NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers defensive coordinator decision could potentially be costly for their Super Bowl window.

The San Francisco 49ers quieted the rumors last week when promoting defensive pass game coordinator and nickels coach Nick Sorensen to defensive coordinator, looking to fill the void internally after going external last offseason with Steve Wilks.

In addition to promoting Sorensen, the 49ers hired former Los Angeles Chargers Brandon Staley as a defensive specialist, which came after they interviewed him for their defensive coordinator vacancy.

Last season, after a number of interviews, the 49ers ultimately bypassed all of their internal options in favor of former Carolina Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks, who brought a defensive back background to San Francisco, which was a first at the defensive coordinator position.

While the 49ers saw an uptick in interceptions generated, the defense struggled as the season came to a close, which carried into the playoffs until the Super Bowl.

In fact, it felt like the 49ers were going to move off Wilks regardless of the outcome of the Super Bowl, speaking to the disconnect between him and Kyle Shanahan, as well as with the players.

Now, the 49ers have done a good job of moving on when a fit, be it with a player or a coach, isn’t working, which is what they did with Wilks.

But, they made a mistake at defensive coordinator last offseason, and their hiring of Sorensen last week only amplifies the mistake.

What worked with DeMeco

When hiring Wilks last offseason, not only were the 49ers looking for a change in philosophy from their new defensive coordinator, but they were shying away from their internal options.

San Francisco’s last hire, linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans, was an internal selection, and proved to be a great choice, as he developed through some early mistakes to become the league’s best defensive coordinator, earning him a head-coaching gig with the Houston Texans last offseason.

Now, the key with Ryans was patience; the 49ers defensive coordinator admittedly had some early struggles, which he took accountability for, before growing into his role as the season went along.

Then, during his second season as the defensive coordinator, the growth was clear: Ryans had learned his way into disguising coverages and calling well-timed blitzes for a team that preferred to rush with just their four down linemen.

As a result, the 49ers’ defense in 2022 was the league’s best across several important metrics, which propelled them deep into the playoffs once again, despite facing two different quarterback changes mid-season.

Overall, though, Ryans was able to learn through early mistakes and find his groove as a first-time playcaller, which ultimately led him to a successful 2022 season and a head-coaching job as a result.

Sorensen’s situation

With Sorensen becoming the next defensive coordinator, the 49ers are getting someone with a diverse background, as the former passing game coordinator has special teams experience as a coordinator, while also being a disciple of the Seattle system, having worked there from 2016-20.

Like Wilks, Sorensen comes into the role with a defensive back background, although he’ll be tasked with doing the primary thing that his predecessor struggled with: marrying the pass rush to the secondary.

However, Sorensen’s leash is much smaller than Ryans’s, given the 49ers’ closing Super Bowl window, which could arguably end after this upcoming season with the team’s current core of star players.

While Ryans had time to develop into an elite defensive coordinator between his first and second years, Sorensen needs to adapt quickly and find his groove as a playcaller as the 49ers look to push their eggs in with hopes of another deep playoff run and a Lombardi Trophy this season.

Now, Sorensen was in the building during that electric 2022 season, where he got first-hand experience working with Ryans, so his internal experience could accelerate that process.

But, in hiring Sorensen, head coach Kyle Shanahan is putting a significant amount of pressure on his defensive assistant to produce early and often with the roster at his disposal.

Brandon Staley’s involvement

Brandon Staley’s hiring is an intriguing one for the 49ers, as the former head coach has extensive playcalling experience stemming back to his year as the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams.

But, his role is unknown with the 49ers, as it’ll be expected that he’ll help with the creativity on the gameplanning side.

Now, Staley could be an essential asset in helping the 49ers’ defense reach its old heights while serving behind the scenes.

However, Staley’s presence is both a help and a sign of pressure for Sorensen, as the 49ers have another option with playcalling experience that could take over should their new defensive coordinator struggle initially.

That wasn’t the case in either of the past two years, but 2024 is a crucial year for an aging 49ers roster that faces several tough decisions over the next two offseasons when it comes to contracts on the team.

What the 49ers should’ve done

Overall, the biggest mistake was not promoting Sorensen last offseason.

If Shanahan had the confidence to go with Sorensen this offseason, the 49ers head coach should’ve made the decision last year, understanding that the team essentially had a two-year window with their current roster to contend for a Super Bowl.

That way, Sorensen would’ve had the same acclimation period as DeMeco Ryans, allowing him to grow year-to-year as he adjusted as a playcaller.

Unfortunately, in choosing Wilks, Shanahan burned one of those two years, while placing even more pressure on a first-time playcaller to get the job done. On top of that, there’s another face in the building who actually has playcalling experience that could overtake that role at any team.

Now, the world isn’t crashing down, and Sorensen could very well thrive in his new role with the 49ers defense, helping them back to their original levels.

But, the circumstances around the past two years have certainly made that job more difficult, placing him in a tough situation to succeed.

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