With training camp right around the corner, most of the more notable offseason transactions have taken place within the NFC North as all four teams look toward the 2018 season. With a large number of significant additions and subtractions in mind, today continues a three-part series ranking the division’s positional groups.
Today’s rankings take a look at the defensive units of each franchise. To little surprise, Minnesota heads into the 2018 season with a leg up at each position. Certainly, a number of young units such as the Lions’ linebacking crew and the Packers’ new-look secondary could surprise and catch up to the Vikings over the course of the season.
But as of the pre-training camp period, here is how the groups are shaping up.
With two defensive ends in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen that have posted 40.5 sacks in the past two seasons, it’s difficult to argue against Minnesota having the best defensive line. Pairing Sheldon Richardson with Linval Joseph inside makes for an imposing interior presence. Brian Robison is a solid, yet aging third end for this squad.
The team’s strength a season ago, the Green Bay defense line returns two upper-echelon players in Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark. Signing a versatile Muhammad Wilkerson will help the Packers’ pass rush if the longtime Jet can get back to the level he once played at. Dean Lowry now becomes a valuable depth player and end in four-man sets while Green Bay awaits the development of last year’s third rounder Montravius Adams.
Ziggy Ansah has been very inconsistent over the past couple seasons and has at least one more season with the team after earning the franchise tag. Still, Ansah recorded 12 sacks last season, while Anthony Zettel netted 6.5 as well. Cornelius Washington also adds help on the edge. Inside, the Lions have a young, run-stuffer in A’Shawn Robinson, but would like to see him take the next step in his third season. Sylvester Williams represents proven depth, while Detroit hopes draft pick Da’Shawn Hand becomes a better pro than college player as Detroit’s second Alabama lineman drafted in three years.
Akiem Hicks has developed into a great contributor for the Bears on one end, reaching 8.5 sacks last season. Outside of Hicks, however, there isn’t much flash on this unit. Jonathan Bullard has not progressed over his two seasons with the team and Eddie Goldman is a true nose tackle who doesn’t provide much as a pass rusher. Former undrafted free agent Roy Robertson-Harris posted a couple sacks a year ago and provides intrigue heading into year two.
Minnesota gets the top ranked group with Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr leading the unit. Kendricks has continued to be among the league’s best coverage inside linebackers, while Barr provides solid coverage in his own right. Though Barr’s sack totals have dipped each of the last few years, all the way down to just one in 2017, he remains a pass rushing presence when needed. Ben Gedeon figures to be the other starter on the outside in a 4-3 base, but depth behind him is a concern.
In a few years, Chicago could very well own one of the NFL’s best linebacker units. Leonard Floyd battled injuries a season ago, but is an athletic pass rushing specialist for this team. Sam Acho is a solid starter opposite Floyd with free agent signee Aaron Lynch looking to rejuvenate his career in Chicago as a third edge rusher. In the middle, first round pick Roquan Smith could blossom into a Pro Bowler very soon and will form an excellent one-two punch with Danny Trevathan. Nick Kwiatkoski brings experience as a depth option.
The impact of Mike Pettine’s scheme on this group of linebackers will be a critical component of the team’s season. Green Bay did not help this unit much during free agency or the draft and is counting on its returners. Nick Perry and Clay Matthews form a decent edge rushing combination when healthy. But both have suffered through a medley of injuries and were not very effective a year ago despite the sack totals. The young depth behind them is very unproven. Blake Martinez broke through in his sophomore campaign and looks like a rising, all-around middle linebacker to build this defense around. Draft pick Oren Burks will look to fill the coverage roles of the departed Joe Thomas, while Jake Ryan provides depth inside.
Jarrad Davis had an excellent rookie season for Detroit and looks like the real deal. He has Pro Bowl potential in 2018. Outside of Davis, the Lions have several unknowns as they look to insert Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Devon Kennard into starting roles. Christian Jones brings veteran experience to this squad, but the impact of Detroit’s linebacking unit remains a wait-and-see.
A full secondary analysis gives the Vikings a slight edge. Harrison Smith may be the top safety in the NFC and posted five interceptions and 12 pass deflections a year ago. He defends the deep half of the field extremely well and makes it hard for offenses to create big plays. Xavier Rhodes has become one of the conference’s best outside corners and makes it easy for opponents to pick on former first round pick Trae Waynes, who has had his share of struggles. Waynes has also made some crucial plays late in ballgames and his development, along with Mackensie Alexander, will make a difference for this secondary. First round pick Mike Hughes is another player the Vikings are counting on to eventually become a shutdown corner on the boundary.
Detroit had eight players record at least one interception in 2017, led by Darius Slay’s eight picks. Slay emerged as a top five corner last season with 26 pass deflections and leads a relatively young unit. If Teez Tabor can come even remotely close to Slay’s progression in his second season, the Lions will be tough to throw on. Bringing in veteran DeShawn Shead should also be a benefit to the cornerback staff. At safety, Glover Quin was a very underrated member of the secondary last season with three picks over 16 starts. His stability made up for a three-man rotation at strong safety last season with Quandre Diggs, Miles Killebrew, and Tavon Wilson. This unit has plenty of depth.
Ranking Green Bay third might be a little aggressive. But there are plenty of things to like about how the Packers re-tooled their secondary in the offseason. Draft picks Josh Jackson and Jaire Alexander should contribute immediately at corner, while Tramon Williams and Davon House provide a wealth of experience to fall back on. Last year’s second round pick Kevin King also should be expected to take a step forward as a healthy sophomore. Size, speed, and athleticism abound at cornerback. Safety is a little less encouraging. Change was needed in the offseason and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should benefit from a system change and improve upon a lackluster 2017. But the opposite safety starter remains unknown. Another former second rounder in Josh Jones has a shot to earn that role, but he had a disappointing first season out of position. Kentrell Brice figures to be his top competitor.
Kyle Fuller got his pay day after bouncing back from injury in 2016 to record two interceptions and 22 passes defended. He’s a star in the making. Opposite Fuller are the steady Prince Amukamara and Bryce Callahan while the Bears develop reliable reserves behind them. At safety, Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos look to be an up-and-coming duo for Chicago to lean on. The Bears have hit on a number of players in the past few drafts and Jackson represents yet another one of those promising pieces.