Matt LaFleur and the Green Bay Packers are casting a wide net in search of their next defensive coordinator, and for good reason. Though you can quibble with some of the finer points, the Packers’ defense has without question played a significant role in their 0-for-2 effort in the NFC Championship the last two years.
But who’s going to fix it? We asked our writers who’d they’d pick. Here’s what they said.
Tex - Best hire: Jim Leonhard; who I want them to hire: Ejiro Evero
I think Leonhard would be an absolute slam-dunk hire for the Packers. He’s a young, up-and-coming coach who has had tremendous success at the major college level and has done so without the benefit of elite recruiting classes like you would find at Ohio State or Alabama. He runs a 3-4 defense that’s similar to Mike Pettine’s scheme, so that would minimize any difficult transitions for the players and should fit the current personnel well.
But the Wisconsin alumnus in me wants to see Leonhard stay in Madison to keep leading the Badgers’ defense and, presumably, be the heir apparent to Paul Chryst when he eventually steps down. I also wonder if that is Leonhard’s long-term goal, which would mean that this interview, while intriguing for him, isn’t really an opportunity he’s dead-set on taking.
With all of that in mind, my top option from the rest of the candidate pool is Evero, the Rams’ safeties coach. He clearly has done an excellent job developing players at his position, making John Johnson III into a very good player, bringing Taylor Rapp along, and even making sixth-round rookie Jordan Fuller into a decent player in 2020. Evero has experience in Green Bay and was on staff with Matt LaFleur with the Rams in 2017, which should make the personal transition to the organization pretty smooth. He has also worked under an excellent group of veteran DCs, including Monte Kiffin, Vic Fangio, Wade Phillips, and Brandon Staley, which also clearly puts him in a 3-4 base.
The ultimate question with Evero is whether he can call plays on defense effectively, something that Leonhard has already demonstrated. That’s obviously the biggest challenge. But if the Packers don’t hire Leonhard, I would rather see the team take a swing at a young up-and-comer than a retread DC, and Evero feels like the best possible candidate to make that jump successfully, following his old boss Staley’s trajectory.
Rcon14 - Jim Leonhard
I’m not just saying this as a Wisconsin homer, but Jim Leonhard seems pretty clearly to be the top candidate. His defenses at Wisconsin have consistently been awesome despite not enjoying the same level of recruiting prowess of SEC schools, Ohio State, or even Michigan. Leonhard also smooths the transition schematically as he is from the Rex Ryan tree, and as been pointed out on the RAE pod, Leonhard is a savant of defense himself, much like Ryan was.
It would be interesting to see how Leonhard adjusts to the NFL because his preferences at the collegiate level are quite aggressive, particularly in coverage. Wisconsin’s corners play with a level of aggression that I’ve only seen from the Legion of Boom in Seattle. This leads to a decent number of penalties, but some quite suffocating coverage as well. Leonhard would probably love Josh Jackson.
Paul Noonan - Jim Leonhard also
This is a tough question for anyone not steeped in the inner workings of NFL defenses and who does what. Ejiro Evero may be the best coordinator of all time, and I would have no idea. What we have with Jim Leonhard is a book about his role on the Rex Ryan/Mike Pettine Jets teams, providing some of that insight. Leonhard is one of the main characters of Collision Low Crossers. And it’s clear he is one of the more important ones.
While Pettine is a workaholic film-grinder, he is portrayed as often missing the big picture compared to Ryan. Leonhard though, who has the responsibility of implementing the called plays on the field, is described as much more of a Ryan than a Pettine, intuitively grasping the reasons behind the defense called, and able to make split-second decisions as a result. That big-picture mentality has served Leonhard well as he’s ascended quickly everywhere, and now leads an excellent defense at Wisconsin.
I wish I had a book about every candidate, but having the one available, I’ll take Jim Leonhard.
Jon Meerdink - Ryan Nielsen
Jim Leonhard would probably be my tentative first choice, but for the sake of being a bit different, let’s take a look at Ryan Nielsen. Of the non-Leonhard candidates, Nielsen’s resume stands out to me the most. He’s backed by a long run of progressive experience at the college and pro level and would already be a coordinator at LSU if not for an 11th hour elevation to assistant head coach in New Orleans.
Like Paul, I think this prediction is a tough ask for anybody not already up to their eyeballs in film, but the Saints have been more than respectable on defense of late. Nielsen seems like a good option.