Packers defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, Rams assistant Ejiro Evero among top candidates to succeed Mike Pettine

Tom Silverstein
Packers News

GREEN BAY - Even though the list of candidates to replace defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has been picked apart, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur still has several good options as his search hits full stride.

LaFleur began interviewing candidates over the weekend after it was announced Friday that he would not retain Pettine after two seasons together.

Among the candidates LaFleur is strongly considering and either has or will interview are:

* Secondary coach Jerry Gray, who joined LaFleur’s staff a year ago and has eight years’ experience as a coordinator with Buffalo (2001-05) and Tennessee (2011-13).

* Los Angeles Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero, a Vic Fangio-Brandon Staley disciple who was on the same Los Angeles Rams staff as LaFleur in 2017.

* Los Angeles Chargers defensive passing game coordinator Joe Barry, who grew up in the Tony Dungy-Monte Kiffin-Rod Marinelli Tampa 2 system and has been a coordinator twice during his 20-year NFL coaching career.

Another candidate LaFleur has reached out to is Kris Richard, a Pete Carroll disciple who was a defensive coordinator in Seattle for three seasons and play caller in Dallas for two years before taking the 2020 season off.

According to an NFL source, LaFleur interviewed Evero and Barry over the weekend. It was not clear whether he had interviewed Gray, but if he hasn’t he will soon, a source said. ESPN first reported that Evero and Barry were drawing interest from LaFleur.

It’s not known whether Richard will interview. A source said someone from the Packers reached out to his agent to discuss the opening but did not know whether the two had connected.

Though it is early in the process and there are others who will draw interest, the front runners are probably Gray and Evero because of their familiarity with LaFleur, the type of schemes they run and their excellent rapport with players.

Packers defensive back coach Jerry Gray talks with cornerback Kevin King during training camp.

LaFleur, who addressed reporters in his season-ending news conference Monday, said he is making his search as wide as possible in order to make sure he finds the right person. He wouldn’t say exactly what he is looking for, but he said he knows what he wants.

“I've talked to a lot of guys, I've talked to just getting not only candidates but also just getting some counsel from other coaches that I've had a lot of respect for, be that head coaches or D-coordinators,” he said. “And we have a pretty clear process of, and a clear vision of what we're looking for.

“But I think that'll come out here in the near future when we make a decision.”

Two assistant coaches with knowledge of Gray said that he was the logical choice for the job because he could adapt to the Packers’ talent and would be able to transition to his own scheme relatively easily.

There are some similarities between what Pettine and Gray run, but according to one of the assistants Gray, 58, would run a 4-3 defense instead of a 3-4. However, he said based on what Gray did as Titans coordinator, he would still be able to use outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary effectively.

He said all three would be defensive ends, but they would line up wide almost as though they were outside linebackers and while their hand would be on the ground, they would still have plenty of opportunity to rush the passer. In the run game, their job would be to funnel everything to the middle.

“If he plays Kenny Clark at the 1-technique (instead of nose tackle), it would make him a star,” the coach said. “He would be able to penetrate and freelance and make plays. They could put Dean Lowry or someone else at the 3-technique and the ends would squeeze the gaps.

"Jerry would disguise a lot of what he is doing, making the quarterback do a lot of post-snap reading.”

Gray’s philosophy might have changed some from Tennessee because he was the secondary coach under Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer for six seasons. Zimmer uses his linebackers in a variety of ways and can be very unpredictable with his blitzes.

General manager Brian Gutekunst might have to change his focus some with the defensive linemen he drafts if Gray were named coordinator, but he said the type of player the Packers have can be plugged into almost any system.

“Depending on which route Matt decides to go, there will be some slight ways in which we look at things and if we’re playing different players more or less in the past,” Gutekunst said. “But at the same time, I do think we have a roster that’s very versatile.

“It’s very much become a subpackage league, so regardless of the schemes that are brought in, everybody tends to fall back into a couple that everybody seems to run similarly. I’m confident that whoever Matt decides to hire we’ll be able to meet those challenges.”

Evero has a diverse background and even spent a year with the Packers as a quality control assistant under Dom Capers in 2016.

But his biggest influences were Fangio during four seasons in San Francisco (2011-14), Wade Phillips during his first three seasons in L.A. (2017-19) and Staley for a year (2020). Fangio and Staley run the same 3-4 scheme and while Evero coached on the offensive side for three of his four years with the 49ers, the defensive scheme used during those years left a big impression on him.

Staley left to become head coach of the Chargers last month and Rams coach Sean McVay went with Raheem Morris as his replacement, passing over Evero. But the system is expected to stay the same and Evero is supposed to have a big role in helping with the transition.

Aug 22, 2020; Inglewood California, USA; Los Angeles Rams safety coach Ejiro Evero  during a scrimmage at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

LaFleur and Evero got to know each other well in L.A. and the Packers' coach knows a lot about how qualified the 40-year-old Evero is and how he relates to players. Staley’s defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL last year, but the Packers gained nearly 500 yards in a divisional playoff victory at Lambeau Field last month.

The Rams played without their star defensive player Aaron Donald at 100%, but even with him healthy the Packers probably would have won.

“Good person, very hard-working,” said a former Packers assistant who worked with Evero.

Said an associate of Evero’s: “He worked with Fangio and he knows Fangio’s system. He’s going to disguise a lot of personnel groupings and create favorable match-ups. He’s not going to have pre-determined coverages. There will be a lot of variations. He’ll use a lot of two-safety looks.”

LaFleur said that he was pleased with the way Pettine’s defense played the second half of the year and he’s hoping the defense can pick up where it left off from there. He said it’s critical that the players understand what they’re playing and how they’re supposed to play it based on game situations.

“I think if you look at the great defenses around the league, there's a certain mentality that comes with that,” he said. “It's not necessarily what you're calling, but how you're playing every call.

“I do think that there's some areas where we can continue to educate our players and be great in those situations so that if it's a third down and short, that you're not playing way off. You don't want to give up any freebies. You want to make people earn every inch out there on the grass.”

Barry, 50, coached with LaFleur in L.A. in ’17 and has a strong reputation as a linebackers coach. He was a coordinator for Detroit (2007-08) and Washington (2015-16), but had little success in both stops. He was assistant head coach/linebackers with the Rams from 2017-20 and joined Staley with the Chargers last month.

Dallas Cowboys passing game coordinator Kris Richard on the field prior to the game against the Tennessee Titans at AT&T Stadium.

Richard sat out the 2020 season after the Cowboys fired head coach Jason Garrett and his entire staff. Richard, the defensive passing game coordinator under Garrett, interviewed for several head-coaching positions last year and most recently interviewed for the Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator job that went to Gus Bradley.

The 41-year-old started out coaching for Carroll at USC and joined him in Seattle as assistant defensive backs coach in 2010. He worked his way up the ranks until replacing Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator. He lasted three years before Carroll fired him.

In two seasons in Dallas he was defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator and called plays. The Cowboys ranked seventh and ninth in defense in his two years under Garrett.