Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Freddie Kitchens’ Cabinet of Coordinators was introduced to media on Thursday, and if first impressions mean anything then these hires add to the momentum of the Browns’ offseason.
Each of the coordinators has extensive college and pro experience. Each has sat in the head coach’s office – if only for one game, in the case of Mike Priefer, special teams coordinator – and thus have appreciation for the value of a good support staff for the head coach’s and team’s success.
“I would say the No. 1 thing I learned [as Arizona Cardinals head coach] – not the No. 1 thing but how it is going to help me this year -- is being a great assistant coach, understanding the value of what it means to have a great staff and guys with one vision, implementing and teaching the same thing,” said defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken put it another way.
“The bottom line is … your job is to do whatever the head coach tells you to do. That is what you do. If the head coach says do this, then you do it,” Monken said.
What’s interesting is none of the coordinators had any previous association with Kitchens. Monken said he never met Kitchens until interviewed for the job.
Each made a reference to GM John Dorsey’s solid reputation as a talent evaluator as an attraction to join the Browns. Monken and Wilks also pointed to quarterback Baker Mayfield as reason to join this young, ascending team. All three had other job options in the NFL.
Here is a closer look at Kitchens’ Cabinet:
Steve Wilks, 49, defensive coordinator
Last job: Fired after 3-13 season as head coach of Arizona Cardinals.
Background: A defensive back at Appalachian State, he coached defensive backs at eight college jobs and then four in the NFL. His breakthrough was being named Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator under Ron Rivera in 2017.
After one defensive top 10 season, the Cardinals hired him to succeed retired head coach Bruce Arians. Several things conspired to undermine Wilks’ one year as head coach – some out of his control. His first public statements since being fired spoke to his high character. While many analysts criticized the Cardinals for their hasty move, Wilks did not.
“I have nothing but great things to say about the Arizona Cardinals and their organization, [President] Michael Bidwell, and the entire family there,” Wilks said. This is a production-based league. We did not win enough games. Would I have liked to have more time? Of course, but again, I put that behind me.”
What to expect: He runs the 4-3 base, so the returning nucleus of players won’t suffer the culture shock the Cardinals endured while transitioning from the 3-4 a year ago. Terminology from the Gregg Williams’ defense will change. Players no longer will be required to break a huddle with Williams’ signature chant: “Come get some!”
Wilks has been known to bring pressure often – five or more rushers – and has favored zone coverage in the secondary. But he expressed the desire to be “multiple,” which means flexible enough to adapt to changing game plans and offensive opponents.
“I am aggressive by nature, but it is all about trying to put your guys into the best position to be successful,” he said. “It could change. [If the] quarterback is getting the ball out quick, 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.”
Issues to address: 1. Taking defensive end Myles Garrett to a consistent All-Pro level as a dominant force. 2. Improving the 28th-ranked defense against the run and tackling in general. 3. Correcting tackling techniques to improve the durability and longevity of cornerback Denzel Ward. 4. Utilizing the varied skill set of safety Jabrill Peppers to maximize him as a hybrid safety-linebacker-nickel back.
Quote of note: “You can’t win in this league if you don’t have a quarterback, and we have a quarterback. Not only do we have one, we have one that I consider to be -- from my studying and the things I learned from him coming out of college – he is an alpha male. He affects not only the offensive side of the ball but this team, and that was very attractive coming here.”
Todd Monken, 53, offensive coordinator
Last job: Not retained as offensive coordinator of Tampa Bay Buccaneers after coach Dirk Koetter was fired.
Background: He played quarterback at Division III Knox College in Galesburg, IL, and has predominantly specialized in offensive football at receiver, quarterback and coordinator areas.
He had two stints at Oklahoma State, where he learned the Air Raid offense under coach Mike Gundy and produced future first-round picks Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden.
He broke into the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars as receivers coach for coordinator Koetter under head coach Jack Del Rio. After a three-year stint as head coach at Southern Mississippi, where he inherited an 0-12 team and exited after a 9-5 season and bowl appearance in his third year, he rejoined Koetter in Tampa.
What to expect: Every place Monken has been either coordinator or head coach, his offenses pile up yards and points. He scoffs at the stereotype of an Air Raid coach, but he will assist Kitchens in incorporating the run-pass option (RPO) concepts that have made the Chiefs’ and Rams’ offenses “state of the art” – a blend of the best of the college and pro offenses.
He defined the Air Raid as “being able to throw to win.”
“Balance is multiple skill players touching the football,” he said. “To me, it is not always just run-pass. It is do you have enough skill players where they can touch the football. Last year at Tampa, we almost had six guys – if [tight end] O.J. [Howard] doesn’t get hurt – with 700-plus yards from the line of scrimmage. That to me is balance.
“You have a number of guys who can hurt you from a matchup standpoint. Is running the football important? Sure, because in order to win, you have to be explosive and not turn the ball over. How do you become explosive? Space players and throwing it over their heads or throwing in intermediate pockets, and running the football adds to that.”
Issues to address: 1. Taking Mayfield to a level among the elite of NFL quarterbacks. 2. Not losing sight of Nick Chubb’s running ability. 3. Incorporating his concepts to mesh with Kitchens’ pre-existing offense and the running game concepts from the Green Bay Packers of line coach and associate head coach James Campen to produce a more advanced Browns offense.
Quote of note: “I think ‘a lot’ [of RPO’s in the Browns’ future offense] is probably an extreme, but I think that is where football has been and that has been my background. Hopefully, it is something that interests Freddie.”
Mike Priefer, 52, special teams coordinator
Last job: After eight years as special teams coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings, he bet on himself and let his contract run out to move along.
Background: A native of Cleveland and the son of former Padua High School coach Chuck Priefer, he lived in Middleburg Heights and Brunswick through age 10. When his father coached Dorsey on Green Bay special teams in the 1980s, Mike was a Packers ball boy.
He enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy and then served four years in the Navy as a helicopter pilot during the Persian Gulf War, after which he followed his dad’s footsteps in coaching. He was on Jim Tressel’s staff on the 1997 national championship team at Youngstown State, and broke into the NFL in 2002 as an assistant special teams coach with Jacksonville.
He coached special teams with the Giants, Chiefs and Broncos before finding a home with the Vikings.
What to expect: Priefer’s ‘teams historically were among the leaders in fewest penalties. They have been solid in return and coverage, but kickers have been his bane. Blair Walsh’s infamous miss of a 27-yard field goal in a 10-9 loss to Seattle in the 2015 playoffs was the most notable failure, but there have been other kicking gaffes over his Minnesota career.
Issues to address: 1. Severely reducing penalties on kickoffs and punts. 2. Finding a dependable kicker or developing Greg Joseph into one. 3. Identifying and molding a return specialist. 4. Reducing negative plays that undermine the efforts of the offense and defense.
Quote of note: “My job right now is to be the best special teams coordinator that the Cleveland Browns can have. I want to be the best special teams coordinator that they have ever had. I want to lead these young men in the area of special teams to help us win a championship. I absolutely love coaching special teams. I would not want to coach anything else.”