A 49ers head coach known for testing boundaries and convention is considering an unexpected candidate for defensive coordinator.
Mike Vrabel, a longtime NFL linebacker who played on three of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning teams, was linebackers coach at Ohio State in 2011 and the Houston Texans’ linebackers coach the past two seasons.
Vrabel, 40, interviewed with new coach Chip Kelly for the 49ers’ vacant defensive coordinator position Tuesday. The only other known candidate for the critical position is incumbent Eric Mangini, who was Vrabel’s defensive coordinator with the Patriots in 2005.
32nd 49ers’ league ranking in scoring in 2015
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It’s unknown whether Bill Davis, Kelly’s defensive coordinator during his three seasons coaching the Philadelphia Eagles, is being considered. Davis is interviewing with the Washington Redskins about their linebackers coaching job.
Vrabel played defensive end at Ohio State and a little bit of everything in the NFL, especially during his eight-year stint with the Patriots. He often lined up as a tight end in goal-line situations and had eight receptions – all for touchdowns – in the regular season and two touchdown catches in the playoffs.
Kelly is close to Vrabel’s former head coach, Bill Belichick. The two have known each other since Kelly coached at New Hampshire, and Belichick last month expressed frustration after Kelly was fired after nearly three seasons with the Eagles. Belichick likely influenced Vrabel’s candidacy for the 49ers’ job.
Led by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, Houston’s defense finished third in yards allowed this season, and linebacker Brian Cushing led the team with 110 tackles.
The 49ers haven’t announced any hires for Kelly’s staff, but they appear to be zeroing in on specific candidates for certain spots.
The NFL Network reported the 49ers interviewed another longtime linebacker, Hardy Nickerson, as a possible linebackers coach. Nickerson had the same position on Lovie Smith’s staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the past two seasons.
The 49ers have parted with offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, quarterbacks coach Steve Logan, receivers coach Ronald Curry, secondary coach Tim Lewis, defensive-line coach Scott Brown, defensive assistants Ejiro Evero and Aubrayo Franklin and offensive assistants T.C. McCartney and Joe Scola. Chryst’s offense finished 31st in yards and 32nd in scoring in 2015.
Others have found jobs elsewhere, including tight ends coach Tony Sparano (Minnesota Vikings offensive-line coach), offensive-line coach Chris Foerster (Miami Dolphins offensive-line coach), receivers coach Adam Henry (New York Giants receivers coach) and inside linebackers coach Clancy Pendergast (USC defensive coordinator).
10 Touchdown catches by former NFL linebacker Mike Vrabel as a tight end
The list of departures means Mangini, special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey, running backs coach Tom Rathman, outside linebackers coach Jason Tarver, assistant offensive-line coach Eric Wolford and defensive assistant Mick Lombardi are being considered for positions on Kelly’s staff.
Three coaches who worked for Kelly in Philadelphia – quarterbacks coach Ryan Day, defensive-line coach Jerry Azzinaro and receivers coach Bob Bicknell – are expected to be hired for the same spots with the 49ers.