NFC North: Russ Grimm

ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 up-and-coming assistant coaches in the league today. Next week: Top players overall.

Seven NFL teams named new head coaches after last season, tapping into a pool that included experienced coordinators and relatively unknown assistants alike. The class of 2011 featured longtime candidates (Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera). It also included a trusted position coach in Mike Munchak (Tennessee Titans) and a couple of relative hotshots in Hue Jackson (Oakland Raiders) and Pat Shurmur (Cleveland Browns).

Who will comprise the NFL's next batch of head-coaching candidates? That was the question ESPN.com hoped to answer in this week's edition of the offseason Power Rankings. We established one ground rule by eliminating any assistant who has already had a permanent head-coaching job. The idea was to develop a list that focused on the "next wave" of coaching candidates.

No less than 24 NFL assistants received at least one vote, a reflection of both the variables involved in head-coaching searches and the relative lack of national name recognition for all but the most highly regarded assistants.

So in that vein, it was no surprise to see four well-known assistants at the top of our list, headed by New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell -- who placed first or second on six of the eight ballots. Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan finished second, followed by New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm.

Fewell is an ideal candidate in many ways, having spent time as the Buffalo Bills' interim coach in 2009 and leading a substantial turnaround of the Giants' defense last season. Fewell interviewed for four head-coaching jobs last winter, and NFC East blogger Dan Graziano suggested that experience, along with a high profile afforded to coaches in New York, make him "the most likely guy on the list to be a head coach soon."

Just don't bother forwarding his name to AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky, who couldn't find room for Fewell on his 10-man ballot. Kuharsky noted the Giants' poor performance in Week 2 last season against the Indianapolis Colts, during which quarterback Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns and cruised to an easy 38-14 victory.

"Certainly I'm letting one game overinfluence my ballot," Kuharsky muttered. "But Fewell's plan for the Giants against the Colts last season was so bad that I could not help but score him down for it. Was he not familiar with how Peyton Manning and Indianapolis operate?"

We can't cover every coach who received votes in this exercise, but let's hit some of the more interesting names that received attention.

Another Ryan? Deserved or not, Ryan has long been considered a loose cannon. There is little doubt about his schematic prowess, but hiring him would require a confident owner ready to make a leap of faith.

The success of twin brother Rex Ryan with the Jets might have softened the perception of that risk, and collectively we see Rob Ryan on the doorstep of a job.

"Similar to Rex, Rob Ryan is good with X's and O's and has the type of outgoing personality players want to be around," AFC North blogger James Walker said. "I think both are equally important in today's NFL. Both brothers say exactly what's on their mind, and before that scared off a lot of teams. But Rex broke the ice with his success in New York and that could help Rob in the future."

The next generation: Schottenheimer has turned down more opportunities to interview for head-coaching jobs than he has actually submitted to. He has nixed requests from the Miami Dolphins and Bills in recent years, but he did interview for the Jets' job that ultimately went to Ryan. I placed him atop my ballot (he finished No. 3 overall) because I think NFL people have made up their mind that he is the kind of young and innovative assistant who can turn around their franchise. (Think: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.)

Schottenheimer's pedigree doesn't hurt -- he's the son of longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer -- and I'm not sure how closely teams will dissect the specifics of the Jets' offensive performance. Graziano, on the other hand, thinks Schottenheimer is close to coaching his way out of the golden-child image he cultivated and left him off his ballot.

"Having spent a good amount of time around that team the past couple of years, I just feel like defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is the more likely guy to end up a head coach," Graziano said. "Schottenheimer's under a ton of pressure as Ryan defers the offensive responsibilities to him. I feel like, if the offense has a bad year, he could end up in trouble or even out of a job. And given their youth at quarterback and running back and the uncertainty of their receiver situation, a bad year for the Jets' offense is possible.

"Now, he could be a genius, make chicken salad and be the next hot name eight months from now. But I think there's the potential that he may have already peaked as a hot coaching prospect and that he might not be set up to succeed in New York."

The big fella: Four years ago, Grimm thought he would be the next Pittsburgh Steelers coach. He moved to Arizona after the Steelers selected Mike Tomlin instead, and we view his status as a head-coaching candidate with wide disparity.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson put Grimm atop his ballot, and AFC East blogger Tim Graham had him No. 2. Kuharsky and I left him off.

Williamson thinks Grimm has moved to "the top of the food chain" largely because most of his "hot-name" contemporaries have already gotten jobs. As well, Graham suggested that it will soon be Grimm's turn because he is still well-regarded throughout the league.

Personally, I couldn't get past Grimm's well-publicized gaffe after interviewing with the Chicago Bears, after which he referred to the team owners as the "McClaskey" family. I also agree with NFC West blogger Mike Sando, who ranked Grimm No. 8 and wondered: "Is he still ascending? Grimm seems content coaching the line in Arizona. He has plateaued and doesn't seem to be losing any sleep over it."

Welcome back: Unless you're a college football fan, you might not have heard of Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. He spent six years as the head coach at Arizona State, but has drawn some quiet acclaim for his work with the Jaguars and made a strong impression while interviewing with the Denver Broncos last winter.

"In a setting where he won't have to deal with boosters and can shine for being a smart X's and O's guy with strong coaching DNA," Kuharsky said, "I think he'd do far better. He's smart and will interview quite well. He really impressed John Elway and the Broncos before losing out to John Fox's experience. St. Louis wanted him as coordinator, but Jacksonville wouldn't let him go. He's heading into the final year of his contract. How Blaine Gabbert develops early on will have a big bearing on Koetter's future."

Secret weapon: In two years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have developed quarterback Josh Freeman into one of the better starters in the league. The man largely responsible is offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who navigated a disastrous 2009 preseason -- coach Raheem Morris promoted him in the middle of training camp after firing Jeff Jagodzinski -- and NFL teams often seek out coaches with success developing young quarterbacks.

"I think Olson deserves a ton of credit for developing Freeman so quickly," said NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas. "Freeman threw for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in his first full season as a starter and carried an incredibly young team to a 10-6 record. I also think people need to look at what Olson did last year with rookie running back LeGarrette Blount and rookie receiver Mike Williams. He helped make them into instant stars."

Super Bowl entitlement: The Green Bay Packers were the only team to place more than one name in the top 10, as would be expected from a championship team. Assistant head coach/inside linebackers Winston Moss is at No. 6, while safeties coach Darren Perry finished No. 10. I also voted for receivers coach Edgar Bennett, who has moved over from running backs coach and is clearly being groomed for bigger things.

I'll detail my ranking of the Packers' assistants, including why I think so highly of Perry, in a future post for NFC North readers. But we'll say this for now: Moss is a strong leader who has drawn interest from the Raiders, while Perry is a disciple of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his coveted 3-4 scheme.
 
  Getty Images
  Who has a better chance of being 2009 NFL Rookie of the Year: the Vikings' Percy Harvin or the Cardinals' Chris Wells? The bloggers debate.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert

Nothing gets the football juices flowing in April like drafting an exciting skill position player.

Fans in Minnesota are already envisioning receiver Percy Harvin dashing through the secondary on the way to a long touchdown. In Arizona, they're wondering how many defenders tailback Beanie Wells is going to run over on the way to a 1,000-yard season.

Who will be the NFL's 2009 Rookie of the Year? It's a little early to crown a winner, but Harvin and Wells are two strong candidates. Our NFC West and NFC North bloggers take an early stance:

 
  AP Photo/Star Tribune, Carlos Gonzalez
  Minnesota first-round draft pick Percy Harvin will get a chance to put up big numbers for the Vikings.
Kevin Seifert: Well, Mike, we're three months from training camp and 4 1/2 months from the start of the regular season. There's no way to predict for sure where the voters will land. But I'll tell you this much: Harvin is going to get every opportunity to put up Rookie of the Year numbers.

Early on, I think the Vikings will ease him in as a punt and kickoff returner -- with selected packages for him on offense. But it might not take much. Harvin is the kind of playmaker who could have a pretty high ratio of touchdowns to touches.

There are veterans who likely will start ahead of him, but when Harvin gets in the game he'll be quick to make things happen. Think of him as the receiving version of New Orleans tailback Reggie Bush. He can make people miss once the ball gets in his hands.

Mike Sando: Once the ball gets in his hands? That's the hard part in Minnesota.

There's a reason Jeff George keeps saying he should be the Vikings' quarterback at age 41. There's a reason T.J. Houshmandzadeh decided to sign with the Seahawks about four seconds into his free-agent visit to Minnesota.

There's a reason no one on the Vikings caught more than 53 passes last season. Five rookies caught at least as many passes (Eddie Royal 91, Matt Forte 63, DeSean Jackson 62, John Carlson 55, Davone Bess 54 and Donnie Avery 53) in 2008.

I'm just not sure the Vikings can get the ball in Harvin's hands consistently enough.

Kevin Seifert: I'm not sure there is enough WD-40 in North America for Jeff George to do it, either, but that's for another debate.

Seriously, in some ways it doesn't matter whom the Vikings have at quarterback as long as he can throw a screen pass and a shallow cross. Harvin is at his best after the catch. Check out some of his highlights at Florida against some pretty fast SEC defenses. Trust me, the Vikings have plenty of three-yard pass plays in their playbook. The key will be finding simple ways to get the ball in Harvin's hands. Then let him do the rest.

In reality, the quarterback issue might be a bigger deal for Arizona. Nothing I saw last year leads me to believe Wells will get enough opportunities to put up Rookie of the Year numbers. Are you telling me Kurt Warner is going to hand the ball off all season and Larry Fitzgerald is going to become a downfield blocking specialist?

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Greetings on a warm morning in the Valley of the Sun, although the sun hasn't come up yet, making it hard to confirm we're in a valley. Anyway, let's hit the best reads of the NFC North before hopping on a plane here at Sky Harbor Airport. (Thanks for the wireless, by the way.)

  • Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times recalls that Arizona assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm was once a candidate for the Bears' top job. Grimm famously referred to the Bears' owners as the "McClaskey" family.
  • John Niyo of the Detroit News sets up the Lions' week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where they will be scouting draft prospects and also seeking assistant coaches.
  • Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press asks the $64 million question: If the Arizona Cardinals can make the Super Bowl, why can't the Lions?
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Philadelphia would not have let defensive backs coach Sean McDermott out of his contract to allow him to interview for the Packers' defensive coordinator job. The Packers decided to hire Dom Capers on Sunday night for the job.
  • Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier spoke to the Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press about his failure to land a head coaching job this offseason. Said Frazier: "I did everything I could do. I'm honestly not disappointed because I have such a good job here with the Vikings."
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The Detroit Lions' plan to interview San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera on Tuesday doesn't suggest the team is in a tremendous rush to name its next head coach.

Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the presumed top candidate, is due for a second interview Monday. But unless something unexpected occurs, Schwartz will have to wait at least a couple of days before learning whether he will be offered the job. In addition to interviewing Rivera, the Lions might also wait on Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan or Arizona assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm.

There are no other known suitors for Schwartz, which might give the Lions some flexibility in this situation. But two NFL teams, Cleveland and Denver, already have concluded their coaching searches. Their new coaches have begun hiring assistant coaches. The longer the Lions' process continues, the fewer options they'll have for attracting a high-caliber staff.

Perhaps that's why the Lions retained 14 of their 18 assistants after firing coach Rod Marinelli last month. One of those assistants, quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler, has resigned to join the staff at the University of Florida. But the rest could provide at least a fallback option for the Lions' next coach.

UPDATE: Rivera said recently he was perhaps too focused on his head coaching aspirations while serving as Chicago's defensive coordinator. Here's the story from Brad Biggs of the Chicago-Sun-Times

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The Detroit Lions are wrapping up the second week of their coaching search Friday by interviewing Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the sixth known candidate to discuss the position with team officials. You would think they are closing in on the end of Round 1, but there are at least four more names hovering in NFL circles as potential targets.

Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has long been identified as a person of interest, but if he has interviewed, absolutely no one who is talking knows about it. Three other coaches whose teams play this weekend -- Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm, Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera -- could get into the mix before the Lions make a decision.

Like most media members, I have very little insight into what the Lions' newly restructured front office is thinking. It's pretty obvious they're targeting NFL assistants and aren't concerned about hiring a first-time head coach. Defense appears to be a priority as well. Otherwise, there's no telling if the Lions are even leaning in a direction at this point.

But we won't let that stop us from assessing this pool of candidates. To be clear, the ranking below represents my own thoughts and not necessarily the Lions'. I based the list in part on the specific challenges facing the Lions' next coach, who must eradicate a losing culture, possess a high level of patience and work in a committee-style front office.

Let me know what you think in the comment section below.

  1. Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz
    The skinny: Might have the ideal amount of toughness and institutional know-how to deal with this project.
  2. Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier
    The skinny: Wouldn't be ruffled by tough times and would be excellent in committee system.
  3. Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan
    The skinny: Fiery personality and aggressive approach would shake up the team and organization.
  4. New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo
    The skinny: He's the hottest candidate on the market and isn't likely to opt for the Lions' job.
  5. Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett
    The skinny: His background with quarterbacks would be key if the Lions take one with the No. 1 overall draft pick. Plus, fans -- and ticket-buyers -- love offense.
  6. Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm
    The skinny: Players would respect him and he would improve the line. Having never coordinated, his organizational skills are unknown.
  7. San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera
    The skinny: His track record in Chicago and San Diego is impressive. But why did the Bears fire him after going to the Super Bowl?
  8. Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey
    The skinny: Offense is good, but his tenure as Buffalo's head coach was not.
  9. Washington secondary coach Jerry Gray
    The skinny: Some suggest the Lions are actually considering him as a defensive coordinator.
  10. Miami defensive backs coach Todd Bowles
    The skinny: See Gray.

Gauging the NFC North in the HOF

January, 7, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

This year's Hall of Fame ballot includes four players with NFC North ties, a list headed by former Minnesota receiver Cris Carter. What are the chances of a Black and Blue representative heading to Canton this summer? Let's take a look at each player:

Wide receiver Cris Carter

  • Pros: Retired in 2002 with the second-most receptions (1,101) in NFL history. Only player in NFL history with two seasons of 120-plus receptions.
  • Cons: Not many. His exclusion last year was a surprise and attributed to some voters' desire to protect "first-ballot" designations.
  • Chances in 2009: High.

Defensive end Richard Dent

  • Pros: Retired in 1997 with 137.5 sacks, which at the time ranked third in NFL history. Won two Super Bowls, including the MVP in Super Bowl XX. Was one of the key elements in the "46" defense that dominated the game in the mid 1980's.
  • Cons: Named to the Pro Bowl in only four of 13 seasons, raising the question of the longevity of his dominance. Has been eligible since 2003 and is competing with a shoo-in, all-time sacks leader Bruce Smith.
  • Chances in 2009: Moderate.

Guard Randall McDaniel

  • Pros: Nine-time All-Pro and 12-time Pro Bowler. Technique and athleticism made him one of the best guards of his era.
  • Cons: Quiet demeanor and distaste for campaigning has made him easy to overlook. This year, competing with two other guards on the final ballot: Russ Grimm and Bob Kuechenberg.
  • Chances in 2009: Moderate.

Defensive lineman John Randle

  • Pros: Coincidentally finished career with Dent's exact sack total of 137.5 sacks. Six-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler. Played tackle and end during his career.
  • Cons: Competing with Smith, who finished career with 63 more sacks during the same approximate era. First appearance on ballot.
  • Chances in 2009: Unlikely.

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