49ers sign O’Neil as defensive co-ordinator

Jim O'Neil of the Buffalo Bills NFL football team poses for a photo. (AP)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — New San Francisco 49ers coach Chip Kelly finally found a defensive co-ordinator, hiring former Cleveland Browns defensive co-ordinator Jim O’Neil on Wednesday.

Naming his top defensive coach became the biggest task for Kelly, an offensive-minded coach hired Jan. 14 to replace fired first-year coach Jim Tomsula after the franchise went 5-11 and missed the playoffs for a second straight season.

Curtis Modkins was named offensive co-ordinator and Derius Swinton II special teams co-ordinator.

The 37-year-old O’Neil will be challenged to once again make the defence one of the NFL’s best as had been the case in previous seasons. Kelly said last week he won’t "micromanage" his coaches though he will call the offensive plays from the sideline.

In his first season as Browns defensive co-ordinator in 2014, O’Neil led a top-10 unit in the NFL, but his defence struggled near the bottom in the defensive categories last season. The ’14 unit ranked second in the league with 21 interceptions and fourth in total takeaways with 29. Those Browns owned the fifth-best pass defence and ranked ninth in total defence.

When he was formally introduced at Levi’s Stadium on Jan. 20, Kelly said he was close to naming his defensive co-ordinator. And he had interest in Mike Vrabel, who is staying with the Houston Texans.

"One of the things is we have to be better in situational defence," Kelly said. "We have to be able to, on third down, get them off the field. Sometimes there’s not a correlation between you give up a third-and-17, it’s because the offence ran plays too fast. It’s third-and-17, we’ve got to get them off the field. So, part of it is taking some ownership in all three phases of the game and you have to be good in all three phases of the game to be successful in this league."

Ryan Day will coach the quarterbacks, though it’s unclear whether Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert will be the man under centre come the season opener — or even the off-season program for that matter.

Kaepernick is recovering from surgery on the thumb of his throwing hand to repair a torn ligament, a procedure on his left knee and an operation on his non-throwing left shoulder to fix a torn labrum. His $11.9 million 2016 contract becomes fully guaranteed for injury April 1 if he’s on the roster.

Gabbert was promoted to the starting job in November before Kaepernick got hurt.

Modkins was running backs coach and run game co-ordinator for the Lions from 2013-15 following three years as the Bills’ offensive co-ordinator and running backs coach.

Running backs coach Tom Rathman and outside linebackers coach Jason Tarver both remain from Tomsula’s staff.

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