With the departure of DeMeco Ryans in the rearview, the utmost priority for the 49ers has now shifted to finding a replacement who can continue the utter dominance that San Francisco has had on the defensive side of the ball for the last four seasons.
With Vic Fangio officially off the market and on his way to Miami to join Mike McDaniels’ staff, the most qualified candidate who has been reportedly linked to the 49ers is longtime NFL coach Steve Wilks.
Wilks most recently took over the Panthers head coaching job for Matt Rhule after the latter was fired following an embarrassing loss to the 49ers in week five. Despite inheriting a team after a 1-4 start, Wilks was able to turn things around in Carolina and compete for a playoff spot down the stretch.
Many 49ers fans are unfamiliar with Wilks and what exactly he brings to the table, so to help get a deeper understanding of just what to expect, I spoke with someone who has worked very closely with Wilks to get a gauge on just what kind of coach the 49ers could potentially be getting.
While here in Las Vegas covering the Pro Bowl games, I had the opportunity to speak with star edge rusher Brian Burns, who worked closely with Wilks during his time as defensive coordinator and interim head coach of the Panthers during this past season.
Here is what Burns had to say about Wilks:
“Steve Wilks is a great man in my opinion. One of the main things about him is that I think he cares more about us players as humans more than just as players. That’s the main thing about Wilks, like he taught me a lot, he kind of just like fit into that father role for me. He’s just a genuine person.”
The ability to relate to players and connect on an individual level is a near certain requirement for whoever might replace Ryans, as he and the defensive coordinator in San Francisco before hum both did a tremendous job of getting guys to buy in on a personal and team level.
With Burns being one of the preeminent edge rushers in the NFL, and the 49ers having the likely Defensive Player of the Year in Nick Bosa, I asked Burns about his usage under Wilks, and if he felt like Wilks had done anything that Burns had felt enhanced his game and maximized his talent at the edge spot
“Pretty much when he took over I started rushing a lot more, I used to drop into coverage a ton the previous three years and the first half of this (2022) season. So once he took over, I was kind of like all down, ears pinned back and he let me go. That’s definitely something he believes in, front and coverage.”
That last part is especially telling because it fits the mold of what the 49ers have emphasized defensively the last few years, and it also fits the personnel that San Francisco has already stockpiled on that side of the ball.
It would also grant Kyle Shanahan the continuity on that side of the ball he is seeking in whoever ultimately becomes the replacement for Ryans, something the former stressed was a pivotal part of the decision process during this hunt for a new defensive coordinator.
Between the high praise for Wilks and his interpersonal skills, to the experience and desire to implement a defensive scheme that falls in line with the pieces the 49ers already have, Wilks clearly looks like the most qualified candidate among the remaining available names that have been linked to the 49ers as they search for their new defensive coordinator.