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Positional breakdown: ranking the NFC North’s 2018 defenses

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The NFC North could be the NFL’s best division in 2018. That’s due in large part to some terrific defenses.

Cincinnati Bengals v Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ defense has experience together and talent on their side.
Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

As the saying goes: offenses win games but defenses wins championships. If that’s the case, the Bears’ rival Minnesota Vikings are in line for their first ever Super Bowl win this season. Assuming their offense can keep pace with last year’s product.

The NFC North had two teams within the top fifteen in both yards and points in 2017. The first being the cream of the crop Vikings, with the Bears taking a firm grip of second place.

Meanwhile and not to be outdone, the Green Bay Packers made large strides to improve their poor passing defense this off-season: especially in the secondary.

Making the biggest wildcard of all the defensive units within the North division the Lions, who brought in defensive-minded head coach Matt Patricia. The former New England Patriots coordinator has to get creative but a measure of talent is there.

The Vikings have the NFL’s best defense. How does the rest of the Bears’ division stack up heading into the 2018 season?


Defensive Line and Edge Rusher

Carolina Panthers v Chicago Bears
Akiem Hicks should be fishing for plenty of sacks next year.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
  1. Vikings

Many wondered if Minnesota’s front seven could improve this off-season and somehow, they did. Early into free agency the Vikings added Sheldon Richardson to go with their starting combination of Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph. Outside of the Jacksonville Jaguars, this is the best defensive line and pass rush in the NFL.

2. Packers

A line featuring Mike Daniels is always good enough to be at the top of most lists. Couple that with an ascending Kenny Clark and the addition of Muhammad Wilkerson, it becomes potentially scary. However, Green Bay’s depth isn’t overly strong behind this trio. As far as the edge position goes, there’s not a lot of top-tier talent with Clay Matthews past his best days. But, it is enough to get to opposing passer consistently.

3. Bears

Much like the Packers, any time a defense features Akiem Hicks, it’s going to be good. The difference between the rivals lies within the second five-technique position. Eddie Goldman is a stud nose tackle but there’s no clear cut starter opposite of Hicks. If one of Jonathan Bullard or Roy Robertson-Harris step ups, watch out. Chicago’s edge situation is even shakier with Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch both having questionable pasts in terms of health. If the Bears’ defense is to take any step forward, it hinges on that edge group ascending.

4. Lions

A lack of proven players up front is the main issue for Detroit. Outside of Ezekiel Ansah, there’s not much standouts at an overall position that had just 35 sacks in 2017. Anthony Zettel is someone to watch after a 6.5 sack breakout year. Otherwise, there’s so many unknowns. This front is a far cry from the one in the days of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

Linebacker

Divisional Round - New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings
Kendricks and Barr is a linebacker duo not many in the NFL can match.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
  1. Vikings

Following the trend of a stellar defense, the Vikings round out another position in linebacker. Headlined by Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, it’s difficult to find a better pair in the league. Free agency is on the horizon for Barr too, so expect a big upcoming contract season.

2. Bears

Months after taking Roquan Smith at No. 8 overall, this group of linebackers appears to be the strongest Chicago has had in years. Danny Trevathan will start alongside Smith, but keep an eye on Nick Kwiatkoski, as he could be used in multiple areas.

3. Packers

It appears that a pair of fourth round picks are getting the nod on the inside for Green Bay. Blake Martinez has been a pleasant surprise since breaking into the league. The last starting position could become a competition in camp if 2018 third rounder Oren Burks pushes Jake Ryan for playing time.

4. Lions

Linebacker has been a revolving door over the last few seasons in Detroit. Last year’s first round pick in Jarrad Davis is the only returning starting from last year. He’ll be joined by Christian Jones and Devon Kennard: who have both been up and down in starting roles. This is a position that needs to step up if the defense expects any jump forward.

Cornerback

Cleveland Browns v Detroit Lions
Darius Slay doesn’t get enough credit for his lockdown prowess.
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
  1. Vikings

On a loaded defense, Minnesota’s secondary stands out the most for the men in purple. 2017 First-Team All-Pro Xavier Rhodes is a cornerback mostly unmatched. Then, factor in the Vikings grabbing Mike Hughes in this year’s first round. Finally, they have a ton of veteran depth including Terrance Newman. This defense is impeccable everywhere.

2. Bears

After ranking seventh in passing yards per game (211) in 2017, the Bears re-signed both Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara. It’s quite possible regression could hit one if not both players, but Fuller appears to be on the rise. In the nickel, Bryce Callahan is one of the better at his position when healthy.

3. Lions

Darius Slay is a stud. Problem is, outside of him, there’s little to like. If it wasn’t for the unproven talent of the Packers, the Lions would rank last. This is the same secondary that ranked 27th in passing yards allowed in 2017. Second-year cornerback Teez Tabor needs a huge season.

4. Packers

Last year, this position was a disaster for Green Bay. The Packers suffered multiple injuries and top round picks did not perform as expected. Fast forward a few months, and they opted to spend their first two picks on fiery, athletic studs in Jaire Alexander and Joshua Jackson. It may not show Week 1, but this unit has a chance to be special under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

Safety

Baltimore Ravens v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images
  1. Vikings

Minnesota sweeps these North defensive rankings, placing first in all positional categories. Why? Harrison Smith, another 2017 First-Team All-Pro, is the best safety the NFL has to offer. While Andrew Sendejo has come into his own. This is a complete Vikings defense without a weakness.

2. Lions

Safety was the tightest part of these rankings. The final three were highly contested. The all-worldly Glover Quinn is the main reason the Lions slide into the No. 2 spot. The Lions’ safety opposite of him is a question, though: whether that be Tavon Wilson or Quandre Diggs. That’s the main blemish on this group as a whole.

3. Bears

After years of question marks at both safety slots, Chicago’s finally found it’s respective answers. Adrian Amos had a breakout 2017 season, and Eddie Jackson looks to be a playmaker on the verge of stardom. There’s projection that goes into this assessment, but this duo has a bright future.

4. Packers

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is coming off a rough year. With that being said, he’s still a great safety. Josh Jones is transitioning into a full-time role after playing linebacker last year, due to the departure of Morgan Burnett. Overall, the Packers have some talent on the back end, and could eventually have the best secondary in the North. The combo of a newer face and a struggling veteran gives them fourth place here.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronLemingNFL.