Three options for the 49ers defensive coordinator position to replace Steve Wilks

Feb 15, 2024, 11:00 AM | Updated: 11:54 am

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looks on in the first half at Gillette Stadium on Ja...

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The San Francisco 49ers and coach Kyle Shanahan sent shockwaves Wednesday when they announced that Steve Wilks will not return as the defensive coordinator for next season.

While it was a move many felt necessary after an up-and-down 2023 season, releasing the veteran defensive mind after only one year in Santa Clara was a harsh reality of the task at hand.

Now less than 70 days out from the 2024 NFL Draft, Shanahan and the 49ers front office must find a replacement more in line with the team’s philosophies. Or, they can pivot once more by adding another veteran coach who can bring his own flair to the West Coast.

The direction of the franchise is unclear at this time. Shanahan only mentioned that the search for a new DC would be both internal and external.

Because of that, the next man up is to be determined. But we may have a few ideas as to who the 49ers will inquire about for next season to take over where Steve Wilks left off.

Bill Belichick

The white whale.

The resume and pedigree alone speak for themselves: Six Super Bowl Rings, nine Big Game appearances, three coach of the year honors and 302 regular-season wins.

When the greatest coach/defensive mind is on the market, this should be a no-brainer. If you can land him, and that’s a BIG if.

Similar to Steve Wilks, sacrifices would have to be made between Shanahan and Belichick for a peaceful partnership to co-exist. Some egos would need to be checked and that could cause internal riffs that would ruin any chance of the 49ers making it back to the Super Bowl.

But if it works, the possibility of one of the greatest defenses ever is in play.

In 24 years as Patriots HC, Belichick’s defense gave up 20 or more points a game only 10 times, never exceeding 22.1 PPG. Last season, New England had a top-seven defense in the NFL, one spot ahead of the 49ers. And that was without standouts Christian Gonzalez and Matthew Judon for much of the season.

Additionally, Belichick was 11th in pass defense, fourth in run defense, and sixth in red zone defense. All incredible markers considering the roster he had in his final year in New England.

The point is that the 71-year-old still has the defensive mind for the game.

The 49ers undoubtedly will make a call or two about his availability. But again, it won’t be smooth sailing through and through, with Belichick needing to accept a lesser role for the first time since the turn of the century.

Mike Vrabel

Maybe the best available choice on the market.

Mike Vrabel is a proven leader of men, helping turn the Tennessee Titans organization around the six years he was there. With him in charge, Tennessee won three AFC South titles, making the conference championship in 2019.

Vrabel has a career record of 54-45 as HC. Before the last two seasons, he finished above .500 each year in charge.

That success was springboarded by a tough, resilient defense, ranked in the top 10 during their most successful seasons. Those numbers dropped off in 2033 however, finishing with 335.1 yards allowed a game (17th).

However, his best trait is run defense, with Tennessee finishing fifth in yards per rush last season. His squad also ranked first in opponent redzone scoring percentage at 37.7%.

Those are two key attributes that would entice the 49ers to add Vrabel for 2024. Plus, he’s more of the coach they’re looking for: a young, energetic, a leader by example that the 49ers defense will respect and listen to.

Because of those factors, the former Patriots linebacker will be a hot name for the Red & Gold over the coming weeks.

Internal Hires

Two names come to mind if the 49ers stay in-house: Linebackers coach Johnny Holland, and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.

Both men have been with the organization for years, knowing the team’s ways inside and out. The problem is that Shanahan loves what each man brings to the table, for their respective groups.

Holland has been a key component in the growth of LBs Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. And 2023 was no different, using unorthodox training methods to get the most out of the duo.

Meanwhile, Kocurek has been the key cog to SF’s defensive line success, ranked at the top of the NFL for multiple years. He’s been able to turn DL outcasts into viable rotational players. That list includes Arden Key, Samson Ebukam, Charles Omeniheu, Clelin Ferrell, just to name a few.

If there was an internal hire, the favorite is the latter coach. However, the 49ers didn’t seem as keen on making that change this season, instead going with Steve Wilks.

“I think it’s always a possibility for him, but I know what Kris majors in. I know what he loves to do. His passion is D-Line. He doesn’t go outside of that a lot. But Kris is a hell of a coach and he’s capable of doing a lot,” Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday.

While it remains a possibility for both men, an external hire would allow both Holland and Kocurek to stick to their preferred defensive assignments. Another option is defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks, but only time will tell who emerges as the leader of the 49ers 2024 defense.

Key offseason dates for the San Francisco 49ers

  • Tuesday, Feb. 20th – Teams can begin franchising players until Tuesday, March 5th
  • Tuesday, Feb. 27 – NFL Combine begins
  • Thursday, March 13 – The 2024 free agency signing period begins at 1 p.m. PST

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Three options for the 49ers defensive coordinator position to replace Steve Wilks