The Detroit Lions coaching staff took a pretty significant hit this week when news broke that running backs coach/assistant head coach Duce Staley is leaving for a role with the Carolina Panthers. It’s unclear if he’ll be taking the offensive coordinator role there, which would represent a significant promotion for Staley, but according to the Detroit News, part of the motivation for Staley is to be with his ailing mother.
Regardless, the Lions now have a significant role to fill. Their running game is paramount to the Lions’ offensive success and with a relatively young set of running backs, they’ll need a coach that comes with just as much passion as Staley.
That’s not going to be easy to find. But here are four very real options for the Lions to replace Staley.
Current passing game coordinator Tanner Engstrand
With the Lions’ recent hiring of Steve Heiden as their new tight ends coach, the common thought was that Engstrand would move to a more all-encompassing role, whether it’s just passing game coordinator or assistant head coach.
What if, instead, they rounded out his resume going from pass game coordinator to running backs coach? If they’re truly grooming him to be a potential offensive coordinator replacement, it may make sense to get him more involved in that phase of the game.
Coaching running backs isn’t even a foreign concept for Engstrand. He was a running backs coach at San Diego from 2007-08 and served the same role (plus offensive coordinator duties) for the XFL’s short-lived DC Defenders in 2020.
Panther RB coach/assistant head coach Jeff Nixon
The Lions could do a running backs coach swap with the Panthers, and there’s a solid connection to the team’s current staff. Nixon was the Dolphins’ running back coach when Dan Campbell was the team’s tight ends coach from 2011-2015.
The big question here is whether Nixon is even available. He was the Panthers’ assistant head coach of the offense last year, and he’s already booked an interview for the Cowboys offensive coordinator job.
If the Lions can bring him in, he’s an extremely experienced coach who could literally just slip in to the same running backs coach/assistant head coach role that Staley vacated to continue his upward trajectory.
Georgia RB coach/run game coordinator Dell McGee
Let’s take a little trip through history here. McGee is a former fifth-round pick in 1996 and even had a very short stint with the Lions.
Since his playing career has ended, though, McGee has developed quite a reputation as a running backs coach, working his way up from an Auburn analyst, to his current position at the University of Georgia as the running backs coach/run game coordinator.
McGee has seen several impressive Georgia running backs go through his program, including Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Zamir White, and... *pause for dramatic effect* ... D’Andre Swift. In fact, McGee had a huge role in recruiting Swift to Georgia.
“Dell McGee is incredible,” Darren Swift—D’Andre’s father—said back in 2016. “He is a top-notch recruiter and he sold me fast. He sold me, but it didn’t feel like it was a sale. All of the things he told me made it clear it was never about D’Andre the football player. It was about him as a person. They say student-athlete, but Dell always made it about D’Andre the student. Not the athlete.”
In 2021, Georgia made him the highest-paid running backs coach in college, so he has a lot of pedigree. The question is whether the Lions could pull him away from a major program like Georgia.
Miami RB coach Kevin Smith
Another direct Lions link, Smith was Detroit’s third-round pick in 2008. However, his merits go beyond familiarity with the franchise. He’s been in the coaching ranks since 2015, and he’s quickly gone from UCF to Florida Atlantic to Ole Miss and now to Miami, showing that he’s been rising the ranks pretty quickly. Notably, he coached under Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic and followed him to Ole Miss.
He’s still relatively young (36), but the Lions have not shied away from former players just a few years removed from their playing careers.