Packers' defensive coordinator job remains open after Wisconsin's Jim Leonhard turns down offer
GREEN BAY - It was going to be a tough sell for Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur to convince Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to leave his alma mater and in the end, LaFleur’s efforts fell short.
Leonhard informed LaFleur on Friday night that he was turning down an offer to become the Packers’ defensive coordinator, Leonhard's Madison-based agent, Tim Valentyn, confirmed Saturday morning.
The Wisconsin State Journal was the first to report Leonhard’s decision.
LaFleur had courted Leonhard for a week, hoping to convince him that he could help the Packers get over the hump after two straight appearances in the NFC championship game. But Leonhard’s commitment to the school for which he was a three-time All-American safety and had coached at the previous four years was too strong.
With Leonhard out of the picture, LaFleur will turn to other options, most prominently Los Angeles Chargers linebackers coach/passing game coordinator Joe Barry, who along with LaFleur was a member of the Los Angeles Rams 2017 coaching staff.
Barry, two sources with connections to LaFleur's search said, appeared to be the frontrunner ahead of current Los Angeles Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero, who is a close friend of LaFleur’s and also a member of the '17 Rams staff.
LaFleur was scheduled to do second interviews Friday and it’s not known if they took place while LaFleur was waiting for Leonhard to make his decision. In addition to the outside candidates, LaFleur also has the option of promoting secondary coach Jerry Gray, who has been a defensive coordinator twice before,
Leonhard was first contacted Monday about the Packers job and then visited with LaFleur through a long video call Tuesday. LaFleur convinced Leonhard to come in for a face-to-face visit Thursday and the two met all day with team president Mark Murphy joining for a short while.
LaFleur offered the job to Leonhard , who took some time to think it over. On Friday night, he called LaFleur and let him know he was staying at UW.
"It was very real," Leonhard told the State Journal on Saturday morning. "I was about out the door."
Sources throughout the process told the Journal Sentinel the idea of uprooting his family – Leonhard is married with three sons – was not appealing.
Those sources also noted Leonhard loves coaching at his alma mater and has as much job security as any coach can have.
One source noted Saturday morning: “I just didn’t see him leaving. Family is important to him. They love where they are.”
Leonhard’s decision to stay is a huge recruiting victory for UW coach Paul Chryst and athletic director Barry Alvarez.
Leonhard, 38, is considered one of the better defensive coordinators in the nation. His players love playing for him and recruits aren’t shy about noting they chose UW because of Leonhard’s presence.
The native of Tony, a village in northern Wisconsin, turned down overtures from Alabama, Florida State and Texas A&M after the 2017 season, his first as UW’s defensive coordinator, and worked to build one of the more consistent defenses in college.
The former All-American safety at UW joined Chyst’s staff as secondary coach in 2016 and was named defensive coordinator before the ’17 season.
In his first four seasons, UW averaged finishing third in scoring defense (17.2 points per game), fourth in total yards allowed (297.9 yards per game), fifth in rushing defense (112.3 ypg) and fifth in pass efficiency defense (109.0). UW forced the second-most turnovers of any FBS team during that span (104).
Last season, UW finished fifth nationally against the run (96.1 ypg) and fifth in total defense (299.9 ypg).
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If LaFleur goes with Barry, he will be getting someone with experience calling plays.
Barry, 50, has had stints as defensive coordinator with Detroit ('07-08) and Washington ('15-16) and left the Rams staff to become the passing game coordinator with the Chargers. Though his background is mostly with the Kiffin system, he spent last season running coordinator Brandon Staley's scheme.
The Staley system is the same as what long-time defensive coordinator and current Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio runs. It is a system that LaFleur and Rams coach Sean McVay, two very close friends and architects of the Rams' offensive system, value highly.
McVay thinks so highly of the system that he hired Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris, a disciple of the Kiffin Tampa-2 system, as defensive coordinator when Staley left to become Chargers head coach, but is not changing the system. Evero is supposed to play a big role in helping Morris implement the new system if he stays.
It's likely that Barry would run a 3-4 system that would allow the Packers to use the personnel they already have in-house. LaFleur would probably want him to incorporate some of Staley's coverage philosophies, which include lots of combination zones and pre-snap disguises.
Barry's previous jobs as a coordinator were not pretty.
In his first coordinator's stint with the Lions, Barry's defense ranked 32nd in yards allowed and scoring both '07 and 32nd '08. The Lions went 0-16 in '08 under head coach Rod Marinelli, who was fired after the season.
With Washington, Barry's defense ranked 28th in yards both seasons and 17th in score in '15 and 19th in '16.
Early in his career, he was part of a Tampa Bay defense that ranked in the top 10 six of the seven years ('01-'06) he was linebackers coach. In four seasons in San Diego as a position coach, the Chargers' defenses ranked
A long-time NFL offensive assistant coach said he he thought Barry was an excellent linebackers coach, but that he was never blown away by how he called games as a coordinator. However, he has been part of some good defenses during his long career, including the Rams' No. 1-ranked unit this past season.
LaFleur's top two options, Evero and Barry, both are logical choices for the Packers head coach.
Besides a direct coaching connection with LaFleur, Evero has connections with both the Packers and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
Evero was a quality control assistant for the Packers in 2016 before joining Rams coach Sean McVay as safeties coach. He also played with Hackett at California-Davis for two seasons and coached with him in Tampa Bay for a season.
A source on the Packers staff when Evero was there said Evero impressed everyone with his work ethic and personality and would fit in well on LaFleur’s staff.
Evero has coached in several different systems, including Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 and Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, but his one year under former Rams coordinator Brandon Staley might make him especially attractive for LaFleur.
Among those that LaFleur has interviewed, according to sources and ESPN.com, are Gray, 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.