While having a great head coach is essential, the specialists, assistants, and coordinators often make some of the finer coaching adjustments that differentiate players and teams. Below, in order from top to bottom of the division, is my ranking of how the assistant coaching units stack up.
The departure of last year’s OC Brian Daboll to the Giants hurts the Bills’ coaching staff offensively. However, his replacement, Ken Dorsey, should be able to help Josh Allen and the Bills’ offense quite a bit. He has worked with and overseen the improvement of Josh Allen as Quarterbacks Coach and Passing Game Coordinator for the Bills. However, his role in Buffalo has been his only coaching experience in the NFL, so his lack of experience could be an issue, especially given that head coach Sean McDermott specializes in Defense.
However, on the defensive side, the Bills are in excellent hands with one of the best Defensive Coordinators in the league Leslie Frazier. He has had a wide array of NFL experience, defensively coordinating high-quality units in Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and most recently, this past year’s #1 scoring defense in Buffalo. He will look to build on this success into another great season in 2022.
Also of note is special teams coordinator Matthew Smiley, who has been a special teams coach for both Jacksonville and Buffalo and led a special teams unit that excelled in kicking, punting, and returning. In addition, replacing Ken Dorsey as QB coach is Joe Brady. Although he was an offensive coordinator for the Panthers, he was fired for that role and could potentially be a step down from Dorsey at the position.
While the unit is a mixed bag, in the end, there’s enough promise there. Finally, the clear-cut roles and titles help put the Bills’ assistant coaching unit, by a small margin, on top of the division.
The lack of definition is arguably the biggest knock on this unit of coordinators. Unlike any of the other teams in the division, the Patriots have yet to assign titles for offensive or defensive coordinator this year and instead have a myriad of coaches that will collectively fill that role. As a result, the offense will be coordinated by some combination of Joe Judge and Matt Patricia. The defense will be spearheaded by several positional coaches like Steve Belichick and Jerrod Mayo.
On the offensive side, Patricia is one of the bigger surprises of the offseason. Having spent six seasons as DC for the patriots from 2012-17 and calling plays on the defensive side last year, the offensive side of the ball was not an expected change. However, Patricia has been an extremely accomplished coach for New England. He helped spearhead several top (super bowl winning) defenses under Belichick and is likely the member of the coaching staff that Bill trusts the most.
He does have the experience to be a two-way coach, having started his New England tenure as an offensive assistant and having spent multiple years as a head coach for the Patriots how this transition will be for him remains to be seen, though, especially with a somewhat undefined role.
Also helping the Patriots offensively is Joe Judge. He’s a veteran in the NFL and with Belichick and the Patriots. He coached special teams and wide receivers for seven years in New England before taking over as head coach for the Giants for three years. Having been part of three super bowl wins in New England and two national championships at Alabama, he knows how to help his teams succeed. However, questions have been raised over how he handled play calling as a Giant, but hopefully, a return to a familiar system will bring out the best in Judge. With such split playcalling duties, TE coach Nick Caley and others will also play an integral role.
With Patricia switching sides, the defensive picture becomes even more unclear. Indeed, a vital part of the picture is Steve Belichick, who called a good number of defensive plays last year. He was a part of the staff that led the lockdown 2019 defense and has multiple years of experience coaching the secondary. That experience will prove valuable as the Patriots are undergoing a lot of turnover in the secondary this year. While he officially holds the title of Outside Linebackers coach, his role will likely be more extreme.
Career Patriot Jerod Mayo looks to play a major role in the Patriots’ defensive playcalling – from the Enterprise
Also playing an integral role will be Jerrod Mayo, former LB of the Patriots and inside linebackers coach of the team. He has been a rising star in the organization, broadening his role yearly. His perspectives as a recent and long-tenured player in the NFL will give him some valuable views on defensive playcalling and scheming. During his time as a player, he was notorious for his work ethic and diligence in watching film. He put up excellent numbers, with eight forced fumbles, four interceptions, 11 sacks, and 803 tackles in his career with the Patriots.
While he is still an inexperienced coach, his trajectory is overwhelmingly positive and could be huge for the team this year. Furthermore, last year’s Patriots’ Defense was 1st in the league in points allowed and fourth in total Defense, a genuinely fearsome unit. Other long-tenured Patriots assistants like defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington and secondary coach Nick Pellegrino will have a significant coaching role given the lack of title definition on that side of the ball.
Overall, while the roles lack definition in Foxborough, the pieces that make up the coordinating matrix are strong and, if they work well together, should help Belichick considerably in leading the team.
On the offensive side, the Jets will be led by Mike LaFleur. LaFleur was an offensive assistant for Atlanta in 2015-16 and helped lead a truly fearsome offense to Super Bowl LI. While Patriots fans should remember that game rather fondly, that offense was a very potent one. His time as a passing coordinator in San Francisco was also impressive. He led a group of quarterbacks that turned over a lot due to injury and transactions to respectable numbers and results. It will be interesting to see if he can help Zach Wilson make a year two leap.
Defensively, Jeff Ulbrich will pull the reigns. As an interim defensive coordinator in Atlanta, he improved the unit drastically and oversaw good defensive numbers in his six years with Atlanta. As a college defensive coordinator/assistant head coach at UCLA, he also managed competent defenses and coached players like Myles Jack who have gone on to achieve a lot of NFL success. Before starting his coaching career, he was also a successful linebacker for the 49ers. However, there will be some work to do as his Defense was very porous in 2021.
Outside of these two, special teams coordinator Brant Boyer, who has been with the franchise for six years, and offensive line/run game coach John Benton, who has had 18 years of NFL experience, should play integral roles.
On offense, the Dolphins will be led by Frank Smith. Smith has extensive offensive experience, coaching the offensive line, the running game, and tight ends. He has 12 years of NFL experience, which will be valuable for the team. During his tenure in New Orleans, the Saints had one of the best offensive lines in the league, allowing the third-fewest sacks in his tenure from 2010-2014. In general, however, he was bounced around the league a fair bit, this being his fifth team, and 2022 will be his first year playing this significant role in the offense.
Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer comes into this role with a lot of experience. A good portion of it is actually in New England. He helped lead the secondary at New England for 13 years, leading some reasonably skilled units and winning multiple titles with the team. As defensive coordinator of the Dolphins, however, his units have been very much in the middle of the pack.
The Dolphins’ positional coaches share the same theme, having potential but lacking experience. However, that group features some former Patriot players in Steve Gregory and Wes Welker, coaching safeties and wide receivers, respectively.
The Patriots’ assistant coaching staff isn’t the most orthodox group, but there’s a lot of potential and acumen there – Charles Krupa/AP
The Bottom Line
The top two finishers in the AFC East last year, the Bills and Patriots, have the best coaching units in the division, and the strategic battles between the two teams, especially with the expected improvement in talent from the Patriots, should be enthralling. Despite being at the bottom of the division, the Jets aren’t too far behind and have promising, experienced coaches on their staff. The Dolphins will likely struggle with a fiery but ultimately extremely young and inexperienced group on the coaching end of things. Ultimately though, the games will tell all.
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