As has become the norm in New England over the last few years, the Patriots’ coaching staff is again seeing considerable offseason turnover. Two moves have been made official at this point in time — special teams/wide receivers coach Joe Judge has joined the New York Giants as their new head coach; coaching assistant Bob Fraser has moved from New England to Rutgers — and two others have been reported earlier this week.
While former Patriots practice squad safety Vinnie Sunseri will join the team’s staff in an assistant role, its defensive line coach will leave the organization: Bret Bielema will reportedly join Judge’s staff in New York after spending the previous two seasons in New England. The former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach arrived in 2018 as a coaching assistant before being promoted to coach the team’s defensive linemen in 2019.
With the 50-year-old moving on from the Patriots, the search for an heir begins. Let’s take a look at five names that could be on the list of potential candidates:
In 2019, the Patriots used two men to work with the linebackers: while Jerod Mayo served as the team’s inside linebackers coach, DeMarcus Covington was responsible for the outside linebackers. With Mayo likely to stay in place and potentially expand his role, Covington would be a prime candidate to take over Bielema’s former spot. Not only has he been with the organization since joining it as a coaching assistant in 2017, he also has experience working with front-seven defenders. He should therefore be seen as the favorite to become New England’s next defensive line coach.
Together with his father, head coach Bill Belichick, and the aforementioned Jerod Mayo, Steve Belichick was the primary driving force behind the NFL’s best defense this season. While a move to defensive coordinator remains a possibility, the younger Belichick could also be tasked with taking over the defensive line from Bielema to get more experience working outside the defensive backfield: after serving as a coaching assistant for four years, Belichick was promoted to safeties coach in 2016 — a role he has held for the last four seasons while seeing the title “secondary coach” get tagged on last year.
Bill Belichick’s youngest son first joined the Patriots as a scouting assistant in 2016 before changing positions to become a coaching assistant the following year. Could he take another step up the ladder in 2020 and take over an entire position group after three seasons in his previous role? It certainly seems possible, although New England might prefer going with a more experienced coach — Steve Belichick, for example, was an assistant for four years before being entrusted with the safety group.
As can be seen, the Patriots have plenty of options if they want to use an in-house replacement for Bielema. Of course, they also could go outside the organization to fill the vacancy. Two names in particular are intriguing:
While it appears to be a long-shot that Pepper Johnson re-joins the team with which he spent the first 14 years of his coaching career, stranger things have happened in New England. Johnson certainly would bring considerable experience to the table, after all: he coached the Patriots’ defensive line between 2004 and 2011 and has worked for two other NFL teams — the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets — in the same position. Currently preparing to work in the XFL, the 55-year-old might be open to returning to the NFL if the chance presented itself.
The aforementioned Vinnie Sunseri is just the latest member from Alabama to come to New England and make the transition from working under Nick Saban to working under Bill Belichick. Brian Baker might be the next: the 57-year-old, who has 19 years of coaching experience at the NFL level on his résumé, will not be back as the Crimson Tide’s defensive line coach in 2020 and could therefore be an option for the Patriots. As is the case with Johnson, the odds are against him, but if the team wants to go with experience instead of youth he could still end up becoming a target.