Green Bay Packers fans were crossing their fingers when Matt LaFleur took to the podium at his season-ending press conference. Most were hoping that he would announce that his much-criticized defensive coordinator Joe Barry wouldn’t return in 2023. Unfortunately for those fans, that announcement never came. In fact, LaFleur stated he didn’t anticipate a whole lot of change if any. While he didn’t anticipate it, change is coming to the Green Bay Packers coaching staff. With defensive backs/pass game coordinator Jerry Gray headed to the Atlanta Falcons, LaFleur is now in search of a replacement.
Candidates for the Green Bay Packers to Replace Jerry Gray
There will be speculation on why Jerry Gray is no longer part of Matt LaFleur’s staff. What we do know is that Gray’s contract expired and he was able to interview for positions for other NFL teams. It’s an opportunity that Gray took full advantage of. Not only did he interview with the Falcons (as their defensive coordinator along with the position he landed, assistant head coach/defense), but he also interviewed for a spot on the Chicago Bears staff.
From all indications, it wasn’t just kicking the tires, he really wanted out. While we won’t know exactly why until, or if, Gray says so, Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com had an interesting tweet about Gray’s departure. Demovsky tweeted that Gray went out of his way to distance himself from Joe Barry’s scheme last season. If true, you can’t blame him. Barry’s vanilla defensive scheme has been scrutinized for the past two seasons.
Replacing Gray won’t be easy. Not only was he a standout NFL cornerback, but he’s a well-respected veteran NFL assistant. He had the trust and respect of his players. That was on display in the Packers victory over the Miami Dolphins when he gave a fiery halftime speech that led to a comeback victory for the Packers.
Along with being a veteran defensive backs coach, Gray was a two-time defensive coordinator, for the Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans. That experience proved valuable during his time with the Packers as well. In 2021, when Barry came down with COVID and couldn’t call the defense against the Arizona Cardinals, it was Gray who took over as the defensive play caller. The Packers won that game and arguably, it was the best-called defensive game during Barry’s tenure.
Several Different Options for LaFleur
With Jerry Gray’s departure, Matt LaFleur could take the opportunity to restructure the Packers defensive coaching staff structure. Before earning the title of passing game coordinator in 2021, Gray oversaw the cornerbacks as well as the safeties. When he was promoted, Ryan Downard became the safeties coach, while Gray coached the cornerbacks and helped Barry with the pass game scheme.
Now that Gray is gone, LaFleur could decide to give Downard the title of defensive backs coach, being in charge of both the safeties and the cornerbacks. LaFleur could also give him Gray’s old title of pass game coordinator. However, with how poorly the Packers safeties played in 2022, it is doubtful that will happen. But you never know, LaFleur has given assistants new titles even if they haven’t earned them.
The path that seems more logical would be to bring in someone new, one that has a background in coaching cornerbacks. The position should draw quite a bit of interest. The top three cornerbacks, Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas, and Eric Stokes, make up a very strong trio of NFL cornerbacks. When they are put in the best position to succeed, they are an elite group. Those three players make this position very tantalizing for defensive backs coaches in search of a job.
If LaFleur goes with Plan B, selecting a coach to work with just cornerbacks, there are three names to keep an eye on. It won’t be easy replacing someone of Gray’s stature, but these three candidates could lessen the blow.
Anthony Pleasant was hired by the Packers as an offensive analyst midway through last season. Pleasant’s background as a defensive backs coach was expected to help with some of the Packers offensive woes. While the results are at best shaky, he did spend time around the Packers coaching staff and learned both the offense and defense.
Before joining the Packers, he was on the Detroit Lions coaching staff. He was hired in 2021 to be their defensive backs/pass game coordinator. The Lions defense struggled and it appears Pleasant was made the scapegoat for their struggles.
Previously to joining the Lions, he was the Los Angeles Rams cornerbacks coach from 2017-2020. His work with the Rams garnered attention from other NFL teams. In fact, when LaFleur parted ways with former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in 2020, Pleasant made our list of possible replacements for Pettine.
Along with working for the Packers last season, Pleasant has another connection to the Packers. He worked alongside Barry with the Rams while both served as assistants. He also worked on the Rams staff when LaFleur served as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator. His connection to Barry could be more of a negative than a positive though. The Packers defense needs fresh ideas, not someone who will be a yes-man to Barry.
A Candidate With Defensive Coordinator Experience
Kris Richard has a vast amount of experience working with defensive backs, especially cornerbacks, in the NFL. Richard was a longtime assistant for Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks (2010-2017). He held the titles of assistant defensive backs coach, cornerbacks coach, defensive backs coach, and finally defensive coordinator.
After leaving Seattle, he landed with the Dallas Cowboys. He held the title of defensive backs coach/pass game coordinator. While he held that title, he was the Cowboys defensive play caller. Interestingly enough, during his time with the Cowboys (2018-2019), he worked with Rod Marinelli, Barry’s father-in-law.
In his most recent stop, the New Orleans Saints, he held the duties of defensive backs coach as well as co-defensive coordinator/secondary. The Saints parted ways with Richard this season, making him a free agent. While his tenure with the Saints didn’t end well, he does have solid experience working with NFL cornerbacks.
A Return Back to Green Bay?
Al Harris made a name for himself as an in-your-face aggressive cornerback with the Green Bay Packers from 2003-2010. His time and success with the Packers earned him a spot in the Packers Hall of Fame.
Since retiring after 2011, Harris has spent time as an NFL defensive backs coach. From 2013-2018, he was the Kansas City Chiefs assistant secondary/defensive assistant. Currently, he has reunited with former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, serving as the Cowboys defensive backs coach.
Harris’s only connection to the Packers is that he is a former player of theirs. He has never worked with LaFleur or Barry and it appears he is still under contract with the Cowboys. For LaFleur to land him, he would have to include pass game coordinator in his title, making it a promotion from what he is doing in Dallas. Also, Harris, as a player, made a name for himself as a press cornerback. It’s a style that Barry has been reluctant to embrace, even though Jerry Gray proved it’s what best fits the Packers cornerback personnel.
Embed from Getty Images