49ers defensive coordinator candidates: Are Mike Vrabel, Brandon Staley among top options?

Replacing key assistants has almost become an annual tradition for Kyle Shanahan. Most often, though, the decision is forced on him. San Francisco’s success has come at a cost, and that typically means watching coaches leave for better positions with other teams. 

The 49ers lost a key offensive assistant in three consecutive offseasons, with Mike LaFleur, Mike McDaniel, and Bobby Slowik all leaving for bigger roles elsewhere. The defensive side of the ball has been hit hard, as well.

Shanahan seamlessly replaced DC Robert Saleh with DeMeco Ryans in 2021, but there was no internal candidate ready to step up and replace Ryans a year ago. That led Shanahan to hire former Cardinals coach Steve Wilks to fill the 49ers’ all-important defensive coordinator role.

Was the hire a success? San Francisco’s defense graded out very well in 2023, but it wasn’t enough to win a championship. Shanahan made the decision to move on from Wilks on Wednesday, setting the stage for what could be a high-profile defensive coordinator search.

Here are five defensive coordinator candidates who could be targets for the 49ers.

MORE: Why did the 49ers fire Steve Wilks?

49ers defensive coordinator candidates

Mike Vrabel

Vrabel was surprisingly shut out of the head coaching cycle this offseason despite seven openings outside of his former team in Tennessee. The former Coach of the Year could opt to sit out in 2024 and wait for an opening next offseason, but he already has his friend Luke Fickell targeting him for a role with Wisconsin in the offseason. 

If Vrabel still has that itch to coach in a different capacity, could the opportunity to win a championship attract him to San Francisco? There is risk associated with taking the job — Vrabel would be a premier head coaching candidate if he sat out, whereas regression from the 49ers’ defense might reflect poorly on him — but the 49ers’ defense is so deep that the risk isn’t too significant.

One factor worth considering from the 49ers’ standpoint, however, is that Vrabel has one season of experience as a pure defensive coordinator, and the Texans’ defense clearly regressed in that lone season. Houston finished 32nd in points, allowing more than 27 per game.

Vrabel’s leadership ability helped land him the job in Tennessee, and he did have a large role in the Titans’ defensive success over the past six years, but Shanahan’s priority might be finding someone who can nail down the finer details on the defensive side of the ball rather than a coach whose best quality is leadership.

Brandon Staley

Not every successful coordinator is head coaching material, and that might be true for Staley. Despite a rocky tenure as head coach of the Chargers, he drew interest from the Dolphins and Packers for their defensive coordinator jobs this offseason. Could a return to the NFC West be in play?

Staley led a defensive resurgence in his one season as the Rams’ defensive coordinator, as Los Angeles finished first in both points and yards allowed in 2020. Staley was able to get career years out of multiple defensive backs, including Troy Hill and John Johnson, which could bode well after the 49ers’ pass defense regressed a bit late in 2023. 

Shanahan said Wednesday that he wasn’t necessarily looking for a defensive coordinator with high energy such as Saleh and Ryans. If he was looking for that, Staley likely wouldn’t be the right candidate. If he’s more focused on the X’s and O’s, Staley — who worked under another member of the Shanahan tree as Sean McVay’s top defensive assistant — could be in the conversation.

MORE: Updated 2024 NFL Mock Draft

Chris Harris

The 49ers were known to have interviewed three candidates after Ryans left in 2023: Wilks, Vic Fangio, and Harris. Wilks’ exit is the reason for this year’s search, and Fangio is locked in as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. So, could San Francisco circle back to Harris?

Harris was brought in as Mike Vrabel’s defensive pass game coordinator and cornerbacks coach last season after three years on Ron Rivera’s staff in Washington as defensive backs coach. New Titans coach Brian Callahan thought highly enough of Harris to retain him, and the former NFL safety interviewed for the coordinator jobs with the Titans and Bears.

If Shanahan likes what Vrabel brings to the table but doesn’t want as big of a personality as the man himself, Harris could be an option after his year in Tennessee.

Nick Sorensen

The 49ers have generally done very well promoting from within, whether that’s on the defensive side of the ball with Ryans or the offensive side with McDaniel and Slowik. Could Sorensen be next up if Shanahan goes the internal route?

A former NFL safety himself, Sorensen has a background working with secondaries under Pete Carroll and was brought aboard as a defensive assistant by San Francisco in 2022. Sorensen earned a promotion to defensive pass game coordinator in 2023, the same role Harris currently has with Tennessee. 

Between 10 seasons as a player and 11 as an NFL assistant, Sorensen seems to have the experience needed to step into such a critical role for a Super Bowl contender.

Johnny Holland

Shanahan found major defensive success with Saleh and Ryans, who both came from linebacker backgrounds. The 58-year-old Holland has been working with the 49ers’ linebackers since Shanahan was hired, and the results largely speak for themselves.

Holland has spent the past three seasons as San Francisco’s linebackers coach, overseeing the continued development of Dre Greenlaw, and he was the 49ers’ outside linebackers coach and run game specialist from 2018-20. 

If Shanahan wants a coach who is rich with experience but already has a great feel for the defense, Holland has paid his dues over nearly three decades in the NFL and could get a close look for the job. 

MORE: 49ers’ five biggest questions after losing Super Bowl 58

Is Bill Belichick a 49ers defensive coordinator candidate?

Despite speculation, Bill Belichick is highly unlikely to become the 49ers’ next defensive coordinator.

Reports indicated teams were dissuaded by the possibility Belichick would want personnel control with any head coaching job he landed this offseason. While Falcons owner Arthur Blank denied that Belichick requested personnel control, those reports do raise the question of why the future Hall of Famer would be willing to take on a coordinator role if just being a simple head coach wasn’t enough.

For Belichick, there is risk associated with this kind of job. If the 49ers’ defense regresses in 2024, as mentioned in relation to Vrabel, that only stands to hurt Belichick’s chances of landing another head coaching gig. Belichick has already struggled in terms of personnel and fielding a competent offense over the past two years. A subpar year as a defensive coordinator might reinforce the idea that the game has passed by the six-time Super Bowl champion.

Shanahan might not have a problem with putting an ex-head coach on the sideline as his defensive coordinator, but there is an element of unknown with someone who is used to having so much authority suddenly having to play second fiddle to a head coach who is nearly 28 years younger.

Bringing Belichick aboard as a one-year defensive coordinator feels more like an experiment for a team that can’t afford to experiment during its championship window, and the marriage probably doesn’t make sense for either side. 

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