2016 NFC North Breakdown by Position: Defense and Special Teams

During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC North defenses and special teams. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2016 NFC North Breakdown by Position: Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best:  Minnesota Vikings

The Rest:  Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears

With a defensive front line oozing of talented players such as Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, and Everson Griffen it’s now or never for the Vikings.  Griffen looks to follow up his 10.5 sacks last season with even more this year.  Minnesota had a total of 22 takeaways in 2015.  Turnovers are somewhat fluky when it comes to statistical analysis.  However, most people can agree that it all starts with the initial pressure up front.  Simply put, the Vikings have a legit shot to produce solid pressure and force plenty of turnovers again in 2016 with a defensive line this dominant.

The Detroit Lions learned how to live life on the defense frontlines without Ndamukong Suh last season.  From the right defensive end spot, Ezekiel Ansah offered superior production all year long.  Ansah finished the season with 14.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.  Now entering his age 27 season, Ansah is entering the prime of his career and still has room to improve.  Adding Haloti N’gata during the offseason will only help the cause in Detroit.

In Green Bay the ironclad unity of the environment in Lambeau Field thrives when high effort players succeed.  In a defense designed for the line to eat up blocks to free up linebackers in space, it’s difficult to accumulate high tackle totals from year to year.  Especially from the defensive tackle position.  Nonetheless, Mike Daniels has back to back seasons of at least 41 tackles and four sacks.  Solid production from the former Iowa Hawkeye.  Along with Kenny Clark and Letroy Guion this defensive line unit appears to be steady if not impressive.

The Chicago Bears have a severe lack of talent and depth along the defensive line.  Akiem Hicks has nine and a half sacks in his career (five seasons), including none in 2015.  Hicks along with Eddie Goldman (four and a half sacks as a rookie last season), and rookie Jonathan Bullard are all presumed starters on the frontlines.  Not good.  Not good at all.  Very few teams have it worse than the Chicago Bears do along the defensive line.

Linebacker

The Best:  Chicago Bears

The Rest:  Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions

The combination of Pernell McPhee, Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, and Willie Young at the linebacker positions is scary.  At some point offenses will adjust accordingly, but for right now this might be the most complete position group on the entire Chicago roster.

In Green Bay, another year goes by with Clay Matthews lurking somewhere between the line of scrimmage and the middle of the field.  Considering Sam Barrington at middle linebacker and Julius Peppers as the right outside linebacker, the amount of blitz variables at the defensive coordinators disposal are just absurd.

An up and coming young group of linebackers will wear purple and gold for the Minnesota Vikings this fall.  Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr both project to be near the top at their respective positions throughout their careers.  Plus, Chad Greenway has been a staple on defense for the Vikings for over a decade now.  There lies a lot of potential in this group.

Detroit claims the lowest grade in the linebacker department heading into this season.  Kyle Van Noy, Khaseem Greene, and Jon Bostic highlight this rather unimpressive unit.  Rookie Antwione Williams is one of the only bright spots here, as he is advanced beyond his years in stopping the run.  He will just need some coaching up on the coverages and assignments on third down.

Cornerback

The Best:  Minnesota Vikings

The Rest:  Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears

During the second round of the 2016 NFL draft the Vikings took Mackensie Alexander.  At that spot, he was an absolute steal.  Walking away from that selection, all Alexander has to do is be serviceable during his rookie campaign.  He won’t be asked to step in and be an every down player right away.  Within a dynamic Minnesota defense, and under the tutelage of veterans Terence Newman and Xavier Rhodes, Alexander should be hitting his stride towards the end of the season.

Sam Shields skillset and coverage ability alone almost vaulted the Packers towards “The Best” title on this list, however the lack of depth behind Shields is somewhat concerning.  Although, Green Bay does have two solid second year players at the position in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.  Randall was a starter last season and finished the year with 58 combined tackles and three interceptions.

Presumably, the Detroit Lions will start Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs at cornerback to start the season.  With Nevin Lawson handling slot responsibilities from the nickel position.  At first glance this doesn’t seem too bad, until you realize the Lions don’t have much help behind their corners over the top.  Slay makes this unit look better than it actually is.  Number two receivers on opposing teams could feast on Diggs and Lawson all year long.

The only reason the Lions didn’t finish last in this group is because they share their division with the Chicago Bears.  The Bears have not been able to put a decent defense on the field since before Brian Urlacher retired.  With a cornerback unit featuring Tracy Porter and Brandon Boykin alongside Kyle Fuller, at least they can only get better.

Safety

The Best:  Minnesota Vikings

The Rest:  Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears

Harrison Smith would be near the top of the list amongst all defensive players in the NFC North.  There isn’t another safety in the division that’s even close to his caliber.  But alongside him is strong safety Andrew Sendejo, another competent playmaker at the back end of a stout defense.

The Green Bay Packers should get great production from the back end of the defense as well.  Morgan Burnett still has something to prove, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will only get better, and Micah Hyde is a wild card who has flashed a lot of potential in nickel coverage as well as in the return game.  If he can learn to be a centerfield ball hawk then the sky’s the limit.

Glover Quin and Rafael Bush highlight the defensive backfield for the Detroit Lions.  Tavon Wilson should see reps at both spots, too.  Teams like to go deep on Detroit’s cornerbacks so look for their safeties to be alert over the top early and often.  A lot of the big plays Detroit gave up last year were mainly due to busted coverages, patching up those areas of weakness could go a long way in stabilizing the defense overall.

The Chicago Bears are the lowest of the low on this list.  If they could be placed lower than fourth in the division it would’ve been done.  Adrian Amos is fairly certain to be the starting free safety when week one rolls around.  Harold Jones-Quartey and Deon Bush are both vying for time at strong safety.  Needless to say, neither one will make that big of a difference on a terrible defense.

Special Teams

The Best:  Minnesota Vikings

The Rest:  Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears

The Vikings will line up Cordarrelle Patterson at kick returner and punt returner throughout the entire season.  Every time he touches the ball he has a chance to score.  Couple that with one of the top kickers in the league, Blair Walsh; and that instantly makes the Vikings the best special teams unit in the division.  Punter Jeff Locke is no slouch either.

Some combination of Jeff Janis and Micah Hyde will handle most of the return duties for the Packers.  Mason Crosby will still be handling the field goals and extra point tries.  And Tim Masthay is always a solid choice to pin the opposition deep should the Green Bay offense falter.

The Detroit Lions primary punt return man will be Golden Tate this season and Ameer Abdullah will handle the kickoff return duties.  Tate has shown electric ability when he gets the ball in space, and Abdullah has breakaway speed should he find a crease.  All this combined with Matt Prater at kicker and punter Sam Martin makes the Detroit Lions an intriguing special teams unit to keep an eye on.

The Bears trouble areas seem to be growing.  There are so many areas of concern on the roster that the team probably chooses to intentionally overlook the special teams.  However, Marc Mariani will still bring some semblance of a return game to the windy city, and Robbie Gould is one of the best windy city kickers of all time.  Needless to say, punter Pat O’Donnell will most likely be a busy man this season.

Coaching

The Best:  Green Bay Packers (Mike McCarthy)

The Rest:  Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, Jim Caldwell

McCarthy is in the middle of his run of genius game planning as a head coach.  His ability to regroup his players throughout the course of a game is uncanny.  His 65% win percentage represents his true value to the franchise.

Mike Zimmer will have his work cut out for him after losing starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a devastating knee injury.  But, with a strong nucleus built up around the rest of the team, the Vikings only need to get by in the passing game and still be a solid playoff contender.

John Fox has the most difficult job in this division.  His roster is by far the weakest and most inept of talent.  However, Fox has done more with less in the past and he will most likely be coaching for his job towards the end of the season if the Bears are still somehow alive in the playoff hunt.  Otherwise he could be done before then if the team starts out poorly.

Jim Caldwell is without a doubt on the hot seat.  After much speculation that the team would let him go after last season, everyone was surprised to hear that Caldwell would return to coach the team again in 2016.  Knowing what is on the line, expect a lot of the unexpected as the coaching staff in Detroit pulls out all the stops to get the team back on track towards a playoff appearance.

Check out the NFC North offensive breakdown.

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