SANTA CLARA -– Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has gotten good reviews in his short time with the 49ers, as players have compared his scheme favorably to Vic Fangio’s.
But before 49ers coach Chip Kelly hired O’Neil, who spent the two previous seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he targeted Houston Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel to run his defense.
Kelly became familiar with Vrabel, the player, when he was with the New England Patriots from 2001 to ’08. Kelly was a regular visitor to Bill Belichick’s practices when he coached at New Hampshire. Kelly is also close to Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who employed Vrabel as an assistant for three seasons.
Vrabel was on the 49ers’ practice field on Friday, but as a member of Bill O’Brien’s staff.
“Big fan of Mike,” Kelly said. “Obviously, (he) had an unbelievable career in New England and then I got to know Mike a little bit when he was on Urban Meyer’s staff at Ohio State and then talking to (O’Brien) about what he’s like to coach with. Just have all the respect in the world for him. I think he’s one of the really top assistant coaches in this league right now.”
Vrabel opted to remain as a position coach with the Texans, reportedly accepting a large pay raise in the process.
"Being a young coach in this profession and in this league, it's always great to have people want to interview you for opportunities," Vrabel said via the Houston Chronicle. "In the end, what's best for us and me is being here."
The 49ers’ defense floundered under defensive coordinator Eric Mangini last year, so a return a style similar to Fangio’s appears to be a welcomed change for many of the players. Mangini’s defense tried to be so diverse that it often left players confused and out of position.
“There’s definitely elements of what Vic was doing to what we’re doing now,” O’Neil said. “It’s a lot more get lined up and play fast. You know, ‘call it and run it’ type defenses.”