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Why Steve Wilks is the hottest NFL defensive coordinator on the market

Whoever lands Steve Wilks next is getting one hell of a DC.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Normally discussing a defensive coordinator’s availability isn’t something that moves the needle — but nothing about Steve Wilks is normal. On Thursday the Panthers elected to pass over their interim head coach in favor of Frank Reich taking the top job, and in doing so made one of the NFL’s best defensive minds available to the myriad teams in need of help.

There have been reports that the Panthers desperately tried to convince Wilks to stay on, stepping back into a coordinator role and watching another coach take over his team. Understandably he rejected the overture, and is now the hottest defensive coordinator on the market with no shortage of teams blowing up his phone to arrange a meeting.

Wilks isn’t a new kid on the block. He’s not an up-and-coming position coach with untapped potential. Instead he’s a perennially unlucky, unfairly overlooked, can’t-catch-a-break defensive coach who deserves so much more than he’s been given in the NFL.

That could change now. As it stands there are five available defensive coordinator jobs in the NFL, and outside of Brian Flores there’s not a better candidate — and even then I think a debate could be made for Wilks over Flores. The teams currently looking for a DC are:

This doesn’t include teams who will take a good, long look at Wilks as an upgrade over their current defensive staff. So what does Wilks bring to the table? Where does he excel? Perhaps most importantly, why is he perfect for the modern NFL?

A history of bad breaks ...

To understand how we reached this point we need to dive into his history. Steve Wilks made his jump to the NFL in 2006 with the Bears — where he served as defensive backs coach under Ron Rivera.

It was an unfortunate time to arrive in Chicago with the organization in flux. Despite having a strong defensive identity under Lovie Smith, the Bears sank their focus into offense in order to find balance. They chose not to restock the shelves on defense, and as a result the entire coaching staff was fired two years later when the team stagnated.

Wilks wouldn’t be out of a job for long, as Rivera hired him once more — this time in San Diego where he joined the Chargers’ coaching staff under Norv Turner. Here Wilks and Rivera made an immediate impact, lifting the Chargers from 31st in the NFL in passing defense, to 11th. Then went on to create in 2010 the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL.

The overwhelming characteristic of Wilks’ coaching style is that he’s able to squeeze incredible production out of the players he’s given. This isn’t a coach who needs an All-Pro roster to get results. This shined through again during his first stint in Carolina, this time with Rivera as head coach. Working with defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, the Panthers improved from 24th against the pass, to 13th.

Wilks was always great, but kept finding himself trapped under the most highly regarded, coveted defensive coordinators in the NFL. First with Rivera in Chicago and San Diego, then with Sean McDermott in Carolina. When Wilks finally got his shot as McDermott left for Buffalo he shined. The Panthers ranked 7th in total defense in 2017. It’s here the most unfortunate turn of his career occurred, this time as one of the hottest potential head coaching candidates in the NFL.

The Arizona debacle

Wilks was hired as head coach of the Cardinals in 2018 to take over from a retiring Bruce Arians, and being tasked with transitioning away from the most successful era of football the team had.

Inheriting the worst QB room in the NFL, Wilks was saddled with Josh Rosen during his rookie season — a move GM Steve Keim was convinced would allow the team to rebuild following Carson Palmer’s retirement. It became quickly clear that Rosen wasn’t the guy, but downward pressure forced the first head coach to roll with him.

Full of aging players and problems, the Cardinals faltered. Wilks became the scapegoat for Keim’s roster mistakes, and he was fired so the team could chase Kliff Kingsbury, hoping he’d be the next Sean McVay.

Another bad break...

In 2019 Wilks was hired to become defensive coordinator for the Browns under Freddie Kitchens. Despite improving the team from 30th in the NFL in defense to 22nd, he was not retained when Cleveland parted ways with Kitchens and hired Kevin Stefanski as head coach.

Disillusioned with football Wilks stepped away. He took the 2020 season off, before returning to coaching in 2021 as defensive coordinator at Missouri.

Return to the Panthers

In 2022 Wilks was hired as defensive passing game coordinator under Matt Rhule. After five weeks Rhule was fired as Wilks became interim head coach, owing to his prior experience in Arizona.

What followed was the most remarkable in-season turnarounds of 2022. Carolina went from being a 1-4 joke, owning the No. 1 overall pick and trading away its best players, to finishing the season 7-10 and pushing for a playoff spot until the end of the season. Players loved Wilks, the team responded to his coaching technique — and he went 6-6 against a schedule featuring five playoff teams, and signature wins over the Buccaneers, Seahawks, and Lions.

Why Wilks is perfect for the available jobs

We’re in a weird spot defensively in the NFL right now. Obviously it’s a passing league, but we haven’t seen defensive back talent blossom at the same rate as wide receivers in recent years. Part of this is due to shifting offensive rules, but it’s also about resource and salary allocation to DBs.

Teams are relying more than ever on rookie contracts to build their secondaries, while only spending money on one key veteran. This requires someone on defense who can quickly get players up to speed, and get the most out of their talent. Time and time again Wilks has shown this ability in the two most important areas: Rushing the passer and defending the pass.

If you’re a cash-strapped team like Minnesota or Miami you need someone who can make the most of what you’ve got. If you’re a building team like Atlanta you need someone who can develop young players.

Every team needs someone like Steve Wilks unless they already have a top-tier defensive coordinator. He enters the market being markedly better than half the coordinators in the league, and just needs a fair opportunity to establish himself in the NFL. He will make a team better. His players will love him and run through walls for him — and the Panthers will regret being another unfortunate stop on his list of bad breaks.