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Offseason | 2024

Hot Board: 8 potential defensive coordinator candidates


FRISCO, Texas — With Dan Quinn leaving Dallas to take the head coaching job in Washington, the Dallas Cowboys are in the market for a new defensive coordinator for the 2024 season and beyond.

Mike McCarthy has shown an interest in former head coaches for coordinator positions, but he has also expressed high praise in current defensive staffers in the past.

It is expected to be a joint decision with the front office and McCarthy. With that in mind, here are a few candidates that could fit as the next defensive coordinator.

Mike Vrabel: Probably the most popular choice among outside candidates with the fanbase, former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel was not picked for any of the head coach openings and will now make the decision to either serve as a defensive coordinator somewhere or sit out a year to evaluate head coach openings next season.

If he decides to do the former, the Cowboys could be an interesting fit considering the defense's needs and McCarthy's history of grabbing former head coaches for coordinator positions, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

After a 14-year playing career in which he won three Super Bowls, Vrabel briefly coached in the college ranks at Ohio State for three seasons before making the jump to the NFL in 2014 to coach linebackers for the Houston Texans. He would serve in that role for three more seasons before being promoted in 2018 to defensive coordinator. His one year of coordinator experience earned him the opportunity to coach the Titans for five seasons in which he led them to an AFC Championship Game appearance and earned one AP Coach of the Year award.

Mike Zimmer: A former defensive assistant for five years and a former defensive coordinator for seven years for the Dallas Cowboys from 1994-2006, Mike Zimmer could be a name that is circled back on to coach the defense in 2024. Zimmer has head coaching experience from his eight seasons spent in Minnesota and 14 seasons of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator.

Zimmer has ties with McCarthy through their many battles in the NFC North when McCarthy was with the Packers, as the two have publicly expressed praise for one another in the past. Most notably, Zimmer came out in support of McCarthy after being fired by Green Bay in 2018 by calling the decision by the Packers "sad" and a "mistake."

Ron Rivera: A Washington swap? It's certainly a possibility, as former Commanders head coach Ron Rivera remains on the open market for defensive coordinator opportunities. Rivera had interviewed with the Eagles before Philadelphia moved on hiring Vic Fangio, but an opportunity to stay in the NFC East and come to Dallas could be a realistic one.

In 2021, Rivera said that Mike McCarthy made a "big mistake" by guaranteeing a win over the Commanders in the week leading up to their matchup, but the two have mostly respected each other in instances outside of that in the past.

Rivera has served as the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers and has been the head coach for the Carolina Panthers and the Commanders. Rivera interviewed for the Cowboys head coaching job in 2007, but ownership decided to hire Wade Phillips at the time instead.

Al Harris: One of three in-house candidates to get promoted to defensive coordinator, Cowboys defensive backs coach Al Harris is a popular candidate among the fanbase to be elevated. After a 14-year career in the NFL, Harris immediately jumped into the coaching world as an intern with the Miami Dolphins in 2012 before landing on the Kansas City Chiefs staff as the assistant defensive backs coach from 2013 to 2018.

In 2020, Harris was hired by the Cowboys and has since been credited with playing a big role in the development of Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland into All-Pro cornerbacks. A popular locker room figure on the staff, an elevation for Harris would be a big morale boost after losing Quinn.

Joe Whitt Jr.: Another in-house candidate, secondary coach and pass game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. once said that his two dream jobs are to be the head coach at the University of South Florida or the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys.

His influence on the secondary has been a big contributing factor to Dallas being a consistent league-leader in takeaways with Trevon Diggs (2021) and DaRon Bland (2023) both leading the NFL in interceptions during his time.

An NFL defensive coach since 2007, Whitt has been a part of coaching staffs with the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns and has been with the Dallas Cowboys since 2021.

Aden Durde: The current defensive line coach for the Cowboys, Aden Durde could be a legitimate option to be elevated in-house as well after three seasons in Dallas. His defensive line development has seen Micah Parsons become a perennial All-Pro, DeMarcus Lawrence become an elite run defender and Osa Odighizuwa become a polished pass rusher from the interior as well.

His specialty would exist up front where the Cowboys could use some added attention going into the 2024 season with impending free agents along the defensive line.

Durde's coaching career saw him start in his home country of Great Britain as the defensive coordinator for the London Warriors of the BAFA National League for six seasons where he won multiple national titles. His career in the NFL began with Dan Quinn with the Atlanta Falcons in 2018 as a defensive quality control coach before being elevated to outside linebackers coach in 2020. He has served with the Cowboys since 2021.

Brandon Staley: The former head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, Brandon Staley is still in the market after being let go in the middle of the Chargers' disappointing 5-12 season. While his time with the Chargers didn't go to plan, his limited experience as a coordinator has yielded big results.

Prior to joining the Chargers, Staley was the defensive coordinator for the Rams for one season where he led a defense that was first in the NFL in points allowed and total yards allowed. Prior to his time in Los Angeles, he served as the outside linebackers coach for both the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears after an extensive career in the college ranks.

Wink Martindale: A longtime NFL defensive coordinator that recently parted ways with the New York Giants, Wink Martindale remains on the open market as a potential option.

Martindale's NFL coaching career began in 2004 with the Oakland Raiders as their linebackers coach for five seasons before serving the same position with the Denver Broncos in 2009. Denver would promote Martindale to his first defensive coordinator opportunity in 2010.

The next decade would see Martindale win a Super Bowl as the linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens with a group that included Hall of Famer Ray Lewis before being promoted to defensive coordinator for four seasons in Baltimore. He was then brought in by Brian Daboll to be the defensive coordinator in New York in 2022 where he served until Jan. 10.

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