Breaking down possible defensive coordinator candidates for Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions are in the market for a defensive coordinator after Paul Pasqualoni stepped down from the role last week. And trying to figure out what the Lions will do to replace him is a layered conversation. 

First and foremost, there are restrictions with a potential hire. If the Lions want to interview anyone currently employed by another NFL team, they'll need permission. 

You may remember the Lions similarly blocking Jim Bob Cooter and Brian Callahan from interviewing for offensive coordinator jobs during their stints as a quarterback coach with the franchise. 

The other option is plucking a coach off the unemployment line, the same way the team found offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell a year ago. 

Beyond identifying strong candidates, the appeal of the job must also be considered. There are arguably multiple drawbacks to joining Detroit's staff. While most professional sports coaches understand job security is inherently tenuous in their profession, it's even more so here, where the team is coming off a disastrous 3-12-1 campaign, creating a win-now mandate from ownership for both coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn. 

Secondly, there's working for Patricia, who could be viewed as reluctant to grant full autonomy over Detroit's defense and didn't hesitate to usurp most, if not all, of the play-calling duties away from Pasqualoni down the stretch this past season. That could be a deal breaker for more experienced candidates. 

With all that in mind, we won't pretend to have any inside knowledge on a process that's just getting underway. Instead, we'd like to highlight some of the possibilities out there, both inside and outside the box, who could merit attention for the most important of eight openings on Patricia's staff. 

Jerod Mayo

► Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo

Any speculative list is likely to lead off with Mayo, and for good reason. A first-round pick in 2008, the former linebacker spent his entire eight-year career with the Patriots, earning two Pro Bowl selections and All-Pro honors in 2010. 

Patricia was the Patriots' linebackers coach Mayo's first three seasons, and after a one-year stint working with the team's safeties, served as the team's defensive coordinator the final four years the pair were together. 

As for Mayo's coaching resume, it's unquestionably short after spending just a single year as a member of New England's staff. But his knowledge of the scheme is unimpeachable, his work ethic renowned, and if Patricia continues to handle play-calling on Sundays, it could be a perfect fit. 

"He’s extremely smart, he was a great player when I had him, and I know he’s going to be a great coach," Patricia said about Mayo in August. "As far as when he was a player, he was that cerebral type of guy that we always had those conversations about game-planning and, ‘What are the calls in these situations? What would we do? How do you want to handle this? What do we do in those to take guys away?’ He was right there every single step of the way. I know he kept a lot of notes. He would write down a lot of information. He loves the game, so I’m happy for him."

Kris Richard

► Dallas Cowboys' pass-game coordinator Kris Richard

Richard's contract expires in the near future, and with Jason Garrett officially out as Cowboys coach, there's reason to believe Richards won't be back in Dallas, either.

As a defensive backs coach in Seattle, he oversaw the rise of Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary. He later moved into a play-calling role as the team's defensive coordinator before landing in Dallas.

Well-liked by his players, Richard led a secondary that ranked in the top-10 in yardage and touchdowns allowed in 2019. 

"He's got a great way of teaching guys in a real, clear concise manner, not like guys are having their heads spinning," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said last offseason. "That's probably the best way to describe it. He's had rooms where he's had a lot of strong, alpha personalities, and he handled it."

Bret Bielema

► Patriots defensive line coach Bret Bielema

As he works toward his next head-coaching opportunity, there really isn't much reason for Bielema to jump ship to Detroit, unless he sees the Lions job as a resume builder. 

The majority of the former Arkansas and Wisconsin coach's experience comes at the collegiate level, but if Bill Belichick saw good reason to add him to the Patriots staff as an adviser, it's difficult to imagine Patricia not seeing similar value. 

Prior to serving as the Badgers' head coach, Bielema ran the team's defense for two years. During that 25-game stretch, they allowed 19.9 points per contest. Additionally, he also worked under Patricia favorite Kirk Ferentz, serving as a linebacker coach at Iowa for six seasons. 

As New England's defensive line coach in 2019, Bielema's unit played a key role in the team's league-leading scoring defensive. 

“I really believe defense starts from front to back, even from inside out,” Bielema said earlier this year. “If you’re not playing well on the inside as we get further away from the football bad things can happen.”

► Arizona State special adviser Marvin Lewis

The longtime Bengals coach recently interviewed for the Dallas job that went to Mike McCarthy. If Lewis doesn't get a head coaching offer somewhere else, would he consider a return to coordinating? Turning around Detroit's defense would certainly do more to bolster his credentials than another year as a background figure at a middle-of-the-road college program. 

Lewis cut his teeth as a pro coach in Pittsburgh before taking the coordinator job in Baltimore, where he built one of the most dominant defenses the NFL has ever seen. As a head coach, Lewis had a lot of regular-season achievements, including four division titles and seven playoff berths in 16 seasons, but postseason success proved to be elusive. 

Like Patricia, Lewis earned a master's degree, but spurned more lucrative career options to take a low-paying college coaching job because he loved football and the opportunity to teach it.  

"Marvin has succeeded everywhere he has been and he has done it the right way," Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. "His passion for teaching will be an incredible benefit not only for our coaches, but also for the young men we are responsible for as students and athletes.”

► St. Louis BattleHawks defensive backs coach Tim Lewis

After a few years outside of coaching, Lewis resurfaced as a head coach for the Birmingham Iron of the now defunct AAF. It was a short stint, but his team had clinched a playoff berth before the league folded. 

Lewis was last in the NFL in 2015, a one-year spell on the staff of ill-fated coach Jim Tomsula in San Francisco. Prior to that, Lewis helped turn Atlanta's pass defense into one of the league's best during a four-year run with the franchise. 

Also on the resume are two stints as a defensive coordinator, with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2000-03) and the New York Giants (2004-06). 

Lewis still wants to coach, evident by the fact he's latched on with the St. Louis BattleHawks of the XFL. Former Giants star pass rusher Justin Tuck offered rave reviews of Lewis when he was hired by the Iron. 

"You're going to get a committed guy," Tuck said. "A guy who is a no-nonsense guy, a guy who is a teacher, a guy who is more than Xs and Os. Obviously he knows the game of football and he knows it very well, but he also knows how to be an example for those players he's going to be commanded. He's going to be committed to making sure they understand they are going to do things right not only on the field but off it."

Steve Wilks

► Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks

Still employed by the Browns while they figure out their head-coaching situation, Wilks is looking at the strong possibility of moving on to his fourth employer in four seasons. 

After building his reputation during a seven-year stretch with the Panthers, he bombed during his one season as a head coach in Arizona, thanks in large part to having the NFL's worst offense. 

As the Panthers' defensive coordinator in 2017, the team was a top-10 unit. And as the team's defensive backs coach during the team's Super Bowl run in 2015, the Panthers led the NFL with 24 interceptions. 

Schematics might be an obvious hangup. Wilks prefers a 4-3 base, while the Lions' multiple defense is foundationally rooted in 3-4 principles. Then again, the Lions could really benefit from a coordinator willing to dial up some pressure. 

"We are a 4-3 base," Wilks said last year. "We are very multiple in what we are doing. I think you have to be in this day in age with all of the different things you are seeing. It can change week to week. I am aggressive by nature, but it is all about trying to put your guys into the best position to be successful. It could change. Quarterback is getting the ball out quick, therefore now you have to be more creative in your coverages and things that you are doing on the back end because you are not going to get there. It is all about trying to create negative plays on first and second down so you can get exotic in some of your third-down pressures and things you want to do."

► Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald

We've noted a couple former Baltimore coordinators in Lewis and Nolan, but Macdonald is rising coach on the franchise's current staff. And right now, it feels like everything coming out of Baltimore is gold. 

Macdonald is young, and relatively inexperienced, but he's been with the Ravens for five years after a short stint at the University of Georgia. Before that, he was coaching high school. 

Starting as an intern with the Ravens, Macdonald has climbed rapidly through the ranks. He worked with the team's defensive backs in 2017 and 2018. During that stretch the team finished in the top-10 in passing defense both seasons, while tallying 34 interceptions. 

This past season, Macdonald worked with the team's linebackers, one year after the departures of stalwarts Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley. Still, the Ravens defense finished No. 3 in scoring. 

"Mike is one of the rising coaching standouts in the NFL, and he has earned the respect in the locker room and in the coaching room,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last year.

John Pagano

► Houston Texans outside linebackers coach John Pagano 

Younger brother of Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, John Pagano brings extensive experience coordinating 3-4 schemes. On top of that, he's spent the past two years working with Romeo Crennel, one of Patricia's mentors in New England. 

As the coordinator with the Chargers from 2012-16, Pagano's units were perennially in the top-half of the league in scoring defense. 

"He’s coached in a lot of different systems," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said shortly after he hired Pagano. "He’s coached a lot of different types of players. He’s coached a lot of different type of positions. He’s coached D-line, linebacker, secondary – he’s coached them all. He’s another guy that was very impressive in his interview when he sat down with me."

► No one

Let's not rule out this option, especially since Patricia's mentor Belichick went this route in 2019. While Patricia's preference is to not have too much of his attention diverted away from the rest of the operation on game days, he might prefer betting on his own defensive play-calling abilities with his job clearly on the line. 

In this scenario, the Lions could still opt for run-game and/or pass-game coordinators. Steve Gregory, a former Patriots defensive back and Lions defensive assistant the past two seasons, is a logical internal promotion to coach the secondary and potentially handle the passing game. It's also not a stretch to suggest Richard remains a possible fit, given his overlapping coverage preferences with Patricia. 

Editor's note: Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan was on the original list of candidates in this story, but reportedly was hired Monday by the Dallas Cowboys.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers