2016 NFC North All-Division Team: The Defense and Special Teams

The 2016 NFC North All-Division Team Defense and Special Teams consists of a good mixture of key players from each team. Leading the way with five players, the Vikings show us why they had a home playoff game this past season and will likely be in the mix for the division title for the next several seasons to come. Keep in mind that these players are not just the best of their division, but also what would be best if this was an actual team. The choice to go 4-3 instead of 3-4 here was because the personnel for a 4-3 team, with these players, would be better than if this crop of players were chosen to play a 3-4.

2016 NFC North All-Division Team: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Tackle:  Linval Joseph – Considered to be the strongest man in the NFL, Linval Joseph was an absolute monster in 2015 and has been very good his entire career. Behind only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt, Linval Joseph ranked as the third best overall defensive tackle in football by Pro Football Focus and was a true run-stuffer. Although he missed four games, Joseph still acquired over 50 tackles and made his presence felt every single time he was able to suit up.

Defensive Tackle:  Mike Daniels – Quietly one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL, Mike Daniels had a great 2015. Daniels’ production has been quite consistent over the last three seasons and did not slow down at all last year, amassing nearly 50 tackles (49) and four sacks, while also being able to come up with an interception and forced fumble. Evenly good against the run as he is the pass, Daniels is a tough matchup for most guards and/or centers and will continue to only get better in his fifth season.

Defensive End:  Pernell McPhee – Although more of a true outside linebacker, McPhee has shown the versatility to play almost anywhere on the front seven of a defense. As such, his ability to rush the quarterback, play the run, and cover when necessary makes him stand out when compared to the other eligible players at this position. Racking up six sacks to go along with over 50 tackles and an interception, McPhee had good numbers but also brought great leadership as a captain in his first season with the Bears. Bears fans have already began to love McPhee and will continue to do so for seasons to come.

Defensive EndEzekiel Ansah – As difficult as it is for me to leave Everson Griffen off this list, Griffen does not perform well against the run and is not the best pass rusher in the division because that title belongs to Ansah. With 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, Ansah creates havoc in opponents backfield’s on a regular basis. Ansah was average against the run in 2015 as a true 4-3 defensive end, making plays but sometimes getting caught taking plays off. Many people probably thought the losses of Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh would hurt Ansah’s chances of reaching double digit sack totals, but Ansah answered the call in furious fashion.

Outisde Linebacker:  Anthony Barr – Anthony Barr was freakishly good last season.  Behind only Luke Kuechly, Barr was rated the NFL’s second best linebacker and will push Kuechly for the title this coming season.  Barr’s game showed no weaknesses against the run, the pass, or in coverage.  After only two seasons in the league, opposing offenses are quickly learning his name and game-planning away from his side of the field.  Do not be surprised if Barr becomes a household name for the next decade or so.

Outside Linebacker:  Danny Trevathan – New to the NFC North, Trevathan will bring his nastiness and Super Bowl winning experience to the Bears much-improved defense. Having over 100 tackles last season as part of a defense that had many guys who can tackle and make plays, Trevathan’s numbers are even more impressive than they look on paper. Trevathan plays with an edge and makes timely, game-changing plays that will be needed this coming season for the Bears to challenge for a division title.

Middle Linebacker:  Jerrell Freeman – The last piece of All-Division defense for the Bears is Jerrell Freeman. As another young, new addition to the NFC North, Freeman will have to quickly acclimate himself into a rivalry-filled division and a fan base that loves their defense. Rated as the fourth overall and best run-stopping linebacker (including Luke Kuechly) in 2015 by PFF, Jerrell Freeman recorded over 100 tackles and made some very Danny Trevathan-like plays when an opportunity presented itself.  If Freeman and Trevathan can pick up their new defense quickly, the Bears defense could be one to watch in 2016.

Cornerback:  Darius Slay – Darius Slay could be mentioned as not only one of the best cornerbacks in the division, but also as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. While the turnover numbers are not overly impressive, intercepting opposing quarterbacks only four times in the last two seasons is something that Darius says he needs to fix. However, the rest of Slay’s game compares with any of the top corners including tackles (120) and passes defended (30). Being a sure tackler and a near lockdown cover corner makes Slay the top of the class in the NFC North with a whole lot more to come in 2016.

Cornerback:  Captain Munnerlyn – Every season that Captain Munnerlyn has played in all 16 games, including the last four seasons in a row, he has generated at least two interceptions and 55 tackles. Yes, he has some injury concerns and yes, he may even lose his starting job this coming season. However, he was not meant to come into Minnesota and be their lockdown guy, but rather be a great backup and a great nickel corner. Due to some other injuries however, he was forced into a role where he made the most of his opportunity and although did get beat at times, also made plays.  Accounting for three total turnovers, Munnerlyn has the ability to change the tide of a game at any point. His versatility by being able to play man-to-man, zone, outside, or at nickel against the slot receiver keeps Munnerlyn at our second best corner in the division for now… even if Xavier Rhodes and Quinten Rollins are on his heels.

Free Safety:  Harrison Smith – 66 tackles, three passes defended, two interceptions including one to the house, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.  That was Harrison Smith in 2015 in only 13 games. I think it is safe to say we have found a replacement “Beast Mode.”  Graded as the overall number one safety in football by Pro Football Focus, Harrison Smith is a nightmare for opposing offenses.  As one of the absolute surest tacklers in football, Smith’s game against the run can compare to the likes of any player at any position.  As if that was not enough, in his first four NFL seasons Smith has four defensive touchdowns.  Playmaking ability like that, combined with big hits makes Smith the easy choice here and a very likely candidate for 2016 NFL First Team All-Pro.

Strong Safety:  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – Not as easy of a choice, but the right one. As PFF’s number eight overall safety, Clinton-Dix has established himself as a consistently good piece of an average defense. Although significantly better against the run as he is the pass, as most Alabama safeties initially are, Clinton-Dix got better against the pass as the season went on and has tremendous potential. He has totaled 192 tackles in only his first two seasons, but more importantly for the Packers, has never missed a start. Staying healthy, continuing to grow and learn, and maintaining that linebacker-esque mentality he has will help Clinton-Dix and the Packers return to glory.

Punter:  Sam Martin – Pretty straight forward here as Detroit’s Sam Martin had the fourth best net punting average in the NFL and no touchdowns returned. With a season-long punt of 66 yards and only three touchbacks, Martin is able to pin the opposition and allow for his defense to make the most of their field position.

Kicker:  Matt Prater – With the second longest made kick of the 2015 NFL season and the fifth highest kicking percentage, Matt Prater re-established himself as a very solid NFL kicker.  Although he missed three extra points last year, it seems as if almost every kicker had their off day with the newly established PAT. With some likely adjustments to that part of his game, Prater will continue to be a consistent piece of the Lions special teams.

Kick returner:  Cordarrelle Patterson– Even though he only returns kicks, he does it spectacularly well. With over 1,000 yards returned, including two returns all the way back for scores, Cordarrelle Patterson can fly when he has the ball in his hands. Unfortunately on offense, he only had the ball in his hands a handful of times in 2015.  He will be back for the Vikings this year, but his contract is likely to change unless he becomes the next Devin Hester.

For more on this division, check out the offense.