This series is looking at the rosters in the NFC North, trying to measure the state of the division. After looking at the offense, it is now time to consider the defense. The 2018 Bears finished in the top category in almost every defensive measure in the league, so they obviously did well within the division, too. Still, football is a team sport. It is possible for a team to dominate as a group while still being limited in individual positions.
Turning to defense allows me to explore my very favorite stat in football, the defeat. Football Outsiders defines a defeat as: “A tackle that results in a loss of yardage, including sacks; any play that results in a turnover, including tipped passes which are then intercepted; or any tackle or tipped pass that leads to a stop on third or fourth down.” For obvious reasons, interior defenders, linemen and linebackers alike, tend to dominate this category. Edge rushers, however, do very well.
Just like I started with quarterbacks on offense, I am starting with edge rushers on defense. Interior linemen and corners and all the rest can be important to a defense, but edge rushers define modern defenses, and they command premium contracts. They are overdrafted based on talent. As Jon Gruden has recently said: “it’s hard to find a great one.”
This was a difficult conclusion to come to, but it all comes down to honestly assessing the total rotation. Danielle Hunter, with 27 defeats overall (18 passing defeats and 9 rushing defeats) was tenth in the entire league, last year--and he was fifth among edge rushers. The only other edge rusher in the division to rank last year plays for Chicago, and he missed a few games (Khalil Mack had 22 defeats, 17 in the passing game). There is no doubt in my mind that last year Hunter was the second-best edge rusher in the division, and the distance between him and #3 was pretty big.
Hunter also plays alongside Everson Griffen. I want to take a moment and just point out that regardless of the fact that he plays for a rival team, Griffen is a human being who deserves compassion, and I hope the man is healthier this season on all fronts. If Griffen returns to form, the three-time Pro Bowler could enhance an already dangerous defense. In his absence, however, Stephen Weatherly proved that he was no slouch. After that, there is a steep drop. Tashawn Bower and Stacy Keely, for example, will make for interesting training camp stories and could put something together, but it’s the top three who make this group dangerous, combing for 23 sacks, and 40 quarterback hits.
This group is probably more ‘1A’ than 2, but it is still not quite as dangerous--overall, at least--as Minnesota’s group. The Bears have Khalil Mack, who has been a 1st-Team All-Pro three separate years (and four times overall). Last year was actually a down year for him in most categories, except for his 6 forced fumbles. That number is just absurd. The man is a force of nature, and he is basically the reason the Bears even challenged Minnesota for the top spot in this comparison.
Mack is backed up by Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch. Floyd is a divisive player, mostly because he plays much more like a utility player than a pure pass-rusher, but he is good in that role. He had 4 passes defended, an interception, and 11 quarterback hits in 2018. He had as many combined tackles as Mack (47), and he was third on the team with 9 tackles for a loss. That’s perfectly fine production for a #2 outside linebacker.
Unfortunately the falloff to #3 in the Chicago OLB rotation is pretty steep. Aaron Lynch managed 3 sacks and 8 total quarterback hits last season, and that’s basically his best performance in three years. Pick a major category (sacks, tackles for a loss, quarterback hits) and the Bears’ trio trails the Vikings’ primary rotation by just a bit.
Nor can Chicago make up the difference by having a deeper overall rotation. Isaiah Irving is not going to intimidate offensive coordinators anytime soon, and Kylie Fitts needs to do something, anything, before I consider him a meaningful contribution to this group. Still, this is a talented group overall, and Pagano has plenty to work with when it comes to dialing up a pass rush.
3) Green Bay
Clay Matthews is gone. Nick Perry is gone. Kyler Fackrell has emerged, instead, as the top edge defender for the Packers. He had double-digit sacks for the first time in his career in 2018, and he was a decent presence despite having only 7 starts (even though he appeared in all 16 games). He is a capable player, and most teams would be happy to have him in the rotation. However, he is not an elite edge rusher.
Of course, with Green Bay losing a number of it’s top defenders, they have not been idle. The Packers dove into free agency with unusual vigor, picking up Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. The Smiths are more or less of a type with Fackrell, in that they are capable role-players. They are not, however, elite defenders.
Finally, Green Bay drafted Rashan Gary, one of the top edge rushers in the draft. Gary is raw, but he has a lot of talent and the potential to be explosive. This actually gives the Packers an interesting advantage over the two teams I have ahead of them, in that they have three functional edge rushers and a top developmental prospect. This depth, and their overall quality, is enough to give Green Bay a lead over the Lions, but unless Gary comes on strong, the Packers are going to rely more on other aspects of their defense.
Officially, Detroit runs a 4-3 defense and therefore defensive ends are their edge rushers. There are a few guys who play up and down the line and move into other spots, but in order to be consistent I am going to use the designations provided by the team itself and then by Pro Football Reference.
None of the players were ranked by Football Outsiders with respect to their total defeats. This was a weak, weak group. Romeo Okwara had 7.5 sacks for the Lions in 2018, and that was enough to lead Detroit. In 7 games (and 2 starts), Ansah had 4 sacks, but he has left for Seattle. After him there’s even less production at edge. Like Green Bay, Detroit approached this limitation with both the draft and with free agency.
First, Detroit added Trey Flowers in free agency. Flowers is a solid player, and he managed 20 quarterback hits in 2018, which was a down from 2017. He also forced three fumbles. Flowers is a capable player, and he has played for Patricia in the past. Next, they also drafted Austin Bryant, whom NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein says is a comparable player to the Vikings’ own Stephen Weatherly. I actually think Bryant was a bargain in the fourth round. He should be able to work his way into the rotation as develop as a fine player.
That basically means that Detroit is looking at Okwara, Flowers, and Bryant as their primary trio of edge rushers. That’s not bad, but it’s also not intimidating. For example, Okwara and Flowers combined for only one-half sack more in 2018 that Danielle Hunter managed on his own.
If Okwara is somehow supposed to equal Fackrell (he’s not), and if Flowers is considered the equivalent of both of the Smiths (he probably isn’t), that still leaves Green Bay leading by the extent to which Gary has greater potential than Bryant.
Next up, interior defensive linemen.