So far, on the defensive side of the ball, we’ve looked at corners and safeties. Now it’s time to move up front. The NFC North features two different defensive alignments, and so rather than trying to divide the groups into defensive line and linebacker (and then trying to decide in which group players should be counted when playing 4-2-5 but with an LB’s hand in the dirt, to name only one problem), this week I just wanted to look at Front 7s altogether.
The men up front need to stop the run and they need to put the quarterback on the ground. They are responsible for stops at hard moments, and they put the “impact” in the “impact sport” nature of football (as a side note, I am one of those who sees football as a collision sport, but the sentiment doesn’t change).
With all of that said, how do the defensive rosters in the NFC North stack up in front?
#1) The Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ Front-7 features Everson Griffen (a 2-time pro-bowler with 48 career sacks), Anthony Barr (2-time pro-bowler with 6 career forced fumbles), and Linval Joseph (coming off his first pro bowl). The Vikings also have under-rated Eric Kendricks (9 PDs last year) and veteran Brian Robison. Kendricks is one of those guys who frustrates me, because if he weren’t playing for the Vikings I would love watching him play. He was tied for 14th of all defenders in the NFL per Football Outsiders’ “defeats” measure, and he was the highest-rated linebacker in that score for the NFC North (10th). This core remains intact heading into 2017, and that’s bad news for other teams in the NFC North.
The Vikings’ Front 7 was brutal against the passing game last year. Griffen and company managed to sack the opposing QB on 7% of all passing attempts per Sporting Charts, and that was good for 6th in the NFL. Digging in a bit, Minnesota was great when bringing the pressure (7th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA), but only so-so without it (18th). The Vikings were only middle-of-the-road in denying big rushing plays (43, for 15th in the NFL) and in allowing yards per rushing attempt (4.2, for 16th). They also managed to stuff only 5.7% of run plays (31st in the NFL). This is a defense that will disrupt the passing game and take its chances on the ground.
To this mix, Minnesota added Jaleel Johnson (a DT out of Iowa) via the draft. They also picked up former first-round pick Datone Jones and former Bear Will Sutton in free agency. While Johnson is not a bad pickup, this is probably a case of treading water until proven otherwise. For now, though, they have the lead.
#2) The Green Bay Packers
Julius Peppers is no longer on Green Bay’s roster, but Nick Perry is. Perry tied Kendricks for defeats last season at 25 (placing him fifth in the NFL among edge rushers, the highest of any such in the NFC North). Tracking down stats on Perry takes some doing, because he is variously considered an EDGE, an LB, and a DE. The fact of the matter is that he is a solid football player, and he probably should have been to a Pro Bowl by now even if that’s painful to admit. Meanwhile, Clay Matthews has seen steadily declining production since 2014, and that can be attributed to injuries, to position changes, or to other factors. One way or another, getting him back on the field will still likely help the Packers. Most of the other players in Green Bay’s first two lines of defense (e.g. Mike Daniels) feel a bit like placeholders, but that’s okay, because role-players with a couple of stars can get strong results.
For 2016, Green Bay was tied with Chicago for 7th in the NFL with sacks on 6.5% of pass attempts they faced, and they only allowed 37 big plays against them on the ground. However, this is an inconsistent group, defensively. On one hand, they allowed 5.9 yards per rush against them (28th in the NFL), but on the other they stuffed more than 12% of rushing attempts against them (7th). The Packers were 5th in DVOA when they brought pressure and only 28th when they did not. Likewise, they were 19th when facing a single running back but second when facing a running back tandem. The team had its ups and downs, and its Front 7 struggled to establish a consistent identity.
I give the unit the edge to take second in the division based on offseason moves serving as a sort of tiebreaker. The loss of Datone Jones to Minnesota probably won’t mean much, but unfortunately it’s likely that drafting Montravius Adams and Vince Biegel in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, will improve the team as a whole. To be honest, moving on from some of the age and inconsistency on the team will probably help as much as anything outside of #52 seeing the field again.
#3) The Chicago Bears
The Bears have a Front 7 filled with question marks. Will Akiem Hicks stay as dominant as he was in 2016, when he was 6th among defensive linemen in terms of defeats? Will Leonard Floyd build on his rookie campaign? How much longer does Pernell McPhee’s body hold together? What does Eddie Goldman look like when he comes back? What do the inside linebackers look like, and who even starts for that group? All of these questions suggest that the Bears might improve in 2017, but that with the possible exception of Hicks, there is no one point of stability.
Willie Young, Lamarrr Houston, Jonathan Bullard, are a few players who could help this situation dramatically, but while the roster is churning, the defensive identity of the team is just as much in flux as Green Bay’s.
Chicago’s 2016 performance backs up this idea. At any given time, the Front 7 did one thing well, but it seldom did two things well. Football Outsiders lists them as 10th in the NFL when they did not bring pressure, but they fell to 31st when they did bring pressure. Remember that high sack rate? This suggests that the Bears were able to get to the quarterback, but only at the expense of the integrity of the rest of the defense. Meanwhile, Chicago struggled (28th) when facing a single rusher and corrected to competency (16th) when facing two. They were okay at bringing pressure (tied for 7th in sack rate), but barely stuffed 8% of rushes they faced (24th in the NFL). The team showed promise in areas, but that’s about the best that can be said.
In terms of offseason moves, players coming back from injury are really the only meaningful addition. Jaye Howard might be the most significant off-season addition, but he’s on his third team and is likely more of a utility piece than a playmaker. The fact of the matter is that the team invested in the secondary and the offense, not in the Front 7. Back to the questions.
Is it possible that the pieces already in place will come together once everyone is healthy? Yes. However, until they prove otherwise the unit is outside of the top half looking in. Will I eat crow on this one? Let’s hope so.
#4) The Detroit Lions
Detroit was at the bottom of the NFL in DVOA both with (32nd) and without (31st) pressure. Detroit managed only a 4.5% sack rate (30th in the NFL). Detroit only stuffed 8% of the runs they faced (26th). The Lions did not place a single player from their Front 7 among the “defeats” leaders for any position in the Front 7. This was a bad unit in 2016.
On paper, it’s easy to understand why. Ziggy Ansah is a great player (who strangely only has one pro bowl, a fact I double-checked because it did not seem right). Haloti Ngata was a great player, but those days seem to have been left behind in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Tahir Whitehead was the only linebacker to play more than 50% of defensive snaps in 2016, per Pro Football Reference. Kerry Hyde and Devin Taylor are easy to overlook. A’Shawn Robinson sort of reminds me of the Bears’ own Jonathan Bullard, only so far he is slightly more promising (that’s sadly easy).
Detroit clearly recognized their struggles on defense, and they invested heavily in the draft, leading off with first-round pick Jarrad Davis. Davis was projected to go in the first or second round, and the Lions took him at the end of the first. Davis is reportedly going to step in as the starting MLB. He might be ready for that, but if so it will be a remarkable development. It seems a lot more likely that he will have some growing pains before emerging as a solid (or even impact-level) player. The Lions also picked up some other defenders, including Jayen Reeves-Maybin.
However, even if Davis plays at an All-Pro level and single-handedly lifts the defense 10 spots, it would still be even with Chicago and Green Bay (assuming those units see no improvement of their own). I’d go so far as to say that if the Lions struggle this year, it will be this unit, more than any other, that is to blame.
Next up it will be special teams. I miss Dave Toub already...
Note: Most stats come from Pro Football Reference, Sporting Charts, and Football Outsiders. I gathered information about current rosters directly from team websites.