At long last, Sean Payton is again a head coach. At various points this offseason, it appeared Payton could head back to FOX and take another crack at an NFL return in 2024. Instead, the Denver Broncos landed their next head coach by sending a 2023 first-round pick and a 2024 second-round pick to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for Payton’s rights and a 2024 third.
Payton now has to assemble a staff, which shouldn’t present much of a problem given the contacts he’s developed during a decades-long NFL career. Denver’s offensive staff will take care of itself, as Payton will run the show on that side of the ball. But Payton and the Broncos need to find a defensive boss, and there might be several candidates to fill the role.
Sean Payton Searching for Broncos’ Defensive Coordinator
NFL head coaches love familiarity and will often bring members of their previous staff to new destinations. However, I wouldn’t expect Payton to target any defensive coordinators he employed in New Orleans for a job with the Broncos.
Gary Gibbs, Payton’s first DC with the Saints, is now 70 years old and hasn’t led an NFL defense in a decade. Gregg Williams has seemingly been ostracized from the league after a disastrous showing with the Jets and now works in the XFL. Steve Spagnuolo is the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan hasn’t been a DC in six years, and Dennis Allen is the Saints’ head coach.
Instead, Payton seemingly has three options as he looks for Denver’s next DC. Let’s start with the most obvious path — keeping the current coordinator in place.
Retain Ejiro Evero
Ejiro Evero was outstanding in his first season as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator in 2022. His unit ranked third in yards per play, seventh in points per drive, and ninth in expected points added per play.
Thus, it’s no surprise that the 42-year-old is garnering head coaching interest around the league. Evero interviewed with all five teams that had a vacancy heading into the offseason. He’s already received second interviews with the two clubs still searching for a head coach — the Cardinals and Colts — an indication he could be a finalist for those roles.
If he doesn’t land one of those jobs, Evero will likely become one of the NFL’s highest-paid defensive coordinators. Technically, he’s still under contract in Denver, and the Broncos would like Payton to retain him, according to Mike Klis of 9News. However, the decision will ultimately be left up to Payton.
There’s always a chance that keeping Evero around could be awkward for all parties involved. Evero was not only part of previous head coach Nathaniel Hackett’s staff but also one of Hackett’s best friends. He declined the chance to take over as Denver’s interim head coach out of loyalty to Hackett.
Still, Payton could jump at the opportunity to keep an up-and-coming coach like Evero on board. And the deep-pocketed Broncos owners should be able to give Evero a substantial raise to stick around.
Convince Vic Fangio to Back Out of His Dolphins’ Contract
Vic Fangio has been tied to Payton since late December when reports indicated the former Saints head coach would like to bring Fangio with him to his next landing spot.
But things haven’t worked out perfectly for Fangio to head to Denver. For one, he’s attracted significant interest around the NFL — which is unsurprising given that he’s one the most influential defensive coordinators in recent memory.
Additionally, Fangio might already have a job. After interviewing with the Falcons and Panthers, Fangio reportedly agreed earlier this week to become the Dolphins’ DC. A three-year deal with a fourth-year team option was supposed to make the 64-year-old the highest-paid assistant in the NFL.
But then, nothing. Miami hasn’t announced its hiring of Fangio, and some reports have indicated the veteran coach hasn’t made a decision yet. Is it possible Fangio is waffling on his landing spot?
Sources tell Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline that Fangio is still likely to join the Dolphins, and his contract offer from Miami is reportedly the best he’s received thus far.
However, Fangio is still a coaching free agent until the ink is dry. The Broncos went all-out to grab Payton, and they probably won’t spare any expense to add Fangio to the mix if he’s Payton’s preferred candidate.
Look Elsewhere Around the NFL
If Payton doesn’t roll with Evero or Fangio, he’ll still have an assortment of potential defensive coordinators to choose from.
Payton could target a former NFL head coach, such as Brian Flores or Steve Wilks, for the Broncos’ DC job. Flores is a head coach candidate in Arizona, a DC candidate in Minnesota, and interviewed for the Falcons’ coordinator position before Atlanta chose former Saints co-DC Ryan Nielsen. Wilks, passed over for the Panthers’ HC gig, is in the running to replace DeMeco Ryans with the 49ers.
Other potential Broncos candidates could include Seahawks assistant Sean Desai, who met with the Dolphins and Vikings about their DC positions; Jets safeties coach Marquand Manuel, a DC candidate in Carolina and potentially Houston; and Chris Harris, the Commanders’ defensive backs coach, who has drawn interest from the Titans and 49ers this offseason.