SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Long before the San Francisco 49ers can execute trades or lose key free agents this offseason, the expectation is that they will have to say goodbye to one of the most important figures in their organization: defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
Saleh is one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel, drawing interviews and interest from the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers and New York Jets, for their vacant head coaching positions.
That interest is no surprise after Saleh's defense was the backbone of last year's NFC champions and he arguably did an even better job in 2020. With a banged-up unit missing difference makers at every level, Saleh's group managed to finish fifth in yards allowed and yards allowed per play, seventh in rushing yards allowed and fourth in passing yards allowed.
At this point, the only real surprise would be if Saleh did not land one of the seven jobs currently available (the Houston Texans have not sought an interview with Saleh so far and the Philadelphia Eagles' job just opened on Monday).
"I don't know what's wrong with people if they don't hire him," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "I mean, he's as good as you can get. ... And he's going to hire the best staff. He knows about players. He knows who knows what they're talking about. Who doesn't know what they're talking about. And he also knows how to deal with people. So, I hope everyone's not very smart and doesn't hire them so I can keep him. But, I'm expecting not to have him. But, we've got a lot of other good guys on our staff and I know there'll be a number of options."
Ideally, at least for the 49ers, those teams will pass on Saleh and he will return for a fifth season with the team. But with that looking unlikely, Shanahan should have no shortage of viable options. And while losing Saleh would be a big blow -- linebacker Fred Warner recently called him the best defensive coordinator in the league -- Shanahan's candidates all figure to have a background running similar schemes to Saleh and boast either plenty of coordinator experience or intriguing upside.
If it's the latter Shanahan seeks, he need look no further than Niners inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans. Ryans joined Shanahan's staff in 2017 as a defensive quality control coach and has quickly worked his way into position to be a coordinator soon, either with the Niners or elsewhere.
Ryans' 10-year playing career, which included a pair of Pro Bowls, commands instant respect from players but it's his passion and intelligence for the game that has players like Warner making a compelling case on Ryans' behalf.
"The progress you've seen me make is a direct reflection of the type of coach and person that he is," Warner said. "The fact that DeMeco did play linebacker, that's exactly how he is going to coach. He's going to coach you hard and aggressive and expect a lot out of you. ... You've got to be able to be a teacher more than anything if you want to be a great coach. He's an amazing teacher, I've learned so much from him and continue to learn so much."
While Ryans' time with the team works in his favor, it's fair to wonder if he is ready to call a defense given that he's still relatively new to coaching. But it's also possible Saleh could tab Ryans to be his defensive coordinator wherever he lands.
If Shanahan does look elsewhere, he should have no trouble identifying candidates with whom he already has developed strong working relationships.
The two names that most fit that bill are former Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and former Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Like Ryans, both have experience working in a scheme similar to what Saleh brought to the 49ers and would make for an easy transition for Niners defenders.
Shanahan has close ties to Morris from his two years as offensive coordinator in Atlanta and goes back even further with Morris to their shared time as young assistants on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff in 2004-2005. Bradley has not worked directly with Shanahan but was a strong candidate for the job in 2017 when Shanahan ultimately hired Saleh.
Morris has also drawn interest as a possible head coach, having had interviews with the Jaguars and Falcons. If he is available, he would seem to strike a good balance between the youth and passion of Ryans with experience closer to that of Bradley.
For his part, Shanahan has said he's not "absolute" on keeping the defensive scheme the same, but added that he loves it and isn't trying to change, either. Regardless, he believes however it plays out, the 49ers defense will end up in good hands.
"I hope Saleh stays, but I also know we're going to be all right because of the people that we have in house, because of the system and the players that we have, because of the options that we have with how the Yorks treat us," Shanahan said. "There's nothing that they'll tell us we can't do. ... I think I'm going to have a lot of good choices."