This series is looking at the NFC North, also known as the Black and Blue Division. After far too long, the Bears returned to leadership of the division last year—powered by the most dangerous defense in the NFL. However, despite the amazing contributions of Khalil Mack, their edge rushers were not the most dominant part of their defense.
It’s time to look at another type of bruiser. Interior Linemen impose their will on the other team. They anchor a defense so that pass-rushers can get home against the quarterback, they clog lanes so that running backs get nowhere, and they disrupt the hopes of offensive coordinators.
The Bears were actually 9th in adjusted line yards allowed in 2018, but that was the best in the division. Likewise, the Bears only stuffed 20% of runs last season, but that was still much better than the next-closest divisional contender (the 16% of the Vikings). In short, there are probably stronger defensive interiors in the NFL, but not in the NFC North.
Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman were the only interior linemen to play at least 50% of defensive snaps for the Bears in 2018, with Roy Robertson-Harris (34%), Bilal Nichols (31%), and Jonathan Bullard (28%) being denied “starter” status while still clocking significant time. A good part of this is because while Chicago technically runs a 3-4 defense, modern defenses aren’t that simple, and an interior defender is frequently removed to make things more flexible elsewhere.
Hicks had 21 defeats in 2018, placing him 5th among interior linemen. His relative ability was not a fluke, nor was it the Mack Effect. In 2017, he was 3rd (19), and in 2016 he was 6th (17). The man is a beast, and he is underrated. The only other interior defender to rank in the last three years is Damon Harrison, formerly of the Giants (he tied Hicks in 2018 and was 8th in 2017).
Playing in just over half of the available snaps, Goldman was a beast, but Bullard and Robertson-Harris were basically replacement-level players. If I had to pick a pleasant surprise, it would be Bilal Nichols, who forced 2 fumbles and managed 7 quarterback hits (3 sacks) in just 328 snaps. Ultimately, though, this is an interior defined by Goldman and Hicks but with adequate depth and variety to provide a solid rotation.
I struggled, mightily, to figure out which team was actually second. Because all of the other interior lines are so ragged, I landed on the remaining team with the strongest pairing of proven talent and potential growth.
I previously mentioned Damon Harrison, and the record-holding Harrison* is good, and he is backed up by A’Shawn Robinson (3.5 career sacks, 13 tackles for a loss, and 13 defended passes) along with Da’Shawn Hand (3 career sacks and 4 tackles for a loss in his inaugural season). Robinson is actually a capable player, with an impressive ability to break up passes. Da’Shawn Hand is a pretty good match in a lot of ways for Bilal Nichols.
Behind Hand, however, Ray Smith and John Atkins are probably not going to move the needle very much. Until I pulled official rosters for this piece, I didn’t realize Darius Kilgo was still in the NFL. In short, the Lions have Harrison and Robinson to hold down the interior of their line, but after that they are depending on potential. Harrison is good, but when a player picked up for a conditional fifth-round pick is the bright spot of a defensive line, it’s hard to say that the line is going to spread terror through a division.
*Because he was traded mid-season, Harrison is the first defensive lineman to play in 17 regular season games in the same year.
Last year, the Vikings’ defensive line was held together by Sheldon Richardson (69% of snaps) and Linval Joseph (64% of snaps). Tom Johnson and Jaleel Johnson were the only other defensive tackles to play even a quarter of the snaps. With Richarson gone to Cleveland, one of those two might get the chance to step up, at least a little. I am actually a little more worried that I am underestimating Shamar Stephen, who is back in Minnesota after a 1-year sojourn to Seattle. He showed last year that he can be an adequate player when given the opportunity, and there is not a lot behind him. Still, even if he plays lights-out (for him), that just gives Minnesota a pair of starters.
Hercules Mata’afa was a promising UDFA, but an ACL tear ended his pro career before it began, and while he might turn into some interesting depth, he is not likely to redefine the position. Likewise, 6th-rounder Armon Watts was, in my opinion, a potential steal. That said, I like him more as a developmental project than as a player likely to contribute heavily in 2019.
The truth is that this interior will look better than it is, because the rest of the Vikings defense is so solid. However, only Joseph has proven anything so far.
4). Green Bay
2018 saw the Packers’ defensive line anchored by Kenny Clark (68% of snaps), assisted by Dean Lowry (66% of snaps) and Mike Daniels (39% of snaps). Clark and Lowry are fine, but whenever stat-heads talk about “replace-level players,” guys like Clark and Lowry are who they have in mind.
Tyler Lancaster seemed mostly there to give a name-pal to Kyler Fackrell, but Montravius Adams showed that he was finally (probably) past the injuries that slowed down the start of his career. Green Bay drafted Kingsley Keke, but Keke was not even in the top 250-plus players I had scores on for my confidence board--which means that not one of ten draft experts thought to mention him.
In brief, Green Bay’s interior defensive line is underwhelming. They count on their edge rushers and defensive backs to get the job done.
Next up, it’s time to look at the off-the-ball linebackers.
Note: All stats come from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. When possible, I used roster information directly from the teams’ own websites.