Sean McVay makes bold bet on unproven defensive coordinator Brandon Staley

Sean McVay has entrusted his defense to Brandon Staley, who at 37 is more than three decades younger than he replaces, 72-year-old Wade Phillips. Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Hiring Brandon Staley as the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams is a move entirely opposite of the one coach Sean McVay made three years ago.

When the Rams made McVay the youngest head coach in modern NFL history in 2017, the offensive-minded McVay searched for a defensive coordinator who could provide experience and veteran knowledge and who could handle the unit in its entirety.

McVay's move to hire Wade Phillips was a no-brainer. Phillips checked every box, plus earned bonus points for a personality that could engage an entire team.

"Our personalities, it's a good balance -- in terms of some of the things where you see just how even-keeled he is, has helped," said McVay during Week 17 of this season. "Like I've mentioned in a lot of different ways, he's always had a great perspective just based on his experience -- whether it be as a head coach or as a coordinator."

But the needs of the Rams and McVay have apparently changed. After winning two division titles and a conference championship before this season's 9-7 finish that left them out of the playoffs, the Rams are moving on from Phillips as McVay, who turns 34 next week, prepares for his fourth season as head coach.

McVay informed Phillips early last week that his expiring contract would not be renewed. Four days later, McVay made a surprise hire as he turned to an unknown, unproven and inexperienced coordinator whom the Rams will depend on to take their defense from good, which it undoubtedly was under Phillips, to elite.

Meet Staley, whom the Rams are expected to soon announce as their defensive coordinator.

Never heard of him? You're certainly not alone.

Staley is 37 years old, more than three decades younger than the 72-year-old Phillips, and spent the past three seasons coaching for the defensive-minded Vic Fangio. His first two seasons under Fangio were spent serving as outside linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears, where Fangio was the defensive coordinator. This past season, Staley held a similar post for the Denver Broncos after Fangio brought him along when he was named Broncos head coach.

In Chicago, Staley coached a position group that included outside linebacker Khalil Mack, and in Denver he worked closely with pass-rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.

Staley spent a decade coaching at lower-tier colleges and is three seasons removed from his post as the defensive coordinator at John Carroll University -- a Division III school in Ohio. Now he inherits a unit that boasts two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

This past season, the Rams ranked ninth in defensive efficiency, but the unit was also marred by inexplicable meltdowns. They allowed more than 40 points in three losses and suffered momentary lapses in other critical moments, including late in the fourth quarter of a Week 16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers that eliminated them from playoff contention.

It's expected that Staley will utilize a 3-4 scheme, given his tutelage under Fangio, who runs a base 3-4. That should minimize any need for general manager Les Snead to alter course on defensive personnel, which could have caused a setback had they shifted to a 4-3 scheme.

However, Staley will be forced to navigate a unit that could be moving forward without several of its top playmakers who are pending unrestricted free agents, including outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., inside linebacker Cory Littleton and defensive lineman Michael Brockers.

Last season, Fowler produced a career-high 11.5 sacks while playing on a one-year, $12 million deal. Littleton, a former undrafted free agent, has been the Rams' leading tackler the past two seasons and Brockers, an eight-year pro, has provided a dependable presence and is a proven force in the run game.

It remains uncertain whether Staley will be given control of his defensive staff and which position coaches he would retain.

It was widely thought linebackers coach Joe Barry, who previously served as the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins, would be promoted. Barry remains a candidate for the vacant defensive coordinator position at USC, where he played in college and has previously served as a defensive assistant. The hiring of Staley could motivate Barry to move on.

Plenty of questions remain about how Staley will improve the defense, but perhaps an unexpected question is how his presence will affect McVay.

The addition of Staley, along with new offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell -- who also is expected to be formally announced soon -- ensures the Rams will be the only team in the NFL with a head coach and two coordinators in their 30s.

No longer a rookie, McVay seems to have a clearer picture of how he wants to run his team, and a fresh idea about how to navigate forward following a season of disappointment.

By hiring Staley, McVay is conveying he no longer needs a mentor, but perhaps a peer, and he's signaling that he's looking for a fresh approach to defense, something perhaps more innovative than what the Rams had shown in previous seasons, despite their success.

Three years ago, Phillips was a safe choice.

But now Staley is McVay's bold bet moving forward.