Exactly one week after his introductory press conference, the San Francisco 49ers announced that their new head coach, Chip Kelly, has made 15 additions to what will be his first coaching staff as he attempts to turn around his struggling franchise.
With a massive overhaul that saw only four assistants from Jim Tomsula’s staff avoid the chopping block, Kelly’s new-look staff will look to breathe new life into a 49ers team that ranked 31st in offense, and 29th in defense across their 5-11 2015 season.
The most important additions to Kelly’s staff come at the coordinator position, after the team decided to move on from former coordinators OC Geep Chryst and DC Eric Mangini after just one season.
Perhaps the most intriguing hire is that of new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who recently held the same position for the Cleveland Browns the previous two seasons. O’Neil is a bit of a wildcard in terms of what to expect, as his two years in Cleveland yielded largely mixed results.
During his first year as the defensive coordinator for the Browns, O’Neil’s unit excelled, earning an admirable ninth overall ranking in points (21.1) allowed per game in 2014.However, O’Neil’s defense experienced a significant drop off last season, falling to 27th in points per game during the 2015 season.
It will be hard to gauge what we should expect from the 49ers new defensive coordinator, as his numbers have showed both a high floor, and low ceiling. Even in his noteworthy 2014 season, O’Neil had some head-scratching polarities in his unit’s statistics.
Despite ranking ninth in points allowed, the Browns’ defense scratched the floor in other categories, ranking dead last in rushing yards allowed per game, and ultimately earning the 23rd overall spot in total yardage.
O’Neil’s Browns certainly had their fair share of injuries last year that could have skewed his disappointing numbers. Of the three Pro Bowl players from Cleveland’s defense — safety Donte Whitner, corners Tashaun Gipson and Joe Haden — Whitner was the most healthy, missing just two games with injuries. Haden appeared in only five games, while Gipson appeared in 13.
Coupled with a rotating quarterback carousel that turned the ball back over to opposing offenses quickly, it may appear as if O’Neil deserves a little slack for the team’s shortcomings.
However, his own players also appeared to criticize the team’s defense as predictable, or easy to read, sounding eerily familiar to the claims made by some about the 49ers offense in 2015.
On the other side of the ball, newly hired offensive coordinator, Curtis Modkins, will take his second shot at manning the position for an NFL team. Modkins makes the leap to the coordinator position after serving as a running back coach and run game coordinator for the Detroit Lions.
The Lions came in dead last in rushing yards per game in 2015 with just 83.4, although much of that could be attributed to an atrocious offensive line.
However, Modkins’ position won’t be as important to the 49ers success as O’Neil’s. With Chip Kelly looking to implement his own, unique system, as well as call the 49ers offensive plays, Modkins will most likely focus on a role similar to that of his previous position with the Lions.
Modkins will likely be relied on to look for ways to get RB Carlos Hyde involved in Kelly’s offense. With shifty and nimble backs ,such as Eagles RB Darren Sproles and even former Oregon player LaMichael James, excelling under Kelly’s scheme, it will be interesting to see how the power-style Hyde fits in with this new offense.
After posting career numbers with Dallas in 2014, RB DeMarco Murray– whose power running is similar to that favored by Hyde- went on to score the second worse rushing marks of his career after joining Kelly and the Eagles, with just 702 yards on 193 attempts.
The 49ers may already have two complimentary pieces to Kelly’s puzzle in late-season acquisitions Shaun Draughn and DuJuan Harris, who both looked strong coming out of the backfield for San Francisco in 2015.
Another interesting addition is that of new quarterbacks coach, Ryan Day. Day will follow Kelly over from the Eagles to work in the same capacity, as he attempts to sort out which 49ers quarterback will be best suited to run Kelly’s offense.
The move is significant in that it represents the first time that Geep Chryst — who worked with QB Colin Kaepernick as both a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator — will not be present in the struggling quarterback’s development.
Day, who knows Kelly’s system well having served on his staff in Philadelphia, can provide a fresh set of eyes as Kaepernick looks to make a push to return to his starting job. Day’s expertise at the position can prove instrumental to helping get the 49ers quarterback’s up to speed quickly in Kelly’s new system.
The following list is a complete rundown of Kelly’s staff, courtesy of the 49ers:
Curtis Modkins Offensive Coordinator
Bob Bicknell Wide Receivers
Ryan Day Quarterbacks
Jeff Nixon Tight Ends
Tom Rathman Running Backs
Pat Flaherty Offensive Line
Eric Wolford Assistant Offensive Line
Mick Lombardi Offensive Quality Control
Jim O’Neil Defensive Coordinator
Jerry Azzinaro Defensive Line
Jeff Hafley Defensive Backs
Hardy Nickerson Inside Linebackers
Jason Tarver Outside Linebackers
Derius Swinton II Special Teams Coordinator
Michael Clay Assistant Special Teams
Modkins, 45, enters his ninth season in the NFL and first as the 49ers offensive coordinator. Prior to joining San Francisco, he spent three seasons as the running backs coach/run game coordinator for the Detroit Lions (2013-15). Modkins spent three years with the Buffalo Bills (2010-12) as the offensive coordinator and running backs coach. Before his time in Buffalo, he served as the running backs coach with the Arizona Cardinals, in 2009. He began his NFL coaching career as the running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, in 2008. Before heading to the NFL, Modkins spent six years as a coach at Georgia Tech, where he coached the running backs (2003-07) and defensive backs (2002). Prior to his time with the Yellow Jackets, he spent four seasons at the University of New Mexico (1998-2001) as the team’s defensive backs coach. Modkins began his coaching career at his alma mater, Texas Christian University, where he served as a tight ends coach in 1997, secondary coach in 1996 and a graduate assistant, in 1995.
Bicknell, 46, enters his first season as the 49ers wide receivers coach after spending the previous three years with the Philadelphia Eagles (2013-15) in the same role. A veteran of 26 seasons coaching the collegiate and professional levels, Bicknell joined the Eagles after three seasons with the Buffalo Bills, where he served as their wide receivers coach, in 2012, and as tight ends coach from 2010-11. Prior to his arrival in Buffalo, he spent the three previous years with the Kansas City Chiefs as their tight ends coach (2009), offensive line coach (2008) and assistant offensive line coach (2007). Before joining the NFL ranks, Bicknell was the offensive line coach at Temple University (2006) and spent eight years in NFL Europe (1998-2005), including stints as the offensive coordinator/offensive line coach for the Cologne Centurions (2004-05) and Berlin Thunder (2001-03). Bicknell began his coaching career at Boston University, where he coached safeties (1993), running backs (1994) and linebackers (1995-97).
Nixon, 41, enters his 10th season in the NFL and first as the 49ers tight ends coach, having spent the past five seasons as the running backs coach for the Miami Dolphins (2011-15). Prior to joining the Dolphins, he spent four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles (2007-10) as an assistant, working with the special teams and offense. In 2006, Nixon spent one season at Temple University, where he was the wide receivers and running backs coach. Before his time with the Owls, he spent three seasons at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (2003-05), where he was the special teams coordinator while overseeing the running backs and tight ends. Nixon arrived at Chattanooga after four seasons at Shippensburg University (1999-2002), where he served as the running backs coach. He began his coaching career at Penn State University, where he spent one season (1997) as a student assistant coach before becoming the running backs coach at Princeton University for one year (1998).
Rathman, 53, rejoined the 49ers as the team’s running backs coach in 2009, after serving the previous two seasons in the same capacity with the Oakland Raiders. It marked Rathman’s second coaching stint in San Francisco, having also coached the running backs for the team from 1997-2002. Under Rathman, the 49ers did not miss a beat in the rushing game throughout the 2015 season. Following an injury to RB Carlos Hyde, RB Shaun Draughn was brought in and registered career-bests in both rushing yards (273) and receiving yards (176) during his six games with San Francisco. While with the Raiders, Rathman oversaw a rushing attack that ranked 10th (124.2) in the NFL in 2008 and ranked sixth (130.4) the year prior. Prior to joining the Raiders, Rathman served as the running backs coach for the Detroit Lions from 2003 to 2005. During Rathman’s first coaching stint with the 49ers, San Francisco’s rushing attack finished in the top-10 among NFL teams in five of the six seasons under his guidance, including top-ranked seasons in 1998 (159.0) and 1999 (130.9), to go along with a second-ranked unit in 2001 (140.3). Prior to his coaching career, Rathman enjoyed an NFL playing career of his own that spanned nine seasons (1986-94) as a fullback. He entered the league as a third round pick by San Francisco, where he spent the first eight years of his career helping the 49ers capture two World Championships (Super Bowl XXIII and XXIV) and seven NFC West titles. In 1989, he led all NFL running backs in receiving with 73 receptions for 616 yards. Rathman played his final season in the NFL with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1994, closing out his NFL career with 2,020 rushing yards, 320 receptions for 2,684 yards and 34 total touchdowns.
Flaherty, 59 enters his first season as the 49ers offensive line coach after having spent the previous 12 seasons (2004-15) in the same role for the New York Giants. Prior to joining the Giants, Flaherty spent three seasons (2001-03) coaching the tight ends with the Chicago Bears. He made his NFL coaching debut in 2000, when he coached the tight ends for the Washington Redskins. Prior to his time in Washington, Flaherty coached for 19 seasons in the collegiate ranks. He served as the tight ends and special teams coach at the University of Iowa in 1999. Flaherty spent six years (1993-98) at Wake Forest University, where he coached the offensive line, tight ends and special teams. In 1992, he coached one season at East Carolina University as the defensive line coach after spending eight years (1984-91) as the offensive line coach at Rutgers University. In 1982, Flaherty joined the staff at Penn State University, where he spent two seasons (1982-83) as an assistant offensive line coach. He began his collegiate coaching career in 1980, as the offensive line coach at East Stroudsburg University, his alma mater.
Wolford, 44, enters his second season in the NFL as the 49ers assistant offensive line coach, after spending the previous 19 seasons in the collegiate ranks. Prior to joining the 49ers, he served as the head coach at Youngstown State University from 2009-14. In 2009, Wolford worked under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina as the running-game coordinator and offensive line coach. Prior to joining the Gamecocks, Wolford spent two seasons at the University of Illinois (2007-08), coaching the offensive line under then head coach Ron Zook. Over the course of 11 seasons (1996-2006), Wolford has served as the offensive line coach for other collegiate staffs, including the University of Arizona (2004-06), the University of North Texas (2003), the University of Houston (2000-02), the University of South Florida (1997-99) and Emporia State University (1996). He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Bill Snyder at Kansas State University, where he was a four-year starter at guard for the Wildcats.
Lombardi, 27, enters his fourth season with the 49ers and his first as an offensive quality control coach. Before his current role, he spent the 2014 season as an offensive assistant and the 2013 season as assistant to the head coach. Prior to joining the 49ers, Lombardi served as both a scouting assistant and coaching assistant for the New England Patriots, where his duties included evaluating players, breaking down film for the offense, assisting offensive coaches, running the scout team, and charting plays for the coaching staff. Lombardi was hired as a training camp intern in the scouting department for the Patriots in 2011, before being promoted to a full-time position prior to the regular season. Before his time in the NFL, Lombardi was a student assistant coach at Fordham University for the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
O’Neil, 37, is in his eighth season in the NFL and first with the 49ers as the team’s defensive coordinator. He joins the 49ers after spending the past two seasons (2014-15) in the same role with the Cleveland Browns. Prior to joining the Browns, O’Neil spent the 2013 season as the linebackers coach for the Buffalo Bills. O’Neil spent four seasons in the New York Jets organization, first as defensive quality control/defensive backs coach in 2009 and the following three years (2010-12) as assistant defensive backs coach. Before his time in the NFL, O’Neil spent eight years as a coach at the collegiate level. He was at Eastern Michigan University as the school’s recruiting coordinator and safeties coach from 2006-08. He also had stints at Towson University (2005), as defensive coordinator, Northwestern University (2003-04), as a graduate assistant/defensive backs coach, the University of Pennsylvania (2002), as an assistant offensive line coach and SUNY-Albany (2001), as an assistant offensive line/tight ends coach. A three-year starter as a defensive lineman at Towson University, O’Neil served as a team captain in 2000. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management from Towson and a master of arts degree in liberal studies from Northwestern as well as a master of science degree in education from SUNY-Albany. O’Neil attended Central Bucks West (Doylestown, PA) High School where he helped the school to a 31-4 record and three consecutive Suburban One League National Conference championships.
Azzinaro, 57, enters his fourth season in the NFL and first as the 49ers defensive line coach. A veteran of 34 seasons coaching at the professional and collegiate levels, he joins the 49ers after three years (2013-15) as the assistant head coach/defensive line coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Prior to joining the Eagles, Azzinaro served as the defensive line coach at the University of Oregon under head coach Chip Kelly from 2009-12. He was on a coaching staff that helped lead the Ducks to a 46-7 record and four BCS bowl games in four years, including the 2010 National Championship Game. Throughout his coaching career, Azzinaro has served as the defensive line coach at Marshall University, in 2008, and at the University of New Hampshire, in 2007. Azzinaro also had stints as a defensive coordinator at Duke University (2004-06), the University of Massachusetts (1994 & 1997) and American International College (1987-91). He served as the head coach of Division-III Western New England University for one season, in 1986. Azzinaro was the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at Syracuse University from 1999-2003. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at American International College (1982-84) and had stops as an assistant at the University of Maine (1998), Boston College (1995-96), the University of Massachusetts (1994) and Westfield University (1985). A native of Staten Island, NY, Azzinaro played linebacker at American International College (1978-81) as he led his team in tackles as a senior, in 1981.
Hafley, 36, enters his first season as the 49ers secondary coach after spending the previous two seasons (2014-15) in the same role with the Cleveland Browns. Prior to joining the Browns, Hafley spent two years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the team’s secondary and safeties coach (2013) and assistant defensive backs coach (2012). Before entering the NFL ranks, Hafley served as the secondary coach at Rutgers University in 2011. Prior to Rutgers, Hafley spent five seasons at the University of Pittsburgh, coaching the secondary (2008-10) and as a defensive assistant/cornerbacks coach (2006-07). He spent four seasons at the University of Albany, where he was the defensive backs coach (2004-05) and defensive tackles coach (2002-03). Hafley began his coaching career as the running backs coach at Worcester Polytechnic University in 2001.
Nickerson, 50, enters his first season with the 49ers as the team’s inside linebackers coach. He joins San Francisco after serving as the linebackers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two seasons (2014-15). Prior to joining the Buccaneers, Nickerson spent four seasons (2010-13) as the head coach at Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland, CA) High School. Nickerson began his coaching career with the Chicago Bears as the team’s linebackers coach, in 2007. He also participated in the NFL’s Minority Coaching Fellowship Program with the Bears during training camp in 2004. Nickerson was a fifth-round draft pick (122nd overall) in the 1987 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he went on to play five seasons (1987-92) at linebacker. He also had stops with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1993-99), Jacksonville Jaguars (2000-01) and Green Bay Packers (2002). He was a second-team selection to the NFL 1990s All-Decade team. During his 16-year playing career, Nickerson started 200 of 225 career games played, totaling 1,867 tackles, 21 sacks and 12 interceptions. Throughout his career, Nickerson was chosen as the NFLPA Linebacker of the Year, earned four AP All-Pro and five Pro Bowl selections. Nickerson was also chosen as the recipient of the NFL’s Byron “Whizzer” White Award, given annually to one NFL player who exhibits excellence both on the field and in the community. A three-time team MVP in college, Nickerson attended the University of California (1983-86), where he racked up 501 tackles, eight interceptions and 4.5 sacks. He earned his degree in sociology, and was also inducted into the University’s Hall of Fame in 2004.
Tarver, 41, enters his 15th season in the NFL and seventh as the team’s outside linebackers coach, having served the 2015 season as the team’s senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach. Last season, he returned to the 49ers as he was also an assistant coach from 2001-10. LBs Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks under Tarver’s guidance in 2015. A former defensive coordinator at the professional and collegiate levels, he is a veteran of 20 coaching seasons. He served the Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator from 2012-14, after spending the 2011 season as the co-defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach at Stanford University. During his decade-long, first tenure with the 49ers, Tarver spent time as an offensive quality control coach (2001-03), assistant running backs/offensive assistant coach (2004) and outside linebackers coach (2005-10). Before joining the 49ers staff, Tarver spent three years as a graduate assistant with UCLA (1998-2000). He worked primarily with defensive backs, while also assisting with special teams. Tarver played football at West Valley Junior College in Saratoga, CA (1994-95), before coaching the team’s linebackers, defensive backs and special teams for two seasons.
Swinton II, 30, enters his eighth season in the NFL and first with San Francisco as the special teams coordinator. He joins the 49ers after serving as an assistant special teams coach with the Chicago Bears in 2015. Prior to joining the Bears, Swinton was an assistant special teams coach with the Denver Broncos from 2013-14. Swinton joined the Broncos after spending the 2012 season as a special teams quality control coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. He began his NFL coaching career with the St. Louis Rams (2009-11) as their special teams quality control coach. Swinton made his coaching debut at the University of Tennessee in 2007 as a graduate assistant working with the defense and held that position for two years. A Newport News, VA native, Swinton played safety at Hampton University for four seasons (2003-06), Swinton registered 103 tackles, eight interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He was also on the school’s basketball team.
Clay, 25, enters his first season with the 49ers as the team’s assistant special teams coach after spending the previous two seasons (2014-15) as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff. In 2015, Clay served as a special teams assistant for the Eagles where he helped RB Darren Sproles earn his second career Pro Bowl selection as a return specialist after leading the NFL in punt return yards (446) and return touchdowns (two). He originally joined Philadelphia as a defensive quality control coach, in 2014. Clay was a four-year letterman as a linebacker for the University of Oregon (2009-12) and earned Second-Team All-Pac-12 honors as a senior, in 2012. Following his college career, he signed with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent, in 2013.