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How Vic Fangio built a defense from the ground up

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New Broncos Head Coach Vic Fangio has proven he can not only coach, but build a top-caliber defense in this league.

Chicago Bears v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

When John Elway introduced Vic Fangio as the team’s Head Coach, he made this statement:

I believe that football is still built from the ground up. And I think Vic is built from the ground up. Now, what do I mean by that? Discipline, accountability. He holds his team to high standards, emphasizes teaching technique, fundamentals, blocking, tackling—those are all the basics of what the NFL is still about. Even though the game is changing. And the thing is, when we had a chance to sit down with Vic, all of those things I just talked about were his emphasis. And how he teaches his team, how he gets his team going in the right direction. And it starts from the ground up.

That phrase “from the ground up” along with “death by inches” were the two themes from Fangio’s introductory press conference.

It came up again when he was asked what would determined success in his first year as a head coach for the Broncos. Fangio replied:

It’s my goal and purpose to make every individual player improve and get better. If we do that within that position group, that position group will be better. We do that, that side of the ball—whether it be offense, special teams or defense—will be better. Ultimately, we’ll have a better team which will lead to a better record. You’ve got to start from the ground up. We’re trying to get better every day.”

And again when going into detail about developing young players, the coach reiterated that the coaches must start “from the ground up”.

Vic Fangio knows a thing or two about building things from the ground up. His last three years in Chicago are the ultimate example of that. The year before he joined the team, the Bears fielded the 30th ranked defense in total yards, and 31st ranked points per game.

The roster Fangio inherited a roster that was one of the oldest in the NFL. The talent on defense consisted of a 33 year-old Jared Allen, an injured and 34 year-old Lance Briggs, a 31 year-old Tim Jennings, 34 year-old Jay Ratliff, and 32 year-old, oft-injured DJ Williams.

As far as young talent to develop, he also inherited a parade of whiffed draft picks from the previous administration including failed 2012 first round pick, Shea McClellin; 2013 second round pick, Jon Bostic, who lost the training camp starting competition every year; and 2014 second and third round defensive linemen, Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson. Sutton now plays in the AAF, and Ferguson is a free agent.

2014 first rounder, Kyle Fuller was the only piece on defense Fangio had to build from when he stepped into the Chicago defensive coordinator role in 2015. Just four seasons later, after steadily improving each year, the Bears would field the #1 defense in the NFL.

How did he get there? By starting from the ground up, not only with the entire roster, but with each player as he began to bring in talent to develop.

In a recent piece by Woody Paige in the Gazette, Fangio spoke to the joy he gets from teaching and developing players.

“What’s my goal?” he asked himself. “Obviously, everybody wants to win Super Bowls. But I get a real kick out of seeing players improve and teaching all the little things. I, we, defensive coaches I’ve been with have been successful with players who were drafted high, and it didn’t work out for them with that team. We’ve gotten them and turned their careers around. I look forward to coaching the low-drafted, undrafted young men.

That approach is exactly how Fangio built his defense in Chicago. The starting roster of that great 2018 defense who led the league with 36 takeaways, one of the best marks of the last five years, was built piece by piece by Fangio, his staff, and GM, Ryan Pace.

2015

The first draft out of the gate, added NT Eddie Goldman in the 2nd round, Safety, Adrian Amos (who I would love Denver to chase this offseason) in the 5th round, and signed nickel corner Bryce Callahan as an undrafted free agent, who has become one of the better nickel corners in the league over the last two years.

2016

The Bears signed Danny Trevathan and Akiem Hicks in free agency. While Trevathan had already broken out as a player, former New Orleans Saints 3rd rounder Hicks fits Fangio’s description of a player who it didn’t work out for his original team, and then reached their full potential under his tutelage. Hicks was traded to the Patriots in the last year of his rookie deal, and then signed to a two-year $10 million ‘prove it’ contract in Chicago. Since then, Hicks has become one of the top interior lineman in the NFL.

Here’s what Hicks had to say about being coached by Fangio in Chicago:

“I’ve been coached hard my entire life and in the NFL to have a guy that’s had so much experience and been on so many winning teams and coached players that play my position that have been extremely dominant like Justin Smith, I have a lot of respect for him,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said about Fangio. “And I enjoy being coached by him and that’s not just for him to listen to say and say, ‘OK, I’m going to keep Hicks for a little longer.’ I really appreciate it.”

The Bears also picked up edge rusher, Leonard Floyd in the first round, and rotational defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard in the second.

2017

Corner Prince Amukamara was the next veteran reclamation project for Fangio and his staff, as Prince never fully lived up to his first round draft status with the New York Giants, and had spent the 2016 season as 3rd corner in Jacksonville on a one year $5.5 million contract. Amukamara was signed by the Bears for another one-year ‘prove it’ deal worth $7 million, and was re-signed to a three-year extension worth $27 million the next season.

This was also the year the Bears selected safety Eddie Jackson in the 4th round, who has since taken the league by storm, becoming one of the top young safeties in the game.

2018

The stage was set for the final pieces to be added. The Bears drafted rookie sensation, Roquan Smith at linebacker in the first, and traded for edge rusher, Kalil Mack. The Bears also drafted defensive lineman, Bilal Nichols in the fifth round, who began to rotate in as a starter in base fronts mid-way through the season.

This puts the tally for Fangio’s starting 2018 defense at three homegrown first round picks (Fuller, Floyd, Smith), two veteran reclamation projects (Amukamara, Hicks), two established player acquisitions (Trevathan, Mack), a second round pick (Goldman), fourth round pick (Jackson), fifth round pick (Amos), and an undrafted free agent (Callahan).

If you weren’t already excited about what Vic Fangio and his staff will do here in Denver, this should fire Broncos Country up about what is possible with them on board. While it struggled a bit last year, Denver’s defense already has much more talent than the Bears’ did when he took over in 2015.

I’m looking forward to watching this staff teach and develop the players that are already here, while also infusing the team with new talent. Fangio’s already proven he can do it in this league. It’s almost time for him to get to work doing it in Denver.