Bears coaching confidential: John DeFilippo

Bears coaching confidential: John DeFilippo

With the Bears' beginning their head coaching search this week, NBC Sports Chicago Bears Insider JJ Stankevitz and producer Paul Aspan will examine 10 coaching candidates who could be considered by Ryan Pace and team ownership. Yesterday, we looked at New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Today: Another quarterback-driven offensive mind. 

JJ: While Frank Reich holds the title of offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, it was quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo who's received more of the early head coaching buzz. It’s easy to see why: DeFilippo, 39, was instrumental in the growth of Carson Wentz prior to his torn ACL. He’s been an offensive coordinator (albeit, with the Cleveland Browns) and has worked almost exclusively with quarterbacks since getting into the coaching business in 2000. Could he make the leap from position coach to head coach, though?

Paul: I’m OK with that leap because he’s not only been a coordinator before, but the Eagles thought highly enough of him to block him from interviewing for the Jets offensive coordinator job last season. Nothing can stop the Bears from talking to him about their head coaching job this time around, though. In addition to Wentz’ success, DeFilippo also worked with Derek Carr during his rookie season in Oakland. So he’s worked with two rookie quarterbacks -- both of whom are in the discussion as top 10 QBs in the league now. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s the guy I want coaching Mitchell Trubisky in his second season. 

Back to his Oakland days though, I think the connections DeFilippo has from his time there will ultimately be what lands him the head coaching job in Chicago. It’s a little bit of six degrees of separation so just follow me here for a second: 

Dennis Allen was the head coach in Oakland when DeFilippo was the QB coach there. Sure, Allen is back with the Saints as their defensive coordinator now, but he was also a defensive assistant in New Orleans for four seasons (2006-2010) -- including their Super Bowl-winning season of 2010 -- when Ryan Pace was also there. This is Pace’s shot to hire his guy. He made it a point to mention how much of a role these sort of connections may play in this process during his Monday press conference. 

“You only have so much time in an interview,” Pace said. “That’s why I think the research done beforehand is critical. The references -- talking to extensive references, that’s critical to really find out about each one of these guys, what makes them tick.”

Pace’s job is very much on the line now, so he’s going to want to hire a guy he knows the most about. Other than Allen, and Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael -- who we’ll get into later -- Pace may very well be able to get the most intel in this entire process on DeFilippo from his old buddy Allen. 

The odds on the Bears head coaches are out, and I’m pretty bummed out that DeFilippo wasn’t listed. Guys like Mike Shula are listed at 12 to 1 and Todd Haley (yikes!) at 15 to 1. I was ready to jump on DeFilippo as a sneaky longshot at something like 25 to 1. 

JJ: Those odds are bizarre. David Shaw is on there! Take the field. Yeesh. 

All good points in favor of DeFilippo here. The word on the street in Philadelphia is DeFilippo was more important to Wentz’s success than Frank Reich, and his previous coordinator experience (even if was with Cleveland) is a benefit here. The Browns offense wasn’t all that good in 2015 (25th in yards/game, 27th in DVOA, 30th in points per game), but that was with Johnny Manziel playing in 10 games. There wasn’t much DeFilippo could’ve done with that...

But what DeFilippo has done in Philadelphia merits consideration. Was a lot of Wentz’s improvement due to his natural talent? Of course. But cleaning up his footwork was a big part of his Year 1 to Year 2 growth, and that’s an area of Trubisky’s game that needs some refinement.  

Position coaches, though, rarely make the leap to head coaching gigs in the NFL, even if they have prior coordinator experience. The Tennessee Titans hired Mike Mularkey to be their head coach after he completed a year as their tight ends coach...but also was an assistant head coach and previous head coach of the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars.

The most recent example of that pure position coach-to-head coach jump is Jim Tomsula, who the 49ers disastrously promoted from being a defensive line coach after splitting with Jim Harbaugh and passing on Vic Fangio for that gig. 

But consider this: There’s one other coach in the NFL who made the leap from being a quarterbacks coach to being a head coach, and it’s Pace’s former guy from New Orleans: Sean Payton. Yeah, Payton also had the title of assistant head coach with the Dallas Cowboys from 2003-2005, and was the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator from 2000-2002. But if Trubisky is analogous to Drew Brees in this equation, then perhaps DeFilippo could be to Payton, who got his first head coaching job at the age of 42. 

Taking a step back, DeFilippo seems to fit the vision of what Pace wants out of his next head coach. Without explicitly saying on Monday he wants an offensive mind -- “I don’t want to paint ourselves in a corner,” Pace said -- it was apparent that the Bears’ general manager wants a coach to tie to Trubisky.  

“I think he incrementally got better,” Pace said. “You guys saw him. it’s a big jump from college football, and what you saw in training camp and we talked about, starts with breaking an NFL huddle, taking snaps under center, changing things at the line of scrimmage, understanding NFL defenses, blitz packages, coverages. And he just got better every step of the way. One trait he has is he rarely repeats the same mistake twice, starting with he doesn’t turn the ball over, and that’s an attractive trait. 

“I think with his work ethic, his professionalism, the intangibles he has, I’m very confident he’s only going to improve, especially going into the offseason as the guy.”

Could DeFilippo be the guy to help mold “the guy?” He very well could be. 

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.