The Falcons were linked to a number of candidates for their defensive coordinator vacancy, with up-and-coming coaches like Ejiro Evero joining seasoned options like Jerry Gray. In the end, the team is poaching one of the more respected assistants from one of their division rivals, hiring Saints co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen.
The report comes to us directly from the Falcons, who announced the hiring Friday night. Despite many reports linking the team to interim Panthers head coach Steve Wilks and Gray, the Packers defensive backs coach, they wound up bringing in a coach best known for his work in the trenches.
Our Nielsen rating just went up— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) January 27, 2023
Nielsen is not a surprising hire—the team just completed their second interview with him the other day—but all the reports linking the team strongly to Wilks and others over the past few weeks will undoubtedly make this addition feel like it came out of left field. As Matthew Chambers noted the other day, Nielsen’s connections to this Falcons front office, lauded work with a very good Saints defensive line, and relative youth all likely worked in his favor.
After serving as the defensive line coach for the Saints for several years, Nielsen earned a promotion to assistant head coach in 2021 when LSU tried to poach him to be their defensive coordinator. He also took on the co-defensive coordinator role in 2022, so while he does not have extensive experience in larger roles, he does have some.
In what’s likely to be music to Atlanta fan ears, Nielsen oversaw a defensive line that was a key piece of the Saints’ very good pass rush, a pass rush that ranked in the top five in the league in sacks heading into 2022. The Falcons are likely banking on Nielsen’s work with the New Orleans defense translating to Atlanta, where the defensive front has been a chronic weakness. The Saints also didn’t allow a single 100 yard rusher in the four seasons Nielsen was the defensive line coach, which can’t solely be attributed to him but is promising for a coach that has also been widely lauded by his own players.
In choosing Nielsen, the Falcons are passing over or admitting defeat on several promising candidates, including Ejiro Eviro (blocked by the Broncos from interviewing), Brian Flores (in play for the Arizona head coaching job), and Steve Wilks (who just was informed Frank Reich had been hired as the full-time Carolina head coach). It’s fair to speculate whether Nielsen was their top top choice or if other candidates turned Atlanta down, but they showed consistent interest in him throughout this process and appeared to be competing with the Minnesota Vikings for his services. Given his ties to Fontenot and Ryan Pace and the fact that he was, you know, hired, it’s probably safe to assume the team is happy with their decision.
I’d expect the Falcons to chase former Saints defensive linemen this offseason with their war chest of cap space, making a name like oft-injured-but-promising pass rusher Marcus Davenport even more likely than he might have been otherwise. If Nielsen and this front office can work together to get a fearsome pass rush and better defensive front together, he’ll likely go down as a success in Atlanta, but there’s a long road ahead and a lot of work to get there.
We’ll get a better sense of why the Falcons made this hire when Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot get a chance to weigh in on it, but frankly his work with the Saints is intriguing. With the announcement that the Falcons are also letting go of a few coaches—we’ll get that story in a minute—Nielsen will have a chance to change up his staff and try to coax more out of a Falcons defense that has to make the leap. Let’s hope he’s the right man for the job.