In what has become a yearly tradition at Windy City Gridiron, we break down each offensive and defensive position on the field within the NFC North. Each year there are surprises —much like the Chicago Bears in 2018 and the Green Bay Packers last year — but usually there’s a general idea of where each team stands when looking at their personnel as each season kicks off.
This year it would appear that the Packers have taken over the Minnesota Vikings in multiple areas on the defensive side of the ball and for good reason. In 2019, the Packers’ defense made a large jump, especially in the pass rush department. After what the Vikings lost over the past few months, they have plenty of questions heading into this season on the defensive side of the ball.
Did the Detroit Lions do enough to be in the mix? Will the Chicago Bears reign supreme for the second year or will there be a new top defense in the NFC North? With many questions yet to be answered, let’s dissect each area of the NFC North’s defenses to see who will reign supreme.
Defensive Line and Edge Rusher
Any time a team has Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks on the same unit, they’re going to be one of the best in the league. Despite a down year in the sack department from Mack and an injury filled season from Hicks, this is still a very good unit. They also essentially traded out Leonard Floyd for Robert Quinn opposite Mack, which helps this pass rush as well. The bigger concern with this unit will be run defense without their anchor at the nose tackle position in Eddie Goldman. The 26-year-old opted out for the 2020 season and there’s now a big hole (both literally and figuratively) to fill. Even so, the depth this group boasts is still hard to match, giving them the edge in the top spot.
As mentioned at the start, the Packers defense made a sizable jump up the boards as a whole last year. That was primarily due to their front seven and how productive both Preston and Za’Darius Smith were. Between those two alone, they accounted for 25.5 of the team’s 41 total sacks. Coupled with Kenny Clark’s emergence as a top end interior defender, Green Bay made this race much closer than last year. Their run defense was a serious point of issue for them in 2019 though and that’s why they’ll slot in as the number two on this list.
This was the one one defensive unit that experienced the most change this past off-season and it was not in a positive change—outside of the Yannick Ngakoue addition, at least in the short-term. Not only did they lose their second and third best edge rushers in Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly, they also cut nose tackle Linval Joseph. Despite signing Michael Pierce, he opted out (much like Goldman) leaving this unit without depth and a lot of top end starting talent outside of Danielle Hunter. If not for the late trade of Ngakoue, they’d find themselves last on this list. While their pass rush appears to be in very good shape, their run defense appears to be a concern heading into the season.
Before the Vikings’ late addition of Ngakoue, the race for last was much closer. Last season, Detroit spent big money on edge rusher Trey Flowers, which didn’t pay off like they had expected. With Damon “Snacks” Harrison now gone and no real proven second or third option on the edge, this is a unit that has some serious risk to it. It’s worth noting they did replace Harrison with Danny Shelton but again, this is a unit with minimal depth and questionable upside and for that, they find themselves ranked last in this category within the division.
Off the ball Linebacker
One unit that saw very little change from last year in Minnesota? Linebacker. They still boast one of the better positional units in the league at this position with Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Eric Wilson. From a pure talent standpoint, you’d be hard pressed to find a more complete group in the league, much less the NFC North.
There’s a lot of talent amongst the Bears’ two starting linebackers in Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Yes, both players missed time last year and yes, they did lose quality depth (which is actually quite a concern), but in terms of their two starters, they have the second best group in the division. The biggest question will be the depth behind them, after losing both Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis in free agency this off-season.
Some may argue that the addition of Jamie Collins Sr. pushed them over the Packers and that’s valid. Although I’m still not sold Collins will be the same player outside of New England again. Just ask the Cleveland Browns about that one. Outside of Collins, they have Jarrad Davis, who has all the potential in the world but has yet to put it all together, and Christian Jones who is solid, yet unspectacular, and Jahlani Tavai who showed some serious flash in his rookie year.
One of the weaker aspects of the Packers defense lately has been their inside linebacker situation. That’ll be one of the biggest questions to answer this upcoming season on the defensive side of the ball in Green Bay. While they lost Blake Martinez, they added a value signing in Christian Kirksey. When the former Brown is healthy, he’s a very good player, but health is a clear concern when looking at his track record. Oren Burks has been a solid player but nothing to write home about through two years. Behind those two, the depth appears as questionable as the Bears’.
Solely based on Jaire Alexander — Who is a budding superstar — The Packers have to be considered the top group at this position. Couple that with a healthy Kevin King and this is a very good group on the boundary. The nickel position brings a bit of questions but as a one-two punch, this group trumps all.
The only thing keeping me from ranking this group as the top dog is simply their questions at their starting boundary spot opposite of Kyle Fuller. Whether that is second-round rookie Jaylon Johnson or Kevin Toliver II, that question is one that could make or break this unit’s ability to truly cover top-end pass catchers. Buster Skrine didn’t get enough credit last year in the nickel either. Behind them, there is some solid but unspectacular depth as well. This is still a very well-rounded unit, but for the first time in a few years they have a question mark in their group of starters.
Once again, there was a debate on who to put in the third spot and who belonged last. With Darius Slay, the Lions fielded a very credible cornerback group, but when he was dealt to the Eagles that stability went away. Yes, Jeff Okudah is going to be a very good player, but most rookie corners struggle early on. Justin Coleman is one of the better nickels in the league and had a relatively good year. Desmond Trufant was also a nice add, but health and consistency will be the question for him after being cut from the Falcons. This could end up being a very good group, but without seeing them in action it’s more of a question than a certainty.
Changes, changes, and more changes. That is something that this Vikings defense has seen plenty of this off-season. Much like the edge rushers, there’s some serious concern at the cornerback position. Minnesota replaced all three “starting” corners from 2019, which included Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie. All of the sudden, Mike Hughes and Holton Hill become the veterans of a very inexperienced group. At least in 2020, it’s hard to see how the Vikings will continue to be a dominant defense with two of their more important positions up in the air.
It has been amazing over the years to watch the Vikings continue to churn out talent at the safety position. That obviously starts with Harrison Smith, but finding a gem in a former undrafted free agent, Anthony Harris, was another big accomplishment for this group. You’d be hard pressed to find many groups better than these two starters, hence their status as the number one unit.
Last year, the Packers overhauled the defensive side of the ball. The focus was primarily at the edge rusher and safety positions. Despite just one year of production, it’s clear they did a great job of identifying both their needs and their solutions. At the safety position, both former Bear Adrian Amos and breakout rookie Darnell Savage provided some much needed stability at a position that the team had struggled with for the past few years. It’s completely possible that by the end of 2020, this could be the division’s best group. This group’s arrow is firmly pointing up heading into the season.
Somehow, Eddie Jackson’s status has fluctuated dramatically over the past two seasons. Heading into 2019, he was viewed as one of the best safeties in the league, but last year he he was viewed as good but not great. That speaks much more about the league’s recency bias based on team results versus overall player results. Alongside Jackson, it has been a bit of a revolving door with the third new starter in as many years. Whether that’s Deon Bush or veteran Tashaun Gipson, the team should be in fine shape, but there’s not enough upside at that spot to boost them any higher than three on this list.
I’m sure most of you have noticed a trend by now, but if you haven’t, the “Patriot Way” has run strong within the Lions’ free agent additions the past few years. The safety position is no different with the acquisition of Duron Harmon. Harmon played more of a rotating role, but he’s a good player. Alongside him is Tracy Walker who has quietly turned into a quality player. Their depth also has some good quality to it, but in a division where safeties are stacked deep, this is a very honorable fourth place finish for Detroit.