In the second installment of this series, we’ll dive into what the NFC North has to offer on the defensive side of the ball. Despite drastic depth chart changes in Chicago and Detroit, this still does not appear to be a division that will be known for its elite defensive play. Chicago, Detroit, and Minnesota ranked in the bottom six in defensive DVOA for the 2022 season.
Detroit added multiple plus starters to their secondary. Chicago focused on their front seven. Minnesota floundered around a little bit, all while losing more than they gained overall. By this logic, Green Bay should be set to have the best defensive unit in the division, right? Let’s find out together as we dive into each defensive position within the division.
Defensive Line/Edge Rusher
To say that this was a relatively uninspiring list to create would be an understatement. On paper, the Packers are rolling with the most talent on their defensive line. A big reason for that? Their edge-rushing talent. Rashan Gary (when healthy) is one of the better edge rushers in the game. Preston Smith, Lukas Van Ness, and Colby Wooden only help their group. Kenny Clark is also very good on the interior, but they’ll need a whole lot more from 2022 first-rounder Devonte Wyatt if this group is going to impress many folks.
Although it appeared that Danielle Hunter was on his way out the door earlier this off-season, he stayed, and the Vikings hold the No. 2 spot on this list despite some questions. They traded away veteran Z’Darius Smith and lack depth on the edge, even with the signing of Marcus Davenport. On the interior, the loss of Dalvin Tomlinson will be felt in a big way. Khyiris Tonga made the most of his second chance last year and could be primed for a nice year. Outside of that, they aren’t relying on a ton of productive players on the interior, but it should be enough to get by.
Do not be surprised to see the Lions take a sizable jump in defensive line productivity this season. Aidan Hutchinson was the best edge rusher in last year’s draft class. He doesn’t have a proven player on the other side of him, but a combination of James Houston, John Cominsky (who broke out after being claimed on waivers), Charles Harris and the Owkwara brothers (Julian and Romeo) provides the edge with quality options and depth. On the interior, they better hope they can get a big boost from Brodric Martin, who wasn’t even on The Athletic’s final Top 300 consensus board but was taken in the third round. Alim McNeill is primed for a big year, and Christian Covington is quality depth. This unit has a safe floor with an intriguing ceiling.
How’s the old saying go? “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” right? Well, the trenches are still a work in progress. Even with the early August addition of Yannick Ngakoue. I’ll be honest and say that I expected one of the high-priced three techniques to find its way to the Bears in free agency. Instead, general manager Ryan Poles opted to take a pair of defensive linemen on Day 2 of the draft. They also missed the boat at edge rusher in the draft after the massive run at the position before the Bears’ first selection in the second round. Even with the additions of Ngakoue and Walker, there are far too many unknowns and a lack of depth within this group to confidently rank them in any other spot except for fourth.
Whenever a team goes into an all-out rebuild and changes its core defensive philosophies, the front seven will suffer the most. While Chicago has yet to find many solutions (on paper, of course) on the defensive line, Poles were able to re-make their linebacking crew in one off-season. Well… Two, if you count Sanborn starting at Sam. Most figured they’d go out and spend money on one free-agent linebacker. It came as a surprise when they spent a combined $24.5 million per year on both Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards. Both players are still ascending and at a prime age. With more depth behind them, this has quickly gone from a weakness to a strength. It’s never easy to do that in one off-season.
Assuming that Quay Walker can live up to his draft status and stop making bone-headed decisions that get him kicked out of games, Green Bay should have a good group of starting linebackers in 2023. De’Vondre Campbell’s resurgence has been a sight to see. Combine that with a young ascending linebacker, and they’ll have a very nice-looking front seven. Their depth isn’t great, but the starters should do enough to keep them at No. 2 this year.
Detroit went into this off-season with a clear goal in mind on defense. Improve the back seven. We’ll get to the secondary in a few, but they also did well to add at the linebacker position. Now, don’t get me wrong. I felt like Jack Campbell was a reach by a round-plus. That had more to do with positional value than anything. Now, they’ll have Alex Anzelone, James Houston, and Campbell leading this group. While it’s nothing impressive on paper, it should be an improvement over last year.
Long gone are the days of Erik Kendricks and Anthony Barr manning the middle of the field for some of the great Mike Zimmer defenses. Both players were released in consecutive years, which means they’ll be looking for unproven players to step up into bigger roles. As a whole, the Vikings don’t have a very impressive defense. Their linebackers don’t do much for me. Hicks is a quality player, and Asamoah can turn into an above-average pro as well. Again, though. There’s nothing flashy about this group. If anything, fans should be excited to see undrafted free agent Ivan Pace develop. Size is a question, but his mental makeup and play style are not.
For as big of a transformation as the Bears had at linebacker, one could argue that the Lions did similar at defensive back. They were aggressive early in free agency, adding a pair of starting quality cornerbacks in Cameron Sutton and Emanuel Moseley. They also signed Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who can moonlight as a nickel or safety. This is a marked improvement over their group from last year, hence why they traded away former Top 5 pick Jeff Okudah. Their depth isn’t great, but their versatility should get them by, especially with Brian Branch able to play multiple spots.
This is a big year for 2021 second-rounder Eric Stokes, who will start the season on the PUP list. The former Georgia Bulldog played well as a rookie but then suffered a torn MCL and lisfranc injury in Week 9 of this past year. The foot injury is a tough one to come back from. Jaire Alexander is one of the better corners in the league, and Rasul Douglas is no slouch either. Carrington Valentine was impressive during camp and could push for playing time early. There are some unknowns within this group, but Alexander’s presence will always give this group a level of credibility.
Under the new regime, there’s been a common trend thus far. The Bears have taken a cornerback in the second round in back-to-back years. That’s in addition to Jaylon Johnson, who was a second-round pick back in 2020. When healthy, Johnson is a very good corner. Kyler Gordon will need to bounce back from a rough rookie year but can do so. Second-round pick Tyrique Stevenson has been praised highly since being drafted and projects as their second starter on the boundary. They’ll also have quality depth with Terell Smith, Jaylon Jones, and Josh Blackwell. Due to their relative inexperience, the floor is lower than desired, but the ceiling is also higher than any team on this list.
A few years back, the Vikings’ secondary broke, and they have not been able to fix it. Regardless of how good their pass rush is, their secondary has been giving up massive production in droves most games. They did upgrade from Patrick Peterson with Byron Murphy, but the other two starting spots are in question. Former second-round pick Andrew Booth will play a key role this season, but there’s just not a lot to like from this group without seeing it play out on the field first.
I’m sure most Bears fans would agree that it felt nice to watch a quality safety tandem again last year. Eddie Jackson had the best year we’ve seen from him since 2018. Jaquan Brisker looks well on his way to becoming a plus player, too. Their depth did take a bit of a hit by not re-signing DeAndre Houston-Carson, but the coaching staff has raved about second-year safety Elijah Hicks as their primary depth at the position. If Jackson can stay healthy, this could end up as one of the better duos by Week 18.
Even if you’re not a Lions fan, you probably remember Kirby Joseph’s big performances. They somehow came against Rodgers and the Packers, including in Week 18. Joseph’s stock is on the rise, and I’ve always been a fan of Tracy Walker. Combine that with the versatility of Gardner-Johnson, and you’ve got yourself a formidable group of safeties with plenty of upside. This will also be a big year for Ifeatu Melifonwu, who has made the transition back to safety. The Lions are not short of defensive back versatility and depth.
Somehow, some way, Harrison Smith remains one of the better safeties in the league. All of this despite going into his age-34 season. 2022 first-round pick Lewis Cine is primed to take over next to Smith. Cine was an impressive prospect but needs to prove he can be a long-term solution as a starter. Cameron Bynum provides quality depth, too.
At one time, many believed that Green Bay’s safety duo of Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos had the makings of a top-end grouping. Unfortunately, things did not work out, and Amos is now in New York. Savage has faced an up-and-down career thus far and had his fifth-year option declined. There are many questions about this group, and the release of the recently signed Tarvarius Moore clouds it even more. There’s a lot to sort out here, and expect plenty of competition between Savage, Rudy Ford, Jonathan Owens, and seventh-round rookie Anthony Johnson.
Check out part one — all about the NFC North’s offenses — right here.