NFC North Breakdown by Position: The Defense

With the Position Breakdown series in full swing, the next division under the microscope is the NFC North. Here’s a defensive position-by-position breakdown of the NFC North, with “the best” at each position followed by “the rest” in descending order.

Check out our offensive breakdown here.

NFC NORTH BREAKDOWN BY POSITION: THE DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Best: MIN   The Rest: DET, GB, CHI

Minnesota get the nod here, due in part to the stability they have at the position over the rest of the NFC North. Everson Griffen has answered doubters over his large contract extension becoming a terror for opposing teams. Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd improved dramatically against the run as the season progressed. While this unit will never post mammoth sack numbers, its depth in players like Tom Johnson and rookie Danielle Hunter make them scary.

Detroit lost many great players along the defensive line during the offseason, chief amongst them were Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. To stem the flow of losses, the Lions traded with Baltimore for Haloti Ngata and drafted Gabe Wright in the forth round of the draft. This is no knock on the ability of Ngata but he will not penetrate the backfield like Suh could.

Green Bay were 15th against the run last season and gain back B.J. Raji after a lost season to injury. The Packers lose nose tackle Letroy Guion to suspension for the first three games of the year. It remains to be seen if Raji can regain the form he had in 2012 and if the team can improve on run defense.

Chicago is in the middle of a defensive rebuild, switching from a 4-3 defensive scheme to that of a 3-4 scheme. It is almost impossible to make these changes in one offseason. Added to this was the failed gamble on defensive end Ray McDonald, who was released following an arrest for domestic abuse.

LINEBACKER

The Best: DET   The Rest: MIN, CHI, GB

The Lions boast a lot of depth at this position with 5 players of enough caliber to start in the NFL. Detroit re-signed DeAndre Levy to a four-year extension as camp started. The only issue is can they stay healthy? Stephen Tulloch and Kyle Van Noy were sidelined for most of last year due to injury. In their absence Josh Bynes and Tahir Whitehead served as admirable replacements.

Minnesota seem to be getting their act together at linebacker and could boast the best in the division if college teammates Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr can become the three down linebackers the team envisions.

Chicago is a wild card when it comes to how good or bad they can be at this position. The Bears acquired Pernell McPhee through free agency to help bolster their linebacker group during the transition in defensive scheme. The biggest question regarding linebacker is, can Jared Allen play linebacker?

Green Bay’s linebacker group is in somewhat of a transition itself, A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones are gone from the team after having sub-par seasons in 2014. Clay Matthews was as dominant as ever in 2014 and team hopes are that fourth round pick Jake Ryan can develop quickly and help the team early.

CORNERBACK

The Best: MIN The Rest: DET, CHI, GB

Xavier Rhodes is becoming a shut down corner, being entrusted to shadow the top receivers of each team Minnesota faced as the season came to a close. The Vikings added to this stopping power by drafting Trae Waynes in the first round of this year’s draft. If Waynes can adapt to the NFL quickly Minnesota could have some of the best corners in the league.

Detroit finished mid-table in passing yards allowed in 2014. Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis only allowed three touchdowns each according to Pro Football Focus. If Slay continues to improve in his third season and as long as Mathis does not show signs of his age, he is now 36, the Lions secondary should not give up too many big plays.

Chicago’s pass defense was a mess last year, finishing 30th in the league. Kyle Fuller started the season impressively but took a steep dive in performance as the season progressed. If Fuller can return to early rookie form and Tim Jennings can return to his 2013 form this unit can be serviceable, there may be hope. If not, it could be a long season for Bears fans.

Green Bay’s only guaranteed starter at corner is Sam Shields. The 27-year-old had an average season in 2014. Opposite Shields, players such as Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde and rookies Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins will be vying for the starting job.

SAFETY

The Best: MIN The Rest: DET, GB, CHI

Harrison Smith has become one of the best safeties in the league. Smith had three sacks, five interceptions and a forced fumble in an impressive 2014 campaign. While the position opposite him is an open camp battle, one interesting fact from last season is that Smith and Robert Blanton posted the second best numbers outside of Seattle for a safety duo by Pro Football Focus.

Detroit’s Glover Quin led the league in interceptions by a safety with seven last season. Quin is likely to be joined by James Ihedigbo but a camp battle is expected between him and Isa Abdul-Quddus. The Lions are particularly deep at this position, keeping all five players from 2014 on their roster.

The Packers improved at safety last season, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix shone as a rookie, with 92 combined tackles and an interception. Opposite him Morgan Bennett led the team in tackles with 130. He also had 1.5 sacks, an interception and forced fumble. This is a young and talented unit that should improve as they become accustomed to playing with each other.

The Bears went the free agency route to solve their safety problems, signing Antrel Rolle to a three-year contract. The former New York Giant has had an impressive career but at 32 he is entering the twilight of his time in the NFL. Opposite him Ryan Mundy will have to prove he can maintain his 2014 end of season form after having an unimpressive early season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Best: MIN The Rest: DET, GB, CHI

Minnesota boasts one of the most accurate kickers in the league in Blair Walsh, one of the best returners in Cordarrelle Patterson and the leagues worst punter according to PFF in Jeff Locke. While Walsh had a down year he is still a very reliable kicker. Patterson often faces teams who refuse to kick towards the specialist. The coaching staff has hinted that Locke’s poor form may be down to bad long snapping by Cullen Loeffler. The team brought in Kevin McDermott to compete at long snapper.

Detroit needs what it didn’t have last season, a stable special teams unit. The Lions went through three kickers over the course of the season, finally settling on Matt Prater who made 21 of his 26 field goals attempted. Sam Martin is one of the best punters in the league. Return duties appear to be an open camp battle and for this reason the lions slip down the rankings.

The Packers were one of the worst special teams units last season, costing special team’s co-ordinator Shawn Slocum his job. Competition has been brought in at several positions this offseason, including at punter and kick returner. Mason Crosby made 81.8% of his field goals last year, his third highest completion percentage since he joined the league.

Chicago had a terrible 2014 no less on special teams; Robbie Gould only had 12 attempted field goals making nine of them. Pat O’Donnell was inconsistent in punting and finished towards the bottom of the list in net yards per punt.

COACHES

The Best: GB The Rest: CHI, DET, MIN

Mike McCarthy is entering his ninth season as head coach of the Green Bay Packers; he has guided the team to the post season for six years straight. McCarthy won the Super Bowl in 2010. Boasting an impressive 94-49-1 win to loss record, expectations are high in Wisconsin of another Lombardi Trophy during his tenure.

John Fox inherits a train wreck in Chicago but he has the ability to turn it around. Fox took Denver to the post season in each of his four years in charge and had one Super Bowl appearance. His coaching ability will be tested to the limits as he faces an uphill struggle to improve Chicago’s record.

Jim Caldwell took the Detroit Lions to the post season in his first season in charge. Caldwell holds the record for best season as a rookie head coach going 14-2 in 2009 with the Indianapolis Colts and taking them to the Super Bowl. Two of the biggest concerns facing Caldwell in his second season in charge of the Lions are: How will the defense cope with its offseason losses and can Matt Stafford adjust to the offensive system Caldwell runs better than he did last season?

Finishing last on this list is no knock on Mike Zimmer’s ability; it is more a case of how strong the coaches in the division are. Zimmer is entering his second season as a head coach and has had to weather some tough situations already, namely Adrian Peterson. Improvements over time management and a trip to the post season will see his stock improve.

Check out our offensive breakdown here.

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