The Value of Steve Wilks
When considering the coaching question for the Cleveland Browns, the most valuable commodity the team has right now seems to be defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. For all of the challenges this team has experienced such as injuries and suspensions, one aspect of this team that has been consistent has been good defensive game plans. Additionally, the defense has gotten far more out of the talent it was provided than the offense with more reason to believe in them going forward.
Myles Garrett was enjoying a career year before his suspension. Joe Schobert has had a career year under Wilks and his usage has been far better than it was under Gregg Williams. Olivier Vernon's numbers don't reflect just how good he was before he hurt his knee. Sheldon Richardson has improved particularly over the past six games. These are impact players that have grown with Wilks running a new defensive scheme in its first season.
One exception is Damarious Randall. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what hasn't worked there, but the injuries didn't help and it's not clear why he was sat out for the second game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that seems more about him than coaching.
The defense has been forced into playing rookies this year. Greedy Williams has struggled, but he does have a skill set that looks worthwhile. Corner is a difficult transition. It seems like he may find his way through it.
Mack Wilson has been put in a tough spot as a fifth round rookie and the results have been pretty brutal. Combined with the unending issues at safety, it's really created a gaping hole in the middle of the defense. Schobert is doing all he can to cover for it, but he's one player trying to field his position and cover for multiple deficient ones. It's just not realistic.
Despite missing his starting corners for a month, having to shuffle through various safeties, now down to a player that hasn't been here all season and a fourth round rookie, Wilks has had his seondary in position to make plays and play solid pass defense. The hope is with another year, he'll be able to get more out of these players as they continue growing, leading to a more productive unit.
They need another quality linebacker to put next to Joe Schobert in the hope they are smart enough to re-sign him. Whether they keep him at MIKE or move him to WILL, they have to get someone who's going to do more than Wilson. If that's Sione Takitaki, the team's third round pick who's starting to get more opportunities, great. If it's someone else, fine. It's been a huge problem both against the run and the pass.
Beyond keeping the defensive line on the field, they just need more of them. Their depth is currently non-existent, especially in the middle, but it's become a major problem on the edge where the team is now rolling street free agents out there.
The defense is giving up 22.7 points per game this year as compared to 24.5 last year. They are giving up 5.4 yards per play compared to 5.6 last season. They are only benefiting from 1.3 takeaways per game compared to 1.9 last year.
Wilks isn't without questions or areas that can be criticized but in general the defense is performing better with him in charge. The scheme is consistently sound. Players are put in positions to succeed and the ones taking advantage are having great years. It seems reasonable that Wilks and this defense will improve next year.
Wilks is a real asset to this coaching staff. So much so, the thought of not having him makes the idea of keeping Freddie Kitchens as head coach less attractive, which isn't exactly an endorsement of Kitchens on his own ability. Wilks was part of an excellent staff that Kitchens was able to assemble and they are an argument to keep him.
Coaches like Wilks, offensive line coach James Campen and Special Teams Coach Mike Priefer have been good for this team. And that is a big part of being a head coach; being able to assemble an excellent coaching staff. There are probably some upgrades that need to be made, but the majority of them are capable, sought after candidates that could've gone elsewhere and done well for themselves.
The fate of Kitchens remains to be determined and there are persuasive arguments on both sides of that discussion. Wilks has been good for the Browns this year and is good for the argument to keep Kitchens as head coach.