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49ers defensive coordinator search: Who will replace Steve Wilks?

Marc Adams
Feb 15, 2024 at 9:59 AM--

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Who might the San Francisco 49ers hire to be their next defensive coordinator? On Wednesday, Head Coach Kyle Shanahan dismissed Steve Wilks after only one season of leading the team's defense. Since 2019, the 49ers defense has been one of the best, if not the best, in the NFL. And while the defense was dominant at times this season, they took a step back in 2023.

There were games like the September 17th game against the Los Angeles Rams, in which the 49ers gave up 23 points to a Rams team missing WR Cooper Kupp. Then there was the October game in Minnesota, in which the Vikings were without star WR Justin Jefferson, yet the 49ers' defense still gave up 22 points when they weren't able to figure out how to guard rookie WR Jordan Addison. You may recall that Wilks called a zero blitz with 17 seconds remaining in the first half when the Vikings had the ball at their own 40-yard line. Addison scored on a 60-yard touchdown to give the Vikings the momentum heading into the half.

A week later, the 49ers' defense had their worst outing of the season, surrendering 31 points at home to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Detroit Lions also scored 31 points on the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, 24 of which were in the first half. The 49ers defense came to life in the second half and closed the door on the Lions. And then there was the Super Bowl, in which the defense was excellent, until the fourth quarter and overtime.

Are those games on Wilks, or are they just a byproduct of losing players like Jimmie Ward, Charles Omenihu, Azeez Al-Shaair, Emmanuel Moseley, and others? It's likely a combination of multiple factors, but the main problem appears to be that Wilks just wasn't the right fit for this 49ers defense and that he and Shanahan weren't on the same page, at times. T

If it's that Wilks wasn't a good fit, that's not necessarily on him, though. He didn't hire himself. It wasn't even his own scheme the 49ers were running. They were running the defense that Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans ran. Wilks had to learn it.

Regardless of who is most to blame for the defense taking a step back, Shanahan is now tasked with finding Wilks' replacement. Fans have been calling for Shanahan to hire guys like Bill Belichick, Mike Vrabel, or Pete Carroll. But it seems unlikely that any of those guys, particularly Belichick or Carroll, would want to be a coordinator at this time.

So here are some more realistic candidates:

Johnny Holland, 49ers LB coach

Holland came to the 49ers back in 2017, when Shanahan first arrived. Since he's been here with both Saleh and Ryans, Holland knows this defense very well. And being that he's the linebackers coach, that could give him the edge, especially when you consider Shanahan's comments on Wednesday that sounded like he is looking for someone who has more experience with the linebackers than the secondary.

"I just think it has to do with the way we play linebacker and stuff like that," Shanahan told reporters. "And the way that [LB] Fred [Warner] and [LB] Dre [Greenlaw] have done it here over the years and the way we've coached it. There's no one way to do things, but you want to tie things together. Steve was always working to do that. There's no doubt about that. But it was just for his background and how it ended up with us, it was just, it was harder than it needed to be. I felt it would improve us going in a different direction."

Daniel Bullocks, 49ers secondary coach

Like Holland, Bullocks has been with the 49ers since Shanahan's first season, first as an assistant defensive backs coach. Bullocks was then promoted to safeties coach and is now serving as the team's secondary coach. Since he's been here for so long, Bullocks also knows the players and the defense very well. But Bullocks doesn't have any experience as a coordinator, which may or may not be a big deal for Shanahan, who hired Saleh and Ryans, who both lacked that experience.

Cory Undlin, Texans defensive passing game coordinator

Undlin spent two seasons as the San Francisco 49ers defensive passing game specialist/secondary coach and spent last season with Ryans and the Houston Texans, so he should be well-versed in the defense the 49ers run. Undlin is also a former defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions. So if that experience is what Shanahan is looking for, it could give Undlin a leg up on the competition.

Brandon Staley, former Los Angeles Chargers head coach

Staley is a name I keep hearing tied to the 49ers, but I see him as a long shot. For one reason, he runs a 3-4 defense. A year ago, Shanahan interviewed Vic Fangio, but the two coaches were not on the same page as far as schemes. Staley is a Fangio disciple, so it would seem he would be in the same situation.

Staley was the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams when they had one of the league's top defenses in 2020. Some believed Staley would return to the Rams this offseason, but the Rams chose to go in a different direction.

Nick Sorensen, 49ers defensive passing game coordinator

Sorensen is another name I keep hearing because he's been involved in a lot of different areas over the past couple of seasons with the 49ers. In 2023, Sorensen served as the 49ers' defensive passing game/nickels coach. He spent his first season with San Francisco as a defensive assistant in 2022.

In 2022, Sorensen also worked with the linebackers, when Holland was out due to health reasons. He's worked with the defensive backs and also runs one of the team's weekly "takeaway" meetings. So Sorensen should have a good idea of how the 49ers' defense is structured.

Sorensen does have coordinator experience, albeit as the special teams coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, he's only been with the 49ers for two seasons, so that could keep him from being considered at this point.

Chris Kiffin, Texans LB coach

Kiffin spent two seasons with the 49ers and served as a pass rush specialist. Kiffin has coached for 20 years, eight of which have been in the NFL. He knows the defense Shanahan wants to run, having been with the 49ers and also working with Ryans in San Francisco and Houston. He is currently the Texans linebackers coach.

Chris Harris, Titans CB coach and passing game coordinator

Harris, a former NFL defensive back, was interviewed for the 49ers defensive coordinator position last year, so we know Shanahan has had interest in him before. It seems that Harris is well-respected, as he interviewed for the Chicago Bears and the Jaguars defensive coordinator positions earlier this offseason. Harris doesn't have any experience as a coordinator, but neither did Saleh or Ryans.

Whoever Shanahan chooses, the goal will be simple. Get the 49ers' defense back to the elite level it's known for being. The defense carried the team from 2019-2022. And now with the offense finally catching up, an improved defense could be the difference between another heartbreaking loss and a Super Bowl championship.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

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