SF 49ers: 4 potential replacements for Robert Saleh in 2021

Robert Saleh, San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Robert Saleh, San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /
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Robert Saleh, SF 49ers
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

With Robert Saleh’s phenomenal work with the SF 49ers likely guaranteeing him a head coaching job next year, Niner Noise looks at who might replace him.

The SF 49ers have had 72 injured defensive players this season.

Down his starting cornerback, both starting edge defenders, and a starting safety for the majority of the season, not to mention several players going in and out of the lineup. Yet still, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has put together a top-tier defense that has managed to confound and decimate teams much more talented than the Niners currently.

This comes on the back of a 2019 season that was a revelation, though at the time, it was easier to cite pure talent as the reason Saleh’s defense did well.

But this year, that excuse has gone flying out of the window, and the only reason a team of backups has been competitive defensively is because of the coordinator’s work. Robert Smith of Niner Noise did a great job explaining just how important the defense has been here.

That doesn’t mean Saleh is perfect. His decision to not give safety help to cornerback Brian Allen against the Miami Dolphins still looms large, and his treatment for star receivers has not been very different compared to how the defense is set up versus regular receivers. Whether that’s an indictment of his coaching style or a reflection of the talent on the backend is up for you to decide, but it’s important to note although Saleh has been exceptional, he’s not perfect.

He is, however, going to be gone next year unless, by some stroke of misfortune to him or stroke of luck for the SF 49ers, he sticks around one year. Saleh is reportedly the hottest head coaching candidate on the market, and the legislators of Michigan went so far as to write an official memo urging the Detroit Lions to hire him to fill their coaching void. He’s got his pick of whatever location he wants to go to.

All that means for the Niners is that next year, someone new will have to be calling the shots for the defense, which will likely have some new faces on the field but also have back EDGE Nick Bosa, a pass-rushing end who can mask a lot of issues anywhere on the field. With the talent San Francisco has on defense, the team needs a coordinator who puts players in the best position to make plays.

One interesting thing about Saleh has been his reputation versus his development. Saleh came to the SF 49ers as a Cover 3 Seattle Seahawks-type coordinator, running the single-high free safety, box safety, corners take a deep-third scheme that had been popularized by Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” days in the early 2010s.

It’s worth noting the SF 49ers do not have arguably three Hall of Fame talents in their prime in the secondary. Saleh has adjusted tremendously from then, diversifying his play-calls to include more quarters and two-high coverage. So, the necessity for a coach who exclusively runs Seattle Cover 3 is unnecessary. However, the defensive line itself still follows the Seattle 4-3 front, albeit with a Wide 9 variation because of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. A switch to a different front might marginalize certain players and put others in sub-optimal positions.

Nevertheless, here are some would-be replacements for Saleh once he lands his head coaching job.