NFL defensive coordinators are second only to head coaches in terms of prestige and pay. The NFL does not publicize individual or even average salary numbers. However, some contracts have become public, pinning down a high six-figure to low seven-figure yearly salary.
There is much more to the job than simply having elite defensive players. The role requires shutting down the explosive quarterbacks that regularly make it into the league. And, despite the defense specific title, the role runs much deeper than straight-up playcalling. Let’s break it all down.
What do defensive coordinators do?
The title obviously covers the main role of a defensive coordinator. Reviewing game tape, working individually with each defender, and adjusting plays over the course of the game, all what everyone expects.
However, that level of gameday responsibility means they are second only to the head coach. That puts their duties beyond running the defense directly. As the head honcho’s number two, they are the last line of defense between the big man and the many defensive assistant coaches who all have their own niche concerns.
Due to differences in structure, college football defensive coordinators take a hands-on role in scouting and recruitment as well. They shed this practice in the NFL. But the ability to read potential in players who aren’t obviously displaying their best just yet is an important skill that helps greatly at the professional level.
And, like any high-level coaching or front office position in sports, a big part of the job is accountability. Yes, defensive coordinators make six to seven-figure salaries. Part of that is because they have no job security. If things go wrong on the defensive side of things, even if the right plays were called, the defensive coordinator is often one of the first on the chopping block.
Which defensive coordinators get paid the most?
The NFL keeps salaries close to their chests whenever possible. The Player’s Association makes sure the world is aware of the market value of the players they represent. Coaches do not have the same level of transparency for their salaries in the NFL.
The median salary of sports coaches in the United States was $43,870 in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number accounts for the many college and high school coaches and scouts working throughout the country, however.
ESPN considered a three year, $3.1 million 2003 contract for then-Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to be worthy of a story in itself. More recently, in 2013 Wade Phillips pulled in $2.1 million over three years with the Houston Texans.
The best position for an aspiring head coach?
These high-paying contracts are eye-popping, to be sure, but they actually lag behind the top defensive coordinator jobs in college football. The payoff is in the career path. College assistant coaches have additional responsibilities, while their NFL equivalents are in line for the top job in their profession: NFL head coach.
Job insecurity and evolving responsibilities easily justify the pay grade of NFL defensive coordinators. The threat of swift firing remains if they climb their way to the head coaching position. But the bounty is massive.
Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett signed a five year, $30 million contract back in 2015. That’s exponentially larger than the defensive coordinator contracts discussed above.
And the top end seems nearly limitless. When a head coach pairs with a franchise quarterback and a strong defensive coordinator backing them up? And achieves consistent results across many years? That puts you in The Bill Belichick Zone, rumored to be up to $12.5 million a year. That’s big money for anyone not getting mangled by big hits on the field.
Not everybody gets to be Bill Belichick. Then again, not everybody gets close to making six figures in the first place, as NFL defensive coordinators often do. But the bottom line is, if they don’t show results, they wash out of their profession entirely. It’s a tough job with major rewards for those who push through.