. 

 
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First-time play-caller: Phil Snow, Panthers defensive coordinator

First-time play-caller: Phil Snow, Panthers defensive coordinator
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Matt Rhule's defensive coordinator at Temple and Baylor from 2013-19, Snow rose to the NFL ranks with the new Panthers head coach this year. Snow has not coached in the NFL since 2008, when his four-year run as a Lions assistant ended with the team's ignominious 0-16 season. Given the turnover the Panthers have experienced this offseason, Snow does not appear to have much to work with this year. Snow's college defenses have shown promise, however. Two of his Temple units ranked in the top 10 in points allowed, and his 2019 Baylor unit finished 16th, generating promise for the future.

 
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First-time play-caller: Brandon Staley, Rams defensive coordinator

First-time play-caller: Brandon Staley, Rams defensive coordinator
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Replacing defensive coordinator icon Wade Phillips will obviously present a challenge for Staley. The 37-year-old assistant will rise from the Broncos' outside linebackers coach to a coordinator gig. He does, however, continue to land with elite talent. Staley will go from coaching Khalil Mack in 2018 to Von Miller last season to Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey this year. But with Sean McVay entrenched as the Rams' offensive play-caller, Staley will be under the microscope. Prior to his 2017 NFL debut, he was the defensive coordinator at Division III John Carroll.

 
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First-time play-caller: Anthony Weaver, Texans defensive coordinator

First-time play-caller: Anthony Weaver, Texans defensive coordinator
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A former NFL defensive lineman, Weaver will also replace a sideline veteran. The Texans promoted Weaver from D-line coach to defensive coordinator. The last time they replaced Romeo Crennel with a young coach -- Mike Vrabel in 2017 -- their production steeply declined. Weaver, 40, has been an NFL D-line coach since 2012. He oversaw D.J. Reader's contract-year breakout last season but will take over a Texans defense lacking in spots up front (especially if J.J. Watt suffers another injury) and in the secondary.

 
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28. Lou Anarumo, Bengals defensive coordinator

Lou Anarumo, Bengals defensive coordinator
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Last year's Bengals featured the franchise's top two all-time sackers (Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap) and six other starting defenders in at least their fourth seasons. It did not end up mattering much. The Bengals, who did encounter some defensive injuries, ranked 30th in DVOA in a 2-14 season. Previously the Dolphins' interim DC in 2015, Anarumo will have more to work with in 2020. The Bengals deviated from their cautious free agency approach by signing D-linemen D.J. Reader and Mike Daniels and cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander.

 
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27. Patrick Graham, Giants defensive coordinator

Patrick Graham, Giants defensive coordinator
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Graham probably deserves an "incomplete" after being saddled with a gutted Dolphins roster -- and one that worsened due to injuries as the season progressed. But Miami ranked last in DVOA by a mile. Graham, 41, worked with new Giants head coach Joe Judge in New England and oversaw Big Blue's two Jason Pierre-Paul-Olivier Vernon defensive lines as a position coach. But the Giants defensive depth chart he's inheriting -- which features major issues at edge rusher and in coverage -- gives off a familiar fixer-upper vibe. 

 
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26. Vance Joseph, Cardinals defensive coordinator

Vance Joseph, Cardinals defensive coordinator
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Joseph made the unusual climb from one-year defensive coordinator -- for a 2016 Dolphins unit that ranked 29th in yards allowed -- to beating out Kyle Shanahan for the Broncos' head-coaching job. Joseph became the first Broncos coach since the early 1970s to lose 10-plus games in back-to-back years. In charge of the Cardinals' defense last season, Joseph took over a group with issues but one that still employed potential Hall of Famers Chandler Jones and Patrick Peterson. Arizona ranked last in yards yielded. This could be another hot-seat year for the veteran staffer.

 
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25. Mike Vrabel, Titans head coach

Mike Vrabel, Titans head coach
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It is not yet known if Vrabel will take over the Titans' play-calling duties, but previous defensive coordinator Dean Pees -- who retired after last season -- expects him to do so. The Titans did not hire a DC. Vrabel has proven to be an effective head coach in Tennessee, guiding the team to two more 9-7 seasons. But his one season calling plays -- for the 2017 Texans -- resulted in the team dropping from first to 20th in yards allowed. Although Vrabel did not have J.J. Watt for much of 2017, Romeo Crennel led a largely Watt-less 2016 group. Vrabel still has much to prove in this area. 

 
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24. Raheem Morris, Falcons defensive coordinator

Raheem Morris, Falcons defensive coordinator
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When Dan Quinn ceded play-calling responsibilities to Morris and Jeff Ulbrich in November, the Falcons showed noticeable improvement. After a 1-7 start, Atlanta finished 15th in weighted defensive DVOA -- which measures a team's stretch-run performance -- and won road games in New Orleans and San Francisco. Quinn promoted Morris to defensive coordinator this year. Morris' run as Buccaneers head coach did not go well, and he worked as his own DC for two of his three seasons in that role. The 43-year-old assistant has rebuilt his stock since, however, and has an interesting opportunity this year.

 
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23. Paul Guenther, Raiders defensive coordinator

Paul Guenther, Raiders defensive coordinator
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With Jon Gruden tending to the Raiders' offense, Guenther has full command of the defense. He did not have such a role in Cincinnati, with defense-oriented Marvin Lewis running the show. In six years as a defensive coordinator, Guenther has yet to command a top-10 unit. Gruden trading Khalil Mack in Guenther's first months on the job did not help, but under their new DC, the Raiders extended their streak of bottom-half finishes in points allowed to 17 seasons. Guenther's first Las Vegas defense remains without a top-tier pass rusher or cover man.

 
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22. Matt Patricia, Lions head coach

Matt Patricia, Lions head coach
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It is not yet known if Patricia or new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin will call the Lions' signals. But this is Patricia's system, and the pencil enthusiast is entering a make-or-break year. The Lions have been brutal defensively, ranking 28th in defensive DVOA in each of Patricia's two seasons. In 2019, they were 64 yards shy of the franchise's single-season futility mark. The longtime Patriots D-coordinator is on the verge of becoming the latest Bill Belichick assistant to flame out on his own. Patricia's Pats work cannot be brushed aside, but he had a rather sturdy safety net in those seasons.

 
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21. Chuck Pagano, Bears defensive coordinator

Chuck Pagano, Bears defensive coordinator
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Despite Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith and Khalil Mack suffering injuries, Pagano's first Bears defense finished as a top-10 crew. Pagano was not the primary defensive play-caller during his six seasons with the Colts, but they became one of the NFL's worst defenses under his watch. While Pagano has a strong 2011 Ravens season under his belt, a few coordinators stopped through Baltimore and achieved high marks this century. Pagano, 59, has a big task ahead again, with Chicago's quarterback situation still requiring staunch defensive support.

 
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20. Matt Eberflus, Colts defensive coordinator

Matt Eberflus, Colts defensive coordinator
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One of the Colts coaches brought in during the brief Josh McDaniels window, Eberflus has impressed in two years running the team's defense under Frank Reich. Indianapolis rocketed from 27th to 10th in DVOA from 2017-18, doing so without a Pro Bowler (though, breakout linebacker Darius Leonard was an All-Pro). That was a key part of the Colts' surprise return to the playoffs. Injuries hurt last year's defense, but Eberflus now has a front-line anchor in DeForest Buckner. It would not surprise to see the third-year coordinator receive head-coaching interest in 2021.

 
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19. Ken Norton Jr., Seahawks defensive coordinator

Ken Norton Jr., Seahawks defensive coordinator
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Infrastructure helps explain Norton's standing. After three unimpressive years in Oakland, Norton has coordinated consecutive top-10 scoring defenses in Seattle. Last year's iteration somehow finished in the top 10 in both points and yardage despite producing just 28 sacks -- which trailed all non-Dolphin pass rushes. The linebackers coach during Seattle's Super Bowl years, Norton has a steady gig now calling the Hawks' shots under Pete Carroll. Norton's Raiders seasons -- one featuring a 26th-ranked defense despite Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack's presence -- dock him, however.

 
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18. Joe Woods, Browns defensive coordinator

Joe Woods, Browns defensive coordinator
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Woods spent last season as the 49ers' defensive passing-game coordinator, with Richard Sherman returning to prominence on his watch. Woods' previous crack as a play-caller saw the Broncos' defense fall off its lofty perch during a stretch in which they went 11-21. But Denver's units -- in transition from Wade Phillips' intergalactic Super Bowl lineup to a younger array of talent -- ranked in the top 10 in DVOA in each of Woods' two years there, carrying teams that featured bottom-tier QB play. Woods was the secondary coach for Denver's Super Bowl-winning team and brings a proven pass-game pedigree to Cleveland.

 
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17. Mike Pettine, Packers defensive coordinator

Mike Pettine, Packers defensive coordinator
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Pettine served as defensive coordinator for both of Rex Ryan's Jets teams that voyaged to the AFC championship game, but his recent work has paled in comparison. Despite Packers GM Brian Gutekunst allocating tremendous resources to bolstering the defense, Pettine's second Green Bay corps delivered middling work. Its most recent impression -- Raheem Mostert's Terrell Davis impersonation in the NFC title game -- clouded the Packers' 13-3 season. The former Browns head coach has several promising pieces on his current defense, but they need to play better.

 
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16. Mike Nolan, Cowboys defensive coordinator

Mike Nolan, Cowboys defensive coordinator
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Nolan has not been a defensive coordinator since 2014, when he led a mediocre Falcons bunch. But the 61-year-old Cowboys assistant has been a DC since 1993 and has a track record of elevating previously shaky units. The 2008 Broncos ranked 29th in total defense; Nolan's 2009 group finished seventh. His 2010 Dolphins defense made a similar climb. Nolan also ran two top-end Baltimore defenses in the mid-2000s. The Cowboys could be in decent hands, despite Nolan's time away from play-calling. But his time in Atlanta and as San Francisco's head coach gives off a buyer-beware label.

 
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15. Keith Butler, Steelers defensive coordinator

Keith Butler, Steelers defensive coordinator
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This mid-pack ranking seems appropriate for Butler. On one hand, the Steelers have led the NFL in sacks in each of the past three years and ranked third in defensive DVOA last season. Their 2020 unit oozes top-tier potential. But since Butler. has been in this role, the storied defensive franchise has largely been an offense-oriented team that came up short in big defensive spots. Although Ryan Shazier's 2017 injury represented a brutal break, Butler's troops allowing 45 points to a Blake Bortles-led offense doubles as one of the least clutch showings any defense has submitted. 

 
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14. Jack Del Rio, Washington defensive coordinator

Jack Del Rio, Washington defensive coordinator
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In 18 seasons as a defensive coordinator or head coach, Del Rio has led six top-six total defenses. While he is just 3-for-12 in playoff berths as a head coach, Washington is only asking him to handle its defense. In his previous such role, Del Rio led two top-five Broncos defenses. Del Rio's other Denver squad, 2013's less talented corps, managed two strong playoff performances largely without his top two defenders -- Von Miller and Chris Harris -- en route to Super Bowl XLVIII. Del Rio has not coached since 2017, however, and he and Ken Norton Jr.'s Raiders defenses did not impress.

 
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13. Gus Bradley, Chargers defensive coordinator

Gus Bradley, Chargers defensive coordinator
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While Chargers fans are hard to come by presently, Bradley's latest defense should be quite the attraction. Possessing the likes of Joey Bosa, Derwin James and Chris Harris, it should be one of the NFL's best. Bradley has fared well back in a coordinator role, doing so after a historically bad tenure as Jacksonville's head coach, with his L.A. defenses playing fairly well (save for a rough day in New England last January). Bradley was also the D-coordinator for the 2012 Seahawks -- the first of Seattle's four straight No. 1 scoring defenses. His Jags tenure mars a solid resume, however.

 
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12. Don Martindale, Ravens defensive coordinator

Don Martindale, Ravens defensive coordinator
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens have ranked as a top-10 scoring defense a staggering 16 times since 1999; six coordinators were responsible for such performances. Martindale's previous DC try (with the 2010 Broncos) produced a last-place finish, but his two top-five Ravens showings revitalized his career. Last year's Ravens got by after letting C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith walk. And after surrendering 500-plus yards twice in September, Martindale's charges helped key a 14-2 season. Along with offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Martindale may be on the way to a head-coaching chance.

 
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11. Robert Saleh, 49ers defensive coordinator

Robert Saleh, 49ers defensive coordinator
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Saleh's first two 49ers defenses: 26th and 23rd in DVOA. The one with Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and a rejuvenated Richard Sherman: second. But last year's breakout played such a key role in determining the NFC champion, it is impossible to rank Saleh outside the upper echelon. The former Jaguars linebackers coach will again book head-coaching interviews if the 2020 49ers defense produces in the same vicinity as 2019's. And the pieces -- minus DeForest Buckner, which should be key -- are there for San Francisco to thrive again behind its fiery coordinator.

 
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10. Todd Wash, Jaguars defensive coordinator

Todd Wash, Jaguars defensive coordinator
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Jaguars have nearly dismantled the defense that had them on the Super Bowl LII doorstep. Only Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue (unless he's traded) and nose tackle Abry Jones remain. But Wash also guided the 2016 Jags defense -- which did not have Ngakoue, Calais Campbell or A.J. Bouye -- to a sixth-place yardage finish. His 2017 "Sacksonville" consolidation was one of the decade's top defenses, and despite Blake Bortles crashing back to earth in 2018, that group somehow ranked fifth in scoring. But last season began what could be an era-ending decline. This one will reveal plenty about Wash's credentials.

 
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9. Gregg Williams, Jets defensive coordinator

Gregg Williams, Jets defensive coordinator
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Certainly a polarizing coach after being the Bountygate ringleader, Williams has somewhat rebuilt his stock as one of the game's better defensive leaders since his NFL banishment. An overmatched Jets defense carried last season's second-ranked DVOA run defense. That defense ranked seventh in yards allowed as well, despite having little in the way of pass-rushing or cornerback talent. But Williams has coached one top-five scoring defense since 2005, and it was responsible for a 7-9 team's 41-point playoff explosion. The events of this Jets offseason will make Williams' job even harder.

 
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8. Dennis Allen, Saints defensive coordinator

Dennis Allen, Saints defensive coordinator
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An overlooked advantage of teams employing a failed head coach as D-coordinator: continuity. Allen has not been mentioned in head-coaching rumor cycles since the Raiders fired him in 2014, but his second tour of duty with the Saints has changed their outlook. New Orleans went from allowing an NFL-record 45 TD passes in 2015 to sporting a top-11 DVOA defense from 2017-19, opening the door for the Saints' NFC South three-peat. With Sean Payton and OC Pete Carmichael having been in their jobs for over 10 years, Allen gives the Saints rare stability going into a season in which that will be crucial.

 
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7. Todd Bowles, Buccaneers defensive coordinator

Todd Bowles, Buccaneers defensive coordinator
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Bowles vaulted onto the head-coaching radar after assembling multiple high-end Cardinals defenses in the mid-2010s. Although his Jets run failed -- largely because of bad rosters -- the Bucs immediately rebounded under the longtime defensive coach. They made the stunning climb from 32nd to fifth in defensive DVOA from 2018-19, though Jameis Winston's 30 INTs docked Bowles' troops in traditional stats. Shaq Barrett set the Bucs' single-season sack record, and Tampa Bay's investments in the secondary finally began to pay off. The Bucs are in good shape defensively for the first time in years.

 
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6. Steve Spagnuolo, Chiefs defensive coordinator

Steve Spagnuolo, Chiefs defensive coordinator
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One season can change a reputation. Spagnuolo entered 2019 having coached a 31st- or 32-ranked defense in three of his previous four seasons. But he transformed a Chiefs defense that held Patrick Mahomes back in 2018 into one that allowed him to lift the franchise to its first Super Bowl title in 50 years. The architect of the Giants' 2007 defense that shut down the unbeaten Patriots, Spagnuolo floundered with the Rams, Saints and back with the Giants. But with a remade pass rush and Tyrann Mathieu peaking down the stretch, Spagnuolo's complex scheme was essential to the Chiefs' championship run. 

 
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5. Jim Schwartz, Eagles defensive coordinator

Jim Schwartz, Eagles defensive coordinator
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Menacing against the run for years, Schwartz's Eagles defenses have been hit and miss against aerial attacks in recent seasons. (Though, the 2017 Eagles did present a well-regarded pass defense prior to Super Bowl LII's shootout.) That is partially due to some overmatched cornerback cadres. Darius Slay will help on that front. Schwartz's 4-3 scheme has been a hit in Tennessee, Buffalo and Philly, with both the Eagles and Titans earning No. 1 seeds during Schwartz's stay. His turning the 0-16 Lions into a playoff team in three years deserves more praise as well. 

 
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4. Leslie Frazier, Bills defensive coordinator

Leslie Frazier, Bills defensive coordinator
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Although he's running Sean McDermott's scheme, Frazier has done a masterful job calling plays in Buffalo. The ex-Vikings head coach has not enjoyed the luxury of an elite pass rusher during his three Bills seasons, but he and McDermott have built one of the NFL's most reliable pass defenses anyway. The zone-based scheme has helped turn Tre'Davious White into an All-Pro, and Buffalo's Micah Hyde-Jordan Poyer safety duo spearheaded the defense's back-to-back top-three yardage rankings. Snapping a near-20-year playoff drought, without quarterback stability, further bolsters Frazier's credentials. 

 
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3. Vic Fangio, Broncos head coach

Vic Fangio, Broncos head coach
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It is not yet certain Fangio can jointly run the Broncos' defense and guide them to success as a head coach, but the 30-plus-year NFL coaching vet has long proven to be one of the league's top defensive minds. The 49ers' early-2010s resurgence featured Fangio at the controls of some of the decade's defining defenses, and even in the year before Khalil Mack's Chicago arrival, Fangio had the Bears a top-10 unit without a Pro Bowler. Despite losing Bradley Chubb in September and the Broncos again struggling on offense, Fangio's zone-heavy defensive scheme produced a top-10 ranking. 

 
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2. Mike Zimmer, Vikings head coach

Mike Zimmer, Vikings head coach
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One of the NFL's constants in the late 2010s: a dependable Vikings defense. Zimmer has taken full advantage of his late-career shot to be an NFL head coach, leading the Vikings to the playoffs with three different starting QBs. Making those journeys possible, the Vikes have not ranked outside the top 10 in points allowed since Zimmer's 2014 debut (and even then they were 11th). This season will bring a greater challenge, with the Vikings replacing three cornerbacks and two D-line starters in a pandemic-altered year. But they remain in good hands with Zimmer.

 
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1. Bill Belichick, Patriots head coach

Bill Belichick, Patriots head coach
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Moving past a monstrous gulf between Nos. 2 and 1, we arrive at Belichick. The Patriots may take a step back this year, given their offseason losses, but they should not be down for long. Belichick's defensive mastery gave Tom Brady a safety net none of his peers enjoyed, opening the door for the QB icon to play in nine Super Bowls. The Patriots have rolled out a top-10 scoring defense 16 times since 2001. The ex-Giants DC has coached in 11 of the 54 Super Bowls and won eight. Belichick took back the Pats' play-calling reins last year. Despite losing their top pass rusher (again), the Pats were the runaway defensive DVOA leaders.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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