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DeMeco Ryans emerges as a top Broncos head coach candidate

Other candidates including Quinn, Payton and Caldwell remain in mix, but 49ers' defensive coordinator appears to be frontrunner. Houston is also interested in Ryans.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has emerged as a top candidate to become the Denver Broncos' next head coach.

Other Broncos’ head coach candidates remain in the mix including Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, former New Orleans Saints’ head coach Sean Payton and former Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts’ head coach Jim Caldwell, according to a source. But Ryans appears to be a top choice.

Broncos’ chief executive officer and owner Greg Penner has spent the last few days regrouping with the other involved owners--Carrie Penner, Rob Walton and Condoleezza Rice--as well as general manager George Paton. Penner appears to have taken a meticulous approach to the head coaching search, which includes follow-up conversations both inside and outside team headquarters to gain more information on the candidates and to gauge their interest in the top job.

If Penner wants to interview Ryans for a second time, he will have to wait until early next week. Ryans’ 49ers are playing Sunday against the Eagles in Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.

If the Broncos do visit with Ryans for a second time, Penner is expected to be joined by fellow owners Rob Walton and Carrie Walton Penner, who have been involved in the process. The Walton-Penner family trio led the ownership group that bought the Broncos for a sports-franchise record $4.65 billion in August.

Credit: AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Samson Ebukam (56) talks with defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans before an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.

The Houston Texans are also coveting Ryans as their next head coach, according to sources. Ryans was selected by the Texans out of Alabama in the second round of the 2006 draft and was a six-year starting inside linebacker for Houston coach Gary Kubiak before finishing his career as a four-year starting linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. Ryans’ wife Jamila is from Houston and the couple has three children.

Ryans had head coach interview requests from the Broncos, Texans, Arizona Cardinals and Colts. He interviewed with the Broncos and Texans but cancelled his interviews and essentially withdrew from consideration with the Cardinals and Colts.

When Penner began his head coach search process after firing Nathaniel Hackett with two weeks left in the regular season, his preference was to find someone with previous head coach experience. Why? The Broncos three previous hires for the position since 2017 – Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio and Hackett – were all first-time head coaches. None posted a winning season and all were fired before reaching the end of their respective four-year contracts.

But Penner also kept an open mind while seeking a dynamic leader who had a bit of an edge for his next head coach and he didn’t limit his 8 candidates to those with previous experience. While Jim Harbaugh, Raheem Morris, Quinn, Payton and Caldwell are candidates with previous NFL head coach experience, three did not – Ryans, the Broncos’ own defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and David Shaw, who recently stepped away as Stanford’s head coach.

Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans speaks during a news conference at NFL football training camp in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, July 29, 2021.

Penner, co-owner Rice and  Paton came away impressed with Ryans during their interview with him last Thursday in the San Francisco Bay area. And while Ryans’ coaching resume is thin in terms of experience compared to other NFL head coaches, so was Mike Tomlin’s before the Rooney family was blown away his by clear leadership command and hired him to be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach in 2007. Tomlin is still the Steelers head coach 16 years later as he has yet to experience a losing season.

Tomlin became head coach after just one year as a defensive coordinator. Ryans has been the 49ers’ defensive coordinator the past two years and was enormously successful each season. The 49ers were No. 3 in total defense in 2021 and tied for No. 9 in scoring defense, then became a postseason surprise with playoff upsets of the Cowboys in Dallas and  Packers in Green Bay before nearly defeating the Rams in Los Angeles in the NFC Championship Game.

Credit: AP Photo/Emilee Chinn
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans watches warmups before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati.

The 49ers are making a return trip to the NFL’s Final Four as Ryans’ defense was even better in the 2022. In fact, it was the best as even though he lost two of his best players to the Broncos in defensive tackle D.J. Jones and nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams, the 49ers ranked No. 1 this year in both total defense and points.

Ryans’ 49ers’ defense picked off Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott twice Sunday in a 19-12, second-round playoff win.

Although Ryans implements a 4-3 defensive system, it's possible Evero would return as the Broncos' defensive coordinator even though Evero runs a 3-4 defense as it will take a while for general manager George Paton to adjust his roster personnel. 

After his playing career ended after the 2015 season, Ryans started his coaching career as the 49ers’ defensive quality control coach in 2017. After one year he was promoted to inside linebackers coach, his position for three years. He then replaced Robert Saleh as defensive coordinator in 2021 when Saleh became head coach of the New York Jets.



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