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Revisiting the Packers’ 2021 defensive coordinator candidates

If we’re making lists, we should start with the one that actually led to a previous Matt LaFleur hiring.

Syndication: The Tennessean Denny Simmons / The Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK

Now that the Green Bay Packers have reportedly moved on from defensive coordinator Joe Barry, you’re going to see a lot of different lists of potential defensive coordinator candidates over the next few days. The truth is, until we see the actual interview lists, we won’t actually know who is in the running for the job.

With that in mind, the true starting point for any of these lists of potential candidates should start back with who head coach Matt LaFleur interviewed back in 2021, when he first hired Barry to replace Mike Pettine — a holdover from the Mike McCarthy era.

Let’s dive into the people that LaFleur interviewed, adding in detail to whether they are available to interview once more in 2024.

Candidates who now have DC jobs

These are coaches whose interviews could, and probably will, be blocked by the teams they’re currently under contract for.

  • Ejiro Evero, Panthers
  • Ryan Nielsen, Jaguars
  • Matt Burke, Texans

Since 2021, all of these coaches have risen up the coaching ladder and landed themselves defensive coordinator jobs going into the 2024 season. Evero is currently taking head coaching interviews, but he hasn’t taken a defensive coordinator interview this offseason. The assumption here is that the Panthers want to retain him as their defensive coordinator, even though they are changing things up with their head coaching situation.

Nielsen was most recently the defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons after leaving his co-defensive coordinator position with the New Orleans Saints. Unlike Evero, it did not seem like the Falcons were going to retain Nielsen as their defensive coordinator through a head coaching search, which allowed him to land with the Jaguars. Go ahead and rule him out.

Burke was a defensive line coach when he interviewed for the Packers’ coordinator opening in 2021, but has risen all the way up to being the Texans’ defensive coordinator. He’s another candidate who would almost certainly be blocked from interviewing this time around.

Candidates who can interview again in 2024

  • Jim Leonhard, Illinois senior football analyst
  • Chris Harris, Titans pass game coordinator
  • Jerry Gray, Falcons assistant head coach
  • Chris Kiffin, Texans linebackers coach
  • Bob Sutton, unemployed

The white whale here is Jim Leonhard, the former defensive coordinator of the University of Wisconsin who reportedly was LaFleur’s first choice of defensive coordinators back in 2021. Would he take an NFL job now that his dreams of becoming Wisconsin’s head coach are seemingly over? Only time will tell. Currently, he’s working as a senior football analyst for Illinois under former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.

The Titans are changing over their coaching staff, which means that Harris, a former All-Pro player, is looking for work. As recently as this past week, he was reported to have scheduled an interview for the Chicago Bears’ open defensive coordinator position. Previously, he held Tennessee’s passing game coordinator title.

Gray is a familiar face, as he worked in the Packers’ defensive backs room up until his departure in 2023. Gray’s contract expired last offseason, when he decided to leave for the Falcons’ assistant head coaching position. He has previously interviewed for Atlanta’s defensive coordinator opening, which went to Nielsen. Highlight this one as a potential return.

Kiffin is currently allowed to interview for defensive coordinator openings, as he holds the title of the Texans’ linebackers coach. Houston had one of the better one-year turnarounds in the league this year, so don’t be surprised if he had another opportunity to interview. He’s also the son of legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and the younger brother of Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin.

The final name on this list is Sutton, a 72-year-old former defensive coordinator who has been working as an analyst with teams since 2019. Most recently, he was with the Jaguars in 2023, but the team has made wholesale changes to the defensive side of the ball going into the 2024 season.