The Niners are hiring Steve Wilks, who was most recently the interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers, as their next defensive coordinator, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Tuesday. Wilks’ hiring comes a day after his formal interview with the team.
In commencing his search for Ryans’ replacement, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan made it clear last week that he was hoping to maintain continuity on a defense that has consistently ranked near the top of the league in recent seasons.
“I love our defense,” Shanahan said last week. “I’m trying to get something where we don’t have to turn much over. I would love to keep our same staff, so I’m going to talk to some guys on our staff. I’m going to talk to some guys outside of our staff and hopefully whichever way we decide to go, whether we bring in a new guy or not, that it’s someone who can work with who we have and what we’ve accomplished here. Because I love the scheme that we run and I feel the foundation we have on the D-line, at linebacker, at corner, at safety, I think our players fit very well in it too, so I’m hoping to find someone who fits with us personalitywise and schemewise.”
Shanahan’s insistence on keeping things the same stem from a Niners defense that, in two combined years under Ryans, ranked second in the NFL in points (18.9) and yards per game allowed (305.3), fourth in ESPN’s defensive efficiency (60.7) and yards per play (5.04) and fifth in defensive EPA (67.02).
In Wilks, the Niners are getting someone with NFL experience as a head coach, defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Last season, he was Carolina’s defensive passing game coordinator and secondary coach before being promoted to interim head coach upon Matt Rhule’s firing.
With Wilks at the helm, the Panthers went 6-6 and came up just short of winning the NFC South division crown. Before that, Wilks was the Arizona Cardinals‘ head coach in 2018, the Panthers’ defensive coordinator in 2017 and the Cleveland Browns‘ defensive coordinator in 2019.
Like Ryans and Robert Saleh before him, Wilks prefers a base 4-3 defense that mixes coverages and emphasizes generating pressure with the front four.
Wilks was considered a finalist to become the Panthers’ head coach on a permanent basis, but Carolina opted for Frank Reich instead. Wilks posted a statement to Twitter after Reich’s hiring, saying, in part: “I’m disappointed but not defeated. Many people aren’t built for this but I know what it means to persevere and see it through.”
While Wilks did not get a head-coaching job this offseason, he landed in a spot that has been a springboard to those positions. Both of the previous two coaches to hold the defensive coordinator position under Shanahan (Ryans and Saleh) have gone on to become head coaches.