New Orleans Saints Head Coach Sean Payton announced today that the club has hired Curtis Johnson as senior offensive assistant/wide receivers coach and Ryan Nielsen as defensive line coach.
Johnson, a New Orleans native, returns to the Saints in 2017 after spending 2016 as wide receivers coach for the Chicago Bears and the 2012-15 campaigns as head coach at Tulane.
Prior to becoming head coach of the Green Wave in 2012, Johnson tutored the Saints wideouts from 2006-11. During that stretch, New Orleans finished ranked first in total offense in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011, setting the NFL record for total net yards (7,474) in his final season. During those six seasons, Johnson oversaw the development of the quartet of Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore.
A seventh round selection (252nd overall) of the Saints in the 2006 NFL Draft, Colston made an immediate impact as a rookie by recording 70 receptions for 1,038 yards (14.8 avg.) with eight touchdowns, leading the club in the yardage and scoring grabs. During Johnson’s first Saints tenure from 2006-11, Colston ranked eighth in the NFL in receiving yards (6,240), ninth in receptions (449) and seventh in receiving touchdowns (48), while compiling five of his six career 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Colston’s 98 receptions in 2007 established a new franchise mark (now second) and his 11 touchdowns that season tied a team record (now tied for second). In 2009, when New Orleans captured Super Bowl XLIV, Colston led the team with 70 grabs for 1,074 yards and tied for the team lead with nine touchdowns. After recording only three grabs in his first two NFL seasons from 2004-05, Henderson caught 201 passes for 3,718 yards with 16 touchdowns in his next six seasons under Johnson’s tutelage, with his 18.5 yards per catch average ranked second in the NFL over that period. A first round pick of the club in 2007, Meachem evolved into another deep threat during Johnson’s tenure, recording 141 receptions for 2,269 yards (16.1 avg.) with 23 touchdowns from 2008-11. Originally signed by New Orleans in 2005 after coming into the league earlier that season as an undrafted free agent, Moore finally cracked the Saints active roster and wide receiver rotation for good in 2007 and for the next five seasons made 243 grabs for 1,173 yards with 30 touchdowns.
Despite Chicago being forced to play three starting quarterbacks due to injuries in 2016, under Johnson’s tutelage, Cameron Meredith became the first undrafted player to lead the Bears in receiving since 1993, finishing with 66 catches for 888 yards and four touchdowns. As head coach of the Green Wave, Johnson helped guide Tulane to a 7-6 record in 2013 and its first postseason appearance in 11 years – the 2013 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
Prior to his first stint with the Saints, Johnson spent 22 seasons as a receivers coach at the collegiate level. From 1996-2005, he was wide receivers coach at the University of Miami (Fla.) where he helped recruit and future Pro Bowl wideouts Andre Johnson, Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne, who were among 10 Hurricanes draft picks at receiver. The Hurricanes went on to win the 2001 National Championship during Johnson’s tenure at the school.
Johnson served as wide receivers coach at San Diego State from 1989-93, where he served on the same staff as Payton for four seasons. He also enjoyed college coaching stints at the University of California (1995), Southern Methodist (1994) and his alma mater the University of Idaho (1987-88).
Nielsen joins the Saints after coaching in college for 14 years. From 2013-2016, he was the defensive line/recruiting coordinator/run game coordinator at North Carolina State. The 2016 season saw the Wolfpack rank eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rush defense and lead the ACC, allowing just 104.7 rushing yards per game — the school’s best mark since 2004. Defensive end Bradley Chubb recorded 22 tackles for loss, ranked fourth in the country, while his 11 sacks were fourth in the ACC and 19th in the nation. He was named second-team All-ACC. A Broyles Award candidate in 2015, given annually to college football’s top assistant coach, Nielsen earned this recognition tutoring a Wolfpack defensive line that was part of a defense that ranked 29th in the FBS in total defense. Defensive end Mike Rose was a second-team All-ACC selection after he finished second in the ACC in sacks and ninth in tackles for loss. In 2014, defensive end Art Norman led the team with 6.5 sacks.
Nielson coached at Northern Illinois from 2011-12, including a 2012 season where he was the co-defensive coordinator/defensive line/recruiting coordinator and helped the Huskies to the 2012 GoDaddy.com Bowl. A pair of defensive lineman from the school were first-team All-MAC selections in 2012, Sean Progar and Alan Baxter, while Nabal Jefferson was a National Scholar-Athlete and finalist for the 2012 William V. Campbell Trophy. In 2011, Nielsen coached Progar and Ron Newcomb to All-MAC honors.
Serving as the defensive line/special teams coach at Tennessee-Martin in 2010, the Skyhawks led the Ohio Valley Conference in total defense. From 2008-09, Nielsen was the defensive coordinator and coached the line and linebackers at Central Connecticut State. In 2009, CCSU won the Northeastern Conference title. Nielsen served as the defensive line coach at Mississippi from 2005-07 following one season at Idaho, and coached two freshman All-Americans. Rebels defensive linemen led the Southeastern Conference in sacks twice during his three-year stint. Nielsen got his start in coaching as a volunteer assistant at his alma mater, Southern California in 2002.
Nielsen, a Simi Valley, Calif. native who started 30 games at defensive tackle at USC from 1998-2001, finished his college career with 107 career tackles and was voted the team’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in 1999. He graduated with a degree in public policy in 2002 and went to training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles. He played for the Arena Football League’s Los Angeles Avengers in 2004.