Tim Berbenich

Ken Zampese, Ike Hilliard, Barrett Ruud Join Falcons’ Staff; Team Retains Jerry Gray

In Zac Robinson and Jimmy Lake, Raheem Morris installed two first-time NFL coordinators as his top lieutenants. The returning Falcons leader will backstop the OC-DC tandem with some experienced staffers in key posts.

The Falcons hired Ken Zampese as a senior offensive assistant, and the team is retaining defensive assistant Jerry Gray. The latter, an Arthur Smith hire, agreed to an extension to stay under Morris, NFL.com’s Mike Garafolo notes. Zampese worked as the Bengals’ OC from 2016-17, while Gray has multiple stints of DC experience. The veteran staffer served as the Bills’ DC in the 2000s and led the Titans’ defense from 2011-13. Gray will continue in an assistant HC/defense capacity.

Gray, 61, came to Atlanta after philosophical differences with then-Green Bay DC Joe Barry keyed a Wisconsin exit. The former decorated DB has been an NFL assistant for the past 27 seasons. A second-generation NFL assistant, Zampese brings 24 years of experience at this level. The 56-year-old staffer is best known for his 15 seasons on Marvin Lewis‘ Bengals staff, most of which coming as the team’s QBs coach. Zampese was in that role for the past four seasons under Ron Rivera in Washington.

Ike Hillard also joined the Falcons as their wide receivers coach. This will mark a return to the league for the former Giants starter. Hilliard, 47, did not coach in 2022 and was last in the NFL as the Steelers’ receivers coach from 2020-21. An NFL receivers coach from 2011-21, Hilliard was at Auburn in 2022. The Falcons also added Kevin Koger as their tight ends coach. Koger was on the radar for OC positions in 2022, interviewing for the Broncos and Packers’ jobs. Koger, 34, spent the past three years as the Chargers’ TEs coach. These appointments will be rather important, given the investments the Falcons made in Drake London and Kyle Pitts.

As Hilliard settles in, the Falcons will shift T.J. Yates from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach. The former NFL QB spent three seasons on Smith’s staff, arriving during the 2021 offseason in which Morris left for Los Angeles. This will be his first season as a team’s top QBs coach, though it is not yet known exactly who Yates will be developing. Morris is also keeping Dwayne Ledford as offensive line coach, adding the role of run-game coordinator to his title. Smith brought Ledford out of the college ranks in 2021. Pro Football Focus ranked the Falcons’ O-line fourth last season. The Falcons retained assistant Steven King but will move him from an offensive staffer to assistant special teams coach.

Multiple Rams staffers will follow Morris as well. Tim Berbenich, a 2023 Rams assistant, signed on as a Falcons pass-game specialist. He will also hold game management responsibilities. Lance Schulters, whose DB career included a stop in Atlanta, joined Morris’ staff as a defensive assistant. He last coached with the Rams in 2022. Nick Jones, a three-year Rams staffer, is signing on with the Falcons as assistant O-line coach. Offensive assistant K.J. Black will also come to Georgia after spending time on McVay’s staff.

Jay Rodgers, whom the Chargers fired shortly after dismissing Brandon Staley, will receive another opportunity as part of this staff. The Falcons hired Rodgers as their D-line coach. Rodgers has been an NFL D-line coach for the past 12 years, serving in that capacity for the Broncos and Bears ahead of his L.A. stay. Justin Hood will move up to DBs coach, after spending 2023 on the quality control level in Green Bay.

Former NFL linebacker Barrett Ruud will also make his coaching debut in the pros, being hired as Atlanta’s ILBs coach. Ruud coached at Nebraska, his alma mater, from 2018-22. The Falcons will keep Michael Pitre as their running backs coach. Helping Tyler Allgeier to a 1,000-yard rookie year, Pitre has held this role for the past two seasons.

Rounding out the staff, the Falcons are hiring the son of longtime Patriots O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Steve Scarnecchia is onboard as the Falcons’ chief of staff, coming over from the Jets. Ex-Bolts assistant John Timu is now on Lake’s defensive staff. Chandler Whitmer, in place as a pass-game specialist, will join Rodgers, Timu and Koger incoming from the Chargers’ staff.

Texans Expected To Hire Cory Undlin; Team Will Not Retain Pep Hamilton, Others

Former Lions defensive coordinator and two-year DeMeco Ryans lieutenant with the 49ers, Cory Undlin will come over from San Francisco to join Ryans’ staff in Houston. The Texans plan to hire the veteran NFL assistant, Aaron Wilson of KPRC reports.

Previous reports pegged the Texans as interested, and Wilson notes the team intends to hire Undlin as its secondary coach and defensive passing-game coordinator. Undlin spent the past two seasons as the 49ers’ secondary coach; his contract expired after the 2022 season. He is the latest 49ers assistant to join Ryans’ Texans staff.

That staff will not include Pep Hamilton or offensive line coach George Warhop, per Wilson. The Texans retained special teams coordinator Frank Ross, who was a David Culley hire and former Nick Caserio Patriots coworker, but they will have new coordinators (Bobby Slowik, Matt Burke). While Hamilton stayed on under Lovie Smith under a different position, moving from quarterbacks coach to OC, he is out in Houston after two seasons. Warhop joined the Texans last year.

A two-time NFL OC, Hamilton, 48, turned down the opportunity to interview for the Buccaneers’ play-calling post. It will be interesting to see where the ex-Colts play-caller lands. For a second straight season, the Texans finished 30th or worse in both scoring and total offense. While the Texans were not exactly equipped with many notable starters, the team’s struggles helped key another shakeup.

Warhop, 61, has been an offensive line coach in the NFL since 1996. The Texans are eyeing former Colts O-line coach Chris Strausser for the job, Wilson notes, adding the team is also eyeing current Browns defensive line coach Chris Kiffin as well. A Frank Reich hire in Indianapolis, Strausser coached the Colts’ O-line for the past four seasons. Although that unit produced three Pro Bowlers at various points, it regressed in 2022. Kiffin has been with the Browns since 2020 but has interest in joining the Texans. The second-generation NFL coach was on the 49ers’ staff from 2018-19, serving as San Francisco’s pass rush specialist.

Undlin, 51, checks both boxes for the current Texans, having worked with both Ryans and Caserio. Undlin collected a Super Bowl ring in his first NFL season, working as a low-level assistant in New England in 2004, and was the Eagles’ DBs coach during their Super Bowl LII-winning season. His Lions DC stay under Matt Patricia lasted one season (2020).

Ryans has now added Undlin, Slowik, Stephen Adegoke (safeties) and Nick Kray from the 49ers. An effort to poach defensive line coach Kris Kocurek failed. Ryans’ staff will also not include tight ends coach Tim Berbenich, assistant D-line coach Kenyon Jackson, quarterbacks coach Ted White, linebackers coach Miles Smith and select other staffers, Wilson adds. This is not exactly surprising, given the Texans’ struggles and six-year commitment to Ryans.

Latest On Texans’ Coaching Staff

In 14 months, Lovie Smith has gone from being dismissed as the University of Illinois’ head coach to securing a third shot as an NFL HC. The Texans officially hired Smith on Monday, and the veteran defensive-minded coach will pull double duty in his next assignment.

Smith, 63, will retain defensive play-calling responsibilities, Field Yates of ESPN.com tweets. The former Bears and Buccaneers HC had been in the college ranks for five seasons prior to resurfacing as the Texans’ defensive coordinator last year. Now, he will wear two rather important hats for the rebuilding team.

GM Nick Caserio said Tuesday that Smith’s hire did not take place because of Brian Flores‘ lawsuit against the NFL, via the Houston Chronicle’s Brooks Kubena. Flores and Josh McCown were believed to be the final two in the running for the job. The longtime quarterback having never coached in the NFL likely played into Smith’s hire, but Caserio predictably indicated the team had not made a decision until it landed on Smith. Caserio did not deny McCown remained in play for another role with the team, though Smith already has his offensive coordinator in place.

Pep Hamilton is in line to call Houston’s offensive plays, being promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. While Hamilton’s rise was on the radar before Smith entered the equation, Smith said keeping the Texans’ QBs coach was “a must.” One of Smith’s first acts as Houston’s head coach was communicating to Hamilton his importance for developing Davis Mills. A year after overseeing Justin Herbert‘s rise to Offensive Rookie of the Year as Chargers QBs coach, Hamilton helped Mills show promise down the stretch.

Pep has an expertise when you look at his background,” Smith said Tuesday. “What he did in Los Angeles with Herbert to where he did with Davis here. He is a fundamental coach who has a defensive mentality on toughness. I am so excited about him being on our staff and to see what he is going to do.”

Smith is moving quickly on his assistants as well. The Texans are hiring George Warhop as their offensive line coach and Hal Hunter as his assistant, ProFootballNetwork.com’s Aaron Wilson tweets. Warhop, 60, has now been employed as an O-line coach by a fourth of the NFL’s teams. From 1996 through last season, Warhop has been with the Rams, Cardinals, Cowboys, 49ers, Browns, Buccaneers and Jaguars. Warhop’s Tampa Bay stay began when Smith arrived in 2014. Warhop coached the Jags’ O-lines for the past three seasons.

Hunter, 62, has extensive experience as well, including at the coordinator level. He spent the 2012 season as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, moving up to that post after coaching the previous six Bolts O-lines — groups that helped LaDainian Tomlinson secure first-ballot Hall of Fame entry. Hunter was last in the NFL as the Giants’ O-line coach from 2018-19.

Houston is also hiring Tim Berbenich as its tight ends coach, Fox 26’s Mark Berman tweets. This will be new territory for Berbenich, who spent last season as the Raiders’ running backs coach. In 19 seasons as an NFL assistant, Berbenich has primarily coached running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks. He was a Colts staffer during each of Hamilton’s three years as Indianapolis’ OC.

Extra Points: Maye, Covid, Vikings, Raiders

Marcus Maye and the Jets didn’t come to an agreement before the deadline for franchise-tagged players, meaning the safety will play the 2021 season under the $10.6MM tag. We heard recently that the two sides never came close, and Rich Cimini of ESPN.com opined that they would be heading for divorce this next offseason since another tag would cost the team $12.7MM in 2022. Yesterday Maye “expressed frustration” about the situation and “hinted he hasn’t ruled out asking for a trade if he’s tagged again in 2022,” Cimini writes. “I’ve got 17 weeks to be the best that I can be — and once we get to that point, we’ll cross that line again,” Maye said cryptically when asked if he’d approached the Jets about a potential trade.

When asked if he felt treated fairly throughout the process this summer, Maye said “to say fair, unfair … I’d say somewhere in the middle,” before adding “from my end, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t satisfied.” New York insisted all offseason that locking Maye up was high on their agenda, but the Florida product clearly doesn’t feel like they were being truthful with that sentiment. The Jets, of course, went through a similar situation with fellow safety Jamal Adams before ultimately trading him to Seattle. For what it’s worth, Maye didn’t sound intent on playing elsewhere, saying he just wants to play “wherever I’m welcome. I was drafted here. I’d love to be here.” This will be a situation to keep an eye on throughout the season.

Here’s more from around the league as we wrap up Sunday evening:

  • The NFL adopted strict COVID-19 protocols for unvaccinated players this offseason, and it’s now clear they’re going to be serious about enforcing them. Unvaccinated players will automatically be fined $14,650 for every violation of the protocols, Jenna Laine of ESPN.com writes. That might not be a fortune for the league’s stars, but it’s almost half a game check for younger and cheaper players. Potential violations of the protocol include not wearing a mask when required to or not adhering to the strict rules about socializing. There’s already been a fair amount of drama surrounding the protocols even as training camps just start to get underway, so we’ll likely see a whole lot more before the season is done.
  • Speaking of those COVID-19 protocols, the Vikings are now very shorthanded at quarterback because of them. With Kellen Mond testing positive for the virus, fellow passers Kirk Cousins and Nate Stanley had to be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list as close contacts. That left former Washington quarterback Jake Browning as the only active signal-caller they have. As such, Minnesota is looking to add a veteran free agent quarterback, Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press tweets. Tomasson reports 2020 UDFA from North Arizona Case Cookus is a “strong possible option” to be signed. He later tweeted that a source told him Cookus would workout for the team on Monday. Former St. John’s (MN) quarterback Jackson Erdmann will also be present at that workout, Tom Pelissero of NFL Network tweets. Erdmann recently played in the Johnny Manziel-affiliated Fan Controlled Football League. Presumably, somebody will be signed from this workout.
  • Raiders running backs coach Kirby Wilson abruptly retired a couple weeks ago, and now we know who will be replacing him. Las Vegas will have offensive quality control coach Tim Berbenich coach the running backs this year (Twitter link via NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport). Other coaches will also assist, Rapsheet hears, but Berbenich will be the one in charge. Wilson had been a running backs coach in the NFL since 1997 with the Patriots, and had coached under Jon Gruden in Tampa before re-joining him with the Raiders in 2019. Berbenich also was on Gruden’s staff for a few years with the Bucs, and has been with the Raiders since 2018. He was previously an offensive quality control coach. He’ll now lead a new-look backfield after the offseason signing of Kenyan Drake to pair with Josh Jacobs.

Coaching Rumors: Blackburn, Bears, Browns

The Panthers will be making a change atop their special teams staff. Incumbent special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey is out, Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer tweets, and the Sporting News’ Alex Marvez reports (on Twitter) Chase Blackburn will now run Carolina’s special teams units. A former linebacker who won two Super Bowls with the Giants and finished his career with the Panthers, Blackburn had been working as the Panthers’ assistant ST coach for the past two years.

Here’s the latest from the coaching ranks.

  • For the first time since 2010, someone other than Chris Tabor will oversee the Browns‘ ST units. Amos Jones will relocate to Cleveland to take over as the team’s special teams boss, Marvez tweets. Jones coached the Cardinals’ ST groups during Bruce Arians‘ five-year stay in Arizona. Tabor is now the Bears’ ST coordinator.
  • Rumored to be a candidate to stay in Chicago despite the Bears‘ coaching change, Dave Ragone will indeed stay on as the team’s quarterbacks coach, Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune reports. This comes after the Bears interviewed both ex-Raiders OC Todd Downing and Texans assistant Pat O’Hara for the job. Ragone could be in line for an extension, Biggs notes, with one year remaining on his Bears contract.
  • Biggs also notes Vic Fangio believes most, if not all, of his defensive assistants will remain on staff. The Bears finished as the No. 14 DVOA defense in 2017 and retained Fangio despite his contract having expired.
  • The TitansSteve Wilks HC interview took place Thursday. Both Wilks and Texans DC Mike Vrabel interviewed for this job today. Wilks remains a candidate for the Cards’ HC job.
  • Speaking of the Cardinals‘ HC position, Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic tweets James Bettcher likely won’t need a second interview to be hired. Should the Cards determine their current DC is the right man for the job, Somers notes his five years of experience working with the team should be a sufficient judge rather than a second meeting for the HC job.
  • The Raiders continued to add to their coaching staff this week, bringing aboard four new assistants to Jon Gruden 2.0’s first staff. Recently jettisoned Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac will land in Oakland as its D-line instructor, and Byron Storer will be the team’s assistant special teams coach. Trgovac coached Green Bay’s defensive lines from 2009-17. The 33-year-old Storer played for Gruden as a fullback in Tampa Bay from 2007-08 but hasn’t coached in the NFL since working with the 2013 Chargers. Additionally, Tim Berbenich and Travis Smith will be offensive and defensive quality control coaches, respectively. Smith’s been a Raiders assistant for most of this decade. He served as outside linebackers coach in 2017 after being promoted from the quality control group last year.

Extra Points: Combine, Draft, Colts, Browns

The NFL announced the 332 participants who will perform at the NFL Scouting Combine, with potentially high-value quarterbacks Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch and Carson Wentz among the prospects invited.

These quarterbacks figure to be jostling for the right to either go No. 1 overall, in the event the Titans trade their pick, or be the first signal-caller off the board.

Despite coming from Division I-FCS North Dakota State, Wentz looks to be out front right now, Jason Cole of Bleacher Report hears (video link). The 6-foot-6 Wentz’s rise to this point comes from being the only quarterback scouts have seen throw since the season ended, Cole notes, with Wentz impressing the scouting armada at last month’s Senior Bowl.

Sources told Cole, however, younger QBs Goff and Lynch may have higher ceilings due to their age and potential for physical growth and calls this race a fluid situation.

Here’s more from Cole and others from around the league.

  • Although Ronnie Stanley rates as the top tackle prospect by many outlets, GMs and other NFL sources are questioning the Notre Dame lineman’s work ethic, Cole reports (video link). Stanley’s decision to train for the Combine in Las Vegas resides the crux of this concern, one GM told Cole.
  • The Colts rearranged their coaching staff, shifting multiple assistants to different position groups, Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star tweets. Jim Hostler will shift from coaching the wide receivers to coaching the tight ends this coming season, and Tim Berbenich will transition to the assistant quarterbacks coach job after he served as a defensive assistant last season.
  • The Browns adjusted their analytics-geared front office again on Thursday, according to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. Former director of football research Ken Kovash will now assist new player personnel VP Andrew Berry in running the scouting department. Kevin Meers, a source tells cleveland.com (via Ulrich), will now lead the research department. Meers and Berry will report to new football operations VP Sashi Brown, who has final say on the 53-man roster, Ulrich reports. Meers, Berry, Brown and new chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta are all Harvard graduates.