The Cleveland Browns have had a bit of coaching upheaval recently. Since Kevin Stefanski was hired in 2020, his coaching staff has remained relatively intact.
DC Joe Woods and ST coach Mike Priefer were let go after last season, but that was it. Then on January 17, TE coach T.C. Mc Cartney, OC Alex Van Pelt, and RB coach Stump Mitchell were relieved of their duties on the offensive side of the ball.
Five days later, the tight-end coaching position was filled with Tommy Rees, the former offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama according to multiple reports.
So, who is Tommy Rees? Glad you asked.
Rees grew up in Lake Bluff, Illinois, and played basketball and quarterback for Lake Forest High School. In one game, he threw for 526 yards with six touchdowns. He had a career 70% completion ratio and was rated a three-star prospect standing 6’-3” and weighing 192 pounds.
Rees was highly recruited and had offers from UCLA, Tennessee, Colorado, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Iowa, Northwestern, Bowling Green, Miami of Ohio, Stanford, and Central Michigan. Oddly enough, he only took one visit: to Notre Dame, and then committed to them in July of 2009.
During his freshman year at Notre Dame, Rees played in nine games and had four starts. In his sophomore campaign, he was the undisputed starter. Although he tossed 20 touchdowns, he also had 14 interceptions. This became a trend with Rees. The next season he had just two starts as the backup QB but played in all 11 games with just 59 attempts.
He won the starting job for his senior season and had 224 completions on 414 attempts for 3.257 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 13 picks with a 135.4 QB rating.
For his college career, Rees threw for 7,670 yards, a 59.3% completion ratio, 61 TDs and 37 interceptions with a career QB rating of 133.5.
Though he had the physical tools he drew no shortage of scrutiny. The fact that he went from starter to backup several times under head coach Brian Kelly did not sit well with scouts.
Despite having a decent college career for a nationally recognized program, Rees went undrafted in the 2014 NFL draft. He signed as a rookie free agent with the Washington Redskins, but he never made it to training camp and was released.
The following year, he served as an offensive graduate assistant at Northwestern under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. That led to an offensive assistant gig with the San Diego Chargers in 2016 who were going into a transformative off-season. Mike McCoy was going into his fourth year as the head coach.
For 2017, Rees was offered the QB coach position at his alma mater Notre Dame, a position he held for three years before being promoted to OC/QB coach from 2020-2022. In just his first season as the offensive coordinator, Notre Dame thrived under Rees. They went to the College Football Playoff but lost to Alabama in the semifinal contest.
Having a schematic versatility was a hallmark of Rees’ offensive units. Each season under his tutelage the school ranked Top-20 nationally in passing offense. It wasn’t that long ago that Rees was running the offense himself, so he was able to show what the reads look like because he knew and had done it before based on his experience which was a pro-style offense.
After the 2022 season, Alabama head coach Nick Saban lost OC Bill O’Brien to the New England Patriots. Saban interviewed University of Washington OC Ryan Grubb and Rees. He would hire the latter as his new OC despite being just 30 years old. He was instrumental in the development of QB Jalen Milroe who began the season poorly but came on and was one of the nation’s best towards the end of the year. Alabama threw an average of 393.1 yards and scored an average of 34.0 points per game.
Rees proved he was an excellent young offensive mind. He beat Georgia and was given a lot of credit for the dramatic improvement of Alabama’s offense compared to the year before.
Onto the Browns
Having been on the Chargers coaching staff previously, employment in the NFL was nothing new for Rees.
Coach Saban retired from the game without any warning. Within 46 hours, Kalen DeBoer was hired away from the University of Washington, whose squad lost in the championship game this year. His salary jumped from $4.2 million to just above $9 million.
Usually, a head coach will bring some of his former coaching staff over to fill in staff positions. His OC Grubb was one of those guys along with WR coach JaMarcus Shephard. This placed Rees as the odd man out.
The Browns suddenly had three openings, one was the OC. But Stefanski tabbed Rees as his tight end coach.
What is odd is that usually, the OC is hired, and then the open offensive positions such as TE and RB coach. Hiring a position coach before hiring his boss is not the norm.
Rees and newly-hired Duce Staley as the RB coach both stand out as guys who could eventually become head coaches in the NFL.
The tight end room currently consists of David Njoku, Jordan Akins, Harrison Bryant, and practice squad player Zaire Mitchell-Paden.
Njoku had a breakout season and made his first Pro Bowl. The rest of this room was pretty much invisible as far as being a part of the passing attack and were all predominantly run blockers. That needs to change whether it is gutting the room and bringing in reliable pass catchers, or finding an avenue to make the existing players more productive.
Akins is a six-year veteran and will be in the final year of the two-year contract he signed last off-season. Bryant is a free agent, Zaire Mitchell-Paden signed a reserve/futures contract on January 16 while Njoku is under contract until 2026. It is likely a tight end will be drafted this year.
What should Browns fans expect from Rees?
You sure ask a lot of questions.
Rees already has respect for being the offensive coordinator with one of the elite college programs.
And the fact that he is a quarterback who now is coaching tight ends is not an issue. A lot of position coaches never played that while as a player. Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan is widely known as the best in the league, yet he is a former quarterback himself.
Rees will have to impress the players in his room that he has knowledge of the position and what the next steps are to level up. It is all passing-game related basically. And Rees will have to elevate each player.
The challenge will be to show a player such as Njoku some things that he did not know. How can their game become better? Video clips will become a key asset for Rees.
The advantage that Rees will bring is that he is yet another guy who has called plays before at a high level of college football as both a player and a coordinator. He might bring a new perspective or college concepts that the Browns’ OC or Stefanski never considered.
Rees just operated out of the spread offense. Browns QB Deshaun Watson likes to work in the spread. Rees can contribute to the big picture.
Plus, anyone who was being mentored by Saban at such a young age is probably a pretty bright dude.