The 49ers made it too deep into the playoffs during the 2019 season for Robert Saleh to get a realistic shot at a head coaching job last off-season. Most franchises look to fill their head-coaching vacancies before calendars flip to February, which had Eric Bieniemy (again), Todd Bowles, and Byron Leftwich on the outside looking in during this year’s coaching cycle. Saleh was still a hot commodity this off-season despite the 49ers going from 13 wins and a Super Bowl appearance to six wins and the 12th overall pick. The 49ers still had a top-10 defensive unit last season despite their struggles in 2020, and the Jets weren’t going to let Saleh go unclaimed for a second consecutive off-season.
Saleh raided Shanahan’s staff a bit by bringing Mike LaFleur with him to be his offensive coordinator and John Benton to be his offensive line coach. It’s usually a big no-no to pluck coaches from your old employer, but Shanahan didn’t seem too concerned about it. He jokingly told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was never going to talk to Saleh again, whom he’s been good friends with since they first coached together in 2006 with the Texans.
Shanahan also wasn’t too concerned about losing some of his top lieutenants because he’s got a deep bench of up-and-coming coaches. He tabbed his other top offensive assistant, Mike McDaniel, as LaFleur’s replacement after he coordinated San Francisco’s running game the last four years. He’ll still be focused on their rushing attack and Shanahan will likely still be calling the plays although nothing has been formally announced. Shanahan also stayed in-house for their defensive coordinator spot by promoting former star LB DeMeco Ryans, who was a rookie with the Texans in 2006 when Shanahan and Saleh first started coaching together.
McDaniel, 37, drew some interest from Brian Flores and Brandon Staley to be the offensive coordinator for the Dolphins and the Chargers, respectively. Ultimately, the former Yale wide receiver decided to take a promotion to stay in the Shanahan coaching tree for at least another year. McDaniel got his start as an intern under Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos in 2005 before he joined Kyle Shanahan as members of Gary Kubiak’s staff in Houston (2006-08).
McDaniel reunited with the Shanahans in Washington where he worked as an offensive assistant (2011-12) and as a wide receivers coach (2013). During his lone season as a WR coach, Pierre Garcon led the NFL receptions with 113 catches, which is still a franchise record. McDaniel then followed Kyle as an assistant during his offensive coordinator stints in Cleveland (2014) and Atlanta (2015-16) before he became Kyle’s run-game coordinator in San Francisco the last four years.
Ryans, at age 36, will be the youngest defensive coordinator in the league this season after wrapping up a successful 10-year playing career just five seasons ago. He has massive shoes to fill taking over for Saleh, whose defense had the 49ers six minutes from winning Super Bowl LIV before the wheels fell off against the Chiefs. Saleh’s defense finished second in FootballOutsiders’ DVOA and second in yards per game allowed in 2019. And his unit remained near the top of the league in 2020 — sixth in DVOA and fifth in YPG allowed — despite major injuries to the likes Nick Bosa (ACL), Dee Ford (back), Solomon Thomas (ACL), Richard Sherman (calf), K’Waun Williams (ankle), and Jaquiski Tartt (toe).
In four short seasons, Ryans has quickly risen the coaching ranks much like Saleh did under Shanahan. Ryans has served as the team’s inside linebackers coach the last three seasons after a decorated career with the Texans (2006-11) and the Eagles (2012-15). He won the Defensive Rookie of the Year after Houston selected him out of Alabama with the first pick in the second round in the 2006 Draft, and he would earn All-Pro honors in his second season. Ryans has helped Fred Warner to get on a similar career trajectory as his own the last three seasons with Warner going from a 2018 third-round pick out of BYU to an All-Pro last season.
Shanahan brought James Bettcher to help his first-time defensive coordinator this season as a senior defensive assistant. Bettcher is just six years older than Ryans, but he’s already served two different stints as defensive coordinator with the Cardinals (2015-17) and the Giants (2018-19). Ryans is expected to stick with Saleh’s heavy Cover-3 schemes, which Saleh learned while coaching under Pete Carroll in Seattle (2010-13) and Gus Bradley in Jacksonville (2014-16). The 49ers moved to more 4-3 looks and Wide-9 techniques — edge defenders line up well outside of offensive tackles — starting in 2019 after they drafted Bosa with the second overall pick.
I’m not expecting the 49ers to make sweeping offensive changes since Shanahan will still be calling the shots for San Francisco’s offense. McDaniel’s promotion is at least a small indicator that the 49ers will be sticking with their run-first approach. McDaniel oversaw the league’s second-best rushing offense in 2019 with the 49ers averaging 153.5 rushing yards per game. They still finished in the top half of the league in rushing offense last season despite numerous injuries to key offensive players including Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman.
Free-agent FB Kyle Juszczyk, who is a fellow Ivy League graduate from Harvard, called McDaniel the most creative run-game designer in football after he was promoted in January. Juszcyzyk added that McDaniel knows how to get the most out of his players. Juice would know since the versatile fullback has been deployed all over the field since becoming the highest-paid FB by the 49ers with his $21 million deal back in 2017. This March, Juszczyk could be choosing between sticking with Shanahan and McDaniel in the Bay Area or following LaFleur and Saleh to the Jets to be close to his Long Island, N.Y. home base.
The 49ers promoted Chris Foerster to offensive line coach after Saleh took Benton with him to New York, and Forester has plenty of experience in Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme. He worked as the offensive line coach with the Shanahans for four years in Washington (2010-13), and he’s spent the last two seasons as a game-planning assistant. Shanahan also brought back Rich Scangarello as his quarterbacks coach to get Jimmy Garoppolo back on track after a lost 2020 campaign because of injuries. Scangarello occupied the position in 2017-18 before stops in Denver as the offensive coordinator in 2019 and in Philadelphia as an offensive assistant in 2020.
Potential Fantasy Risers
Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson (RBs) — McDaniel has been a loyal disciple of the Shanahans over the last decade, and he’s been instrumental in Shanahan’s creative run-game schemes over the last four years in San Francisco. McDaniel’s promotion to offensive coordinator isn’t going to change the play-calling dynamic too much since Shanahan ultimately calls the shots. At least the running game should continue to be an integral part of their offensive attack and it should keep continuity with their rushing game concepts heading into 2021.