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Two apparent front-runners emerging for Packers' defensive coordinator job

Tom Silverstein
Packers News

GREEN BAY - It appears Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur has narrowed his choices for replacing defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and it may come down to two candidates in the end.

LaFleur has played this search close to the vest, but numerous sources around the NFL, including associates of some of the candidates on the long list, are convinced it is Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s job if he wants it.

But there are others who think Los Angeles Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero is firmly in the hunt as well.

It’s possible some of the others on the original list LaFleur set out to interview are still in the running, but a source familiar with the search said several candidates have already been told they were not getting hired and that Leonhard and Evero appeared to be the top two choices.

Two other sources said LaFleur was set for a second round of interviews Friday with those still in the race. Whether that included anyone other than Leonhard or Evero is not clear.

Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard would bring a lot to the table for Green Bay.

Leonhard, in the minds of numerous sources with interest in the search, is the frontrunner and may have been offered the job. To get Leonhard to leave Wisconsin could prove to be difficult.

Leonhard makes $1.1 million per year and as a first-time NFL coordinator, it’s hard to imagine the Packers paying him the nearly $3 million they were paying Pettine, who has eight years of experience as a coordinator and two years as a head coach. Pettine’s contract expired, so they won’t be paying him in 2021, making it easier to swallow another high salary.

But even more than money, Leonard’s allegiance to his alma mater, possible reluctance to relocate his three young sons and wife from Madison and the possibility of one day succeeding Paul Chryst as Badgers coach could be factors in his decision.

Leonard has turned down other reported opportunities, including the Illinois head-coaching job in December and the Rams defensive coordinator position in 2018.

From the small town of Tony, Wisconsin, Leonhard has the ultimate underdog story, joining UW as a walk-on and becoming a three-time all-American. He went on to play 10 years in the NFL and joined Chryst’s staff in 2016 as defensive backs coach.

He replaced Justin Wilcox as defensive coordinator in ’17 and his defenses have been among the best in college football over the past four years.

Leonhard played much of his career under Rex Ryan and Pettine and so it’s assumed he would bring a similar scheme with him. However, it’s unlikely he’s locked into anything given how he has had to adapt to the different talent he gets every year at Wisconsin.

Another thing possibly working against LaFleur is the way he seemed to blame Pettine for the botched call at the end of the first half in the NFC championship game against Tampa Bay. Sources said Pettine was told to play man coverage instead of zone and another source said Pettine misunderstood LaFleur.

Either way, LaFleur had a timeout left and could have stopped play before Brady threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller.

LaFleur blamed himself in his season-ending news conference, but the impression after the game was that he was laying blame at Pettine’s feet and Leonhard may not feel good about that given his friendship with Pettine.

As for Evero, he and LaFleur are close friends from their year together with the Rams in 2017. The 40-year-old Evero also played on the same University of California-Davis team as offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and the two later coached together for a year (’07) with the Buccaneers. Hackett has spoken glowingly about Evero.

The defensive scheme the Rams played last year is very close to what Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio ran in San Francisco and Chicago and it may be what LaFleur wants to run. Evero learned the system last year under coordinator Brandon Staley, who left to become the Los Angeles Chargers head coach last month.

Evero was a candidate to replace him, but McVay chose to go with Atlanta Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris, with whom he has a strong connection from years together in Tampa. However, McVay planned on keeping the Staley system and Evero is expected to have a big hand in assisting Morris.

Evero spent a year with the Packers as a defensive quality control coach in 2016 and members of that staff praised his work ethic and spoke highly of him as a person. LaFleur has talked a lot about being conscious of the certain fit he seeks in his coaches and thinks chemistry in the coaching room plays a big part in success.

Among the others LaFleur has interviewed, according to sources and a report from ESPN.com, are Packers secondary coach Jerry Gray, Chargers linebackers coach Joe Barry, Washington secondary coach Chris Harris, Browns defensive line coach Chris Kiffin, Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielson and Eagles defensive line coach Matt Burke.