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The DC Report: Is Dennard Wilson the defensive coordinator the Rams need?

Could Dennard Wilson return to the Rams as the defensive coordinator

Dallas Cowboys v New York Jets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams and head coach Sean McVay are in the midst of a defensive coordinator search after losing Raheem Morris to the Atlanta Falcons. For each coach that the Rams interview, I’ll be doing an in-depth analysis on what each coach brings. The first installment of this series began with Brandon Staley.

On Saturday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Rams would be interviewing Baltimore Ravens defensive backs coach, Dennard Wilson for their open defensive coordinator position. Wilson has been highly sought after since the end of the season as several teams have requested or set up interviews with the Ravens defensive backs coach to be their defensive coordinator.

That interest shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Ravens defense took the league by storm this season. In fact, they were one of the best defenses in NFL history. DVOA had that unit as the 12th best defense of all-time. When a specific unit is that good, the rest of the league is going to take notice and want part of it — that’s no different here.

In a league that is dominated by Shanahan-style offenses, no team had more success defending against that scheme than the Ravens. The Ravens defense held Ben Johnson and the Detroit Lions to six points. It was the only game this season in which Jared Goff failed to throw a touchdown pass. Later on in the season, Brock Purdy threw four interceptions. In two games against the Ravens secondary this season, CJ Stroud didn’t throw a touchdown pass. During the Divisional playoff game, the rookie threw for 175 yards while completing just 57.6 percent of his passes.

It would make sense then that McVay would want to implement aspect of that scheme into his defense. The Ravens had the number one secondary in the NFL this season with a pass defense DVOA of -28.8 percent while allowing a passer-rating of 75.9. That unit was led by Dennard Wilson.

Geno Stone had a career-year in 2023 with seven interceptions and nine passes defended while allowing a passer rating of just 51.1. His 85.3 PFF coverage grade was a career-high. Safety Kyle Hamilton also had a career-year with four interceptions and 13 passes defended. Hamilton was PFFs fifth-highest graded safety.

This past season wasn’t the first time Wilson has coached the number one secondary in the NFL. He also did it last year with the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s fair to say that Wilson has benefitted from coaching talented secondaries over the past two years. However, under Wilson’s tutelage, players like CJ Gardner-Johnson, Marcus Epps, Darius Slay, James Bradberry, Avonte Maddox, and Reed Blankenship all played some of the best football of their careers.

Said Slay about Wilson, “He ain’t never steered me wrong, not once yet...Like I said, I’m just surprised he’s been in the game 15 years and not had a DC job because he’s a smart dude.” When Wilson was passed over as defensive coordinator in favor of Sean Desai, Slay was outspoken on if he though the former Eagles defensive backs coach would have made a difference. Slay said,

“I think he would have made a lot of difference. He was loved by us. I thought, for sure, he should have stayed...He wasn’t a guy who just came in the room and said, ‘This is what we do. Done. He put some life aspects to it. And he was an honest dude...Defense is a mentality. He has the right mentality to lead people in the right direction. When he speaks it, you can understand and, like, feel what he’s speaking on...Always rooting for Dennard. Hope he gets a DC job this year.”

While it was initially stated that the Eagles and Wilson “mutually parted ways”, Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Inquirer debunked that and reported that head coach Nick Sirianni actually fired Wilson. According to Hayes, Sirianni hired Sean Desai and believed he would not work well with Wilson. Despite Wilson assuring otherwise, Sirianni fired him. That move is seen as a mistake by much of the Philadelphia media.

Had Jonathan Gannon left after 2021, Wilson would have been the favorite internal hire to replace him according to Jimmy Kempski of The Philly Voice. The following season, the Eagles promoted Wilson to passing game coordinator to go with his role as defensive backs coach.

While Wilson is coming from the Macdonald coaching tree, he actually has a very diverse background as he’s been mentored by several of the NFL’s best coordinators. This is similar to a Raheem Morris who had been mentored by Monte Kiffin, Jim Haslett, Dan Quinn, and learned the Fangio/Staley scheme on the fly.

Wilson has coached under Gregg Williams with both the Rams and the two spent time together with the New York Jets. He also coached under Todd Bowles. With the Eagles, he was under Jonathan Gannon and spent time with Fangio who was in Philadelphia as a consultant. Finally, this past season he was with Mike Macdonald.

Last January Wilson said,

“Look, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve been around some great defensive coordinators in my opinion. I’ve been groomed by Gregg Williams, I’ve been groomed by Todd Bowles, who are very good in this league and are very thorough. So I’ve been tutored by them...I know how to run a ship, I know the responsibilities. If the opportunity presents itself, I’ll be more than ready for it.

Wilson is an intriguing name as he was someone that McVay opted not to retain when he was hired by the Rams in 2017. Now the defensive backs coach for the Ravens, Wilson started his career in St. Louis with the Rams where he was a quality control coach and then promoted defensive backs coach. From there he went on to the Jets and then the Ravens. In 2015, the Rams actually had the 10th best pass defense EPA in the NFL. It is worth noting that Wilson didn't coach a top-10 secondary between 2016 and 2021.

Despite the lack of overall team success, Wilson still lifted up individual players. Former Jets safety Jamal Adams has just one all-pro caliber season since leaving Wilson and the Jets. When talking about Wilson in the summer of 2020, Adams said,

“Dennard has done so much for me. He’s elevated my game to a level from college to being there in the first year to helping me become a two-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro. I give so much credit to Dennard. Dennard has been that guy.”

Along with Adams’ success, Marcus Maye led the Jets secondary in tackles, pass breakups, tackles for loss, and sacks. In addition, cornerback Javelin Guidry forced the second most fumbles among NFL defensive backs in 2020.

Daniel Popper, formerly of the New York Daily News described Wilson as the following,

“He swears like a sailor and demands perfection. His players describe him as “feisty,” “very aggressive,” “different” and “a character.” Todd Bowles says he’s the “sole reason” for the impressive play of Jets rookie safeties Marcus Maye and Jamal Adams this year...Wilson’s role in getting the best out of his players cannot be overlooked...Wilson will focus on a specific play or scheme from that week’s opponent, something he picked up on while watching film. And come game day, the offense will run exactly what Wilson was preaching in practice. (He) is affecting Jets defensive backs of all ages this season...Players believe it’s Wilson’s intense demeanor that helps make him such a successful coach and communicator.”

Back in 2017, players on the Jets, according to Popper, described Wilson as a “natural born leader” and “detail-oriented”. Said safety Rontez Miles, “He just knows his s–t, and you can tell he knows because, since he’s been here, I dramatically grew as an individual, as a player.”

If the Rams want a similar type of coach as Morris, but still have ability to adjust and grow their current scheme, Wilson seems like the best hire. He’s a coach that players naturally gravitate towards. When asked about his coaching philosophy, said Wilson,

“I try to be the best teacher that I can be whenever I’m out there...I go out there and teach them and try to motivate them and push them to be the best players they can be. It’s business, it’s professionalism, but they understand you care.”

It’s hard to know exactly what type of scheme that Wilson would run simply because he hasn't been a coordinator before. That may come with some risk, but he also has such a diverse background. There would likely be elements of Mike Macdonald, Todd Bowles, and Gregg Williams. With his experience under Jonathan Gannon, the Rams could keep much of the same Fangio/Staley stuff that they currently run.

With elements of Bowles and Williams, there may be more aggressiveness to the defense than seen in the past. Bowles’ identity has always been to present a complicated picture pre-snap and force the quarterback to process for a tick longer than normal post-snap. Most of Wilson’s career has been spent under Bowles which likely means his scheme has had a huge influence on him. Meanwhile, Williams was also seen as hyper aggressive, but also a methodical teacher. He was always about accountability. It’s a Williams approach that has helped Wilson get the most out of his players.

From a formation standpoint, the Ravens played 75 percent of their snaps primarily in their nickel package which was a 2-4-5. Their base was a 3-4. In 2022, the Eagles operated from a 3-3-5, but had a base of a 4-3. However, if Wilson pulls more from the Bowles scheme, it’s likely that the Rams would remain in a 3-4. In 2019, the Jets were a 3-4 base but played nearly half of their snaps in a 3-3-5 and then 23 percent of their snaps in a 2-4-5 when in nickel.

The Rams need to re-build their secondary this offseason and it’s hard to find a better candidate to help lead that than the coach who has led the number one secondary each of the last two seasons while getting the most out of his players. This defense is very moldable and malleable just given how young it is in it’s current form. Wilson could put his identity on this defense.

At 41 years old and a lot of position coach experience, Wilson is ready for this moment. McVay let Wilson go as one of his first moves upon joining the Rams back in 2017. Now, it’s possible that we come full circle and Wilson makes his return.