NFL News & Analysis

Ranking the NFL's best defensive play callers ahead of the 2022 season

Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier walks the field before a game against the Carolina Panthers at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

We've already written about the league’s best offensive play callers, and included within it is our method for how we come up with the rankings. TL;DR, essentially we use PFF grades, adjusted for opponents and situation, to come up with an expectation for how a team should do on a play — both in terms of expected points added and success rate. Then we take the difference between what actually happened and attribute that to coaching.

We deploy the same approach on for defensive play callers here, but it's just turned it around. Opponent adjustment plays a bigger part in this ranking, as offense is more stable than defense. As such, these rankings change more from year to year.

Be that as it might, those included in the list below have been great defensive play callers by our metrics, and they should continue to be so into the future. As with the offensive play caller piece, we are supplementing our analyses with work from this paper, which we published at this spring’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

1. Leslie Frazier, Buffalo Bills

I tweeted about the advantages the Buffalo Bills’ defense has over some other units— namely their schedule last year and the fact that their games are played with the highest wind speeds in football. That said, they allowed an average of 4.6 yards per play, and did so for a large part of the season without their best cornerback or without a highly paid player along their front four. At some point, Frazier is going to get another look as a head coach.

2. Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys

Quinn, who failed as the Falcons coach at the end, spurred a great turnaround with the Dallas Cowboys, who won their division for the first time since 2018 in 2021. Everyone will look at the breakout season of second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs and the Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign for linebacker Micah Parsons, but Quinn was also able to get great seasons from previously unknown players such as Jayron Kearse, who contributed greatly to the team's success in 2021:

3. Dennis Allen, New Orleans Saints

Allen is now the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, and for good reason. Always a good defense under his watch, the 2021 group — even after losing some of its depth in the offseason — carried this Saints team to a winning record, finishing fifth in yards per play allowed and generating a turnover on 12.8% percent of opposing drives. Allen, who failed as the head coach of the Raiders, needs to prove he can call this defense while also being the head coach.

4. Raheem Morris, Los Angeles Rams

Morris, who took over for wunderkind Brandon Staley in Los Angeles, one-upped his predecessor not only in outcomes, helping the Rams win the franchise’s second-ever Super Bowl, but in dialing all of the sharp nobs on defense. The Rams were far and away the best team in terms of disguising coverages and playing light boxes in 2021 (on admissible down and distances), and as a result, they were able to neutralize some of the league’s best offenses when it counted. 

5. Josh Boyer, Miami Dolphins

New Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel retained Boyer, and for good reason. Despite an offense that did it no favors in 2021, Miami's defense helped the team overcome a 1-7 record to finish 9-8 in a campaign that gave way to breakouts players such as interior defender Christian Wilkins, who ranked third in the NFL in WAR at his position, and safety Jevon Holland, the ninth-most valuable rookie in the NFL in 2021.

6. Joe Barry, Green Bay Packers

People are really high on the 2022 Packers’ defense, and for good reason, but much of that is due to how well the unit stayed together in 2021 after injuries to Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander and others left their streak of 13-win seasons in peril. However, the emergence of journeymen Rasul Douglas and De’Vondre Campbell revived their careers, and after an impressive haul in the draft, they return as role players in 2022.

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