The Detroit Lions are in a unique position. With their elite offensive coordinator, Ben Johnson, likely moving on to a head coaching position next year, the Lions need to prepare for the possibility of filling a significant void in 2024. Let’s delve deeper into the three potential internal successors to Johnson’s OC role.
Here are the three internal candidates to keep an eye on throughout the 2023 NFL season:
Tanner Engstrand – Passing Game Coordinator
Tanner Engstrand, the current passing game coordinator, appears ready to walk the path paved by Ben Johnson. His rise through the coaching ranks mirrors that of Johnson, sparking speculation that he might be the next to step up.
Entering his fourth season with the Lions in 2023, Engstrand is no stranger to success and leadership in the game. As the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach, he led San Diego to a commendable 9-2 season in 2011. Throughout the season he was showcasing an offense that consistently dominated oppositions both on the ground and in the air. Engstrand’s creativity and innovative play design were evident during his stint in the XFL as the DC Defenders’ offensive coordinator before the league was shut down. Despite a lackluster roster, Engstrand’s offensive strategies helped the team clinch three victories out of five games, emphasizing his aptitude for extracting the best from his players.
In his current role with the Lions, Engstrand’s influence is substantial. As the passing game coordinator, he has become an invaluable asset, drawing admiration from the coaching staff and elevating the team’s performance. Several impressive passing plays witnessed in the latter half of the 2022 season were courtesy of Engstrand’s strategic brilliance. Overseeing the team’s tight ends in addition to his role in the passing game, Engstrand contributed significantly to a record-breaking 2022 season. The tight end unit combined for 12 touchdown receptions, setting a new single-season franchise record. Furthermore, the Lions became the first team in NFL history to have three different tight ends producing multi-touchdown games within a single season.
The internal promotion approach has been a hallmark of the Brad Holmes era, with Engstrand perfectly fitting this trend. His promotion to offensive coordinator could signal a seamless transition and a promising future for the Lions’ offense.
Mark Brunell – Quarterbacks Coach
The bond between a quarterback and his coach is crucial, and that’s where Mark Brunell, the current quarterback coach, excels. His connection with Jared Goff, Nate Sudfeld and Hendon Hooker could ensure a smooth transition if he takes up the offensive coordinator role in the future.
Brunell began his coaching journey with the Lions in 2021, showcasing exceptional skills in guiding quarterbacks. Under his supervision in 2022, Jared Goff rose to the top of the NFL charts in various key performance indicators. Goff led the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (4.14), showcased the second-lowest interception rate (1.2%), tied for the fifth-most passing touchdowns (29), threw for the sixth-most yards (4,438), and recorded the seventh-highest passer rating (99.3), leading him to secure a Pro Bowl selection.
Although Brunell’s coaching career at the NFL level might be relatively brief, his experience as an NFL quarterback more than makes up for it.
With a career spanning 19 seasons, Brunell started 151 games, predominantly with the Jacksonville Jaguars. During his time with the Jaguars he piloted the team to 10 playoff games and two AFC Championship Game appearances. Over his career, Brunell notched three Pro Bowl selections, led the NFL with 4,367 passing yards in 1996, and exited the Jaguars as the franchise record-holder in career passing attempts (3,616), completions (2,184), yards (25,698), and touchdowns (144). He propelled Jacksonville to two AFC Central division titles and four playoff appearances, in addition to leading Washington to the NFC East title in 2005. As a backup quarterback with the Saints in 2009, he contributed to New Orleans’ victory in Super Bowl XLIV, the franchise’s first championship.
His college career at the University of Washington (1988-92) was equally commendable. Brunell was a member of the 1991 National Championship team to go along with his three Rose Bowl appearances, 1991 Rose Bowl MVP recognition, and his induction into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2015.
Mark Brunell’s proven track record as a winner, his deep understanding of NFL defenses from a quarterback’s perspective, and his strong ties with the existing offense make him an outstanding candidate for the role of offensive coordinator. Like Engstrand, his hiring would be a winning move for the Detroit Lions.
Scottie Montgomery – Assistant Head Coach and Running Backs Coach
There’s a strong whisper around the NFL that Scottie Montgomery has a head coaching role in his not-so-distant future. Currently donning the hat of the Detroit Lions’ assistant head coach and running backs coach, Montgomery was promptly included in the NFL’s Coach Accelerator Program upon his hire in February. This initiative is curated to prepare the league’s upcoming head coaching talents. However, before he reaches that pinnacle, there’s a considerable chance he might assume the position of the Lions’ offensive coordinator.
Scottie Montgomery is young but experienced. His 17-year coaching voyage began with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was tasked with the development of wide receivers from 2010 to 2012. Most recently he was the running backs coach for the Indianapolis Colts prior to joining the Detroit Lions.
Montgomery has gained a reputation as a talent maximizer.
His guidance led Colts’ running back Jonathan Taylor to an exceptional season in 2021, with Taylor rushing for a beastly 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns. The outstanding performance earned him a Pro Bowl nod and first-team Associated Press All-Pro recognition. Under Montgomery’s stewardship, the Indianapolis Colts ascended to second in the league for both rushing yards per game and per carry in 2021. More broadly, from 2021-22, the running backs group guided by Montgomery ranked in the top 10 across the league in parameters such as rushing yards (4,406), rushing average (4.7), and rushes of 10+ yards (118). He was instrumental in forming one of the NFL’s most dynamic backfields, nurturing not only Taylor but also Nyheim Hines into formidable pass-catching threats.
Before his professional coaching stint, Montgomery demonstrated his coaching acumen at the college level at institutions like Maryland, Duke, and East Carolina, even enjoying a three-year term as the ECU Pirates’ head coach. His experiences as a former wide receiver for Duke and later as a player for the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders bring an invaluable perspective to his coaching roles.
With a clear knack for player development, Montgomery has positioned himself as a prime internal candidate for the role of the Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator in the future. The Lions’ head coach, Dan Campbell, is clearly thrilled at the prospect. In a chat with Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com, Campbell shared his excitement:
To be able to acquire him as our running back coach/assistant head coach from the Colts, man, was big. I think he’s going to be an outstanding teacher. He’s got a lot of versatility. He’s coached the receivers, he’s coached running backs. He’s been a head coach, he’s been a coordinator. He’s worked with quarterbacks. This is a talented coach, man, that’s got a lot of wisdom.
Additional Candidates to Consider:
Jim Hostler – Senior Offensive Assistant
- Boasts 24 years of NFL experience.
- Joined the Lions in 2023, making significant contributions.
- Proven record at Washington, nurturing a 1,000-yard receiver (McLaurin) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Gibson) in 2021.
- Guided receiver Terry McLaurin to achieve over 1,000 receiving yards for three seasons consecutively.
- Under his leadership, McLaurin received his first Pro Bowl selection in 2022.
Antwaan Randle El – Wide Receivers Coach
- Currently in his third season with the Lions.
- Contributed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl LV win during his 2019-20 stint.
- In Tampa, his offensive unit topped the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
- Coached a top-10 wide receiver corps at the Lions in 2022, in terms of receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.
- Under Randle El, the Lions had six players recording over 350 receiving yards.
Hank Fraley – Offensive Line Coach
- With the Lions for six seasons, four of which as the offensive line coach.
- In 2022, coached one of the top offensive lines in the NFL, producing two Pro Bowlers.
- The unit allowed only 24 sacks in the season, the second-lowest in the League.
- Guided the Lions to rush for 2,179 yards, the highest for the franchise since 1997.
- Under Fraley, the team scored 23 rushing touchdowns, tying for the third-most in Detroit’s single-season history.
These potential candidates could serve as strong options at OC if Ben Johnson moves to a head coach role.
For more from our Detroit Lions beat writer, Matt Broder, check him out on Twitter here: @mattbro21
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Original Photo Credit: © Junfu Han – Detroit Free Press