2018 NFC North Breakdown by Position: Defense

2018 NFC North Breakdown

During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This is the 2018 NFC North breakdown of the offense and special teams. There is “the best” of each unit, followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2018 NFC North Breakdown by Position: Defense

Defensive Line

The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

The Vikings front four is arguably the best in the entire league. Danielle Hunter just signed a huge contract extension this off-season, and they signed Sheldon Richardson to a one-year deal. Linval Joseph has been dominant against the run throughout his entire career, so pairing him with Richardson is going to scare opponents away from running up the middle. They also have one of the best pass rushers in the league in Everson Griffen. He can terrorize tackles with both power and speed. Minnesota made it a point to add depth to the line to rotate the starters and keep them fresh for the season. It will be a big year up front for the Vikings.

The Packers have a bit of an underrated defensive line. They added Muhammad Wilkerson to come off the edge and start alongside Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels. Montravius Adams will be the backup nose tackle to Clark, giving them a nice option to fill in for the starter. The rest of the depth is iffy, but there is too much talent on the starting line to drop Green Bay below number two in the division.

Ezekiel Ansah is a great pass rusher playing on the franchise tag in 2018. Ansah has incredible speed for a defensive end. He will continue to wreak havoc on quarterbacks if he stays healthy. On the opposite side, Detroit has Cornelius Washington and Anthony Zettel coming off the edge. While neither of them are elite, they can both make an impact on occasion. Zettel tallied six and a half sacks in 2017. Detroit is strong in the middle with A’Shawn Robinson, Sylvester Williams, and Da’Shawn Hand rotating in and out. There is a good blend of youth and experience in the trenches for the Lions.

Chicago’s 3-4 defense places much more value in the second level than up front. The defensive line has a stud in Akiem Hicks, who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Hicks put up eight and a half sacks last season, and he has 15 1/2 in his two seasons with Chicago. However, there isn’t much to fear beyond Hicks. Jonathan Bullard has only started four games in his career and hasn’t done enough to prove himself. Eddie Goldman was drafted in the second round of the 2016 draft and has been an average nose tackle for the Bears. In the end, the linebackers will be much more important in Chicago.


The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

Minnesota, Green Bay, and Chicago are all deserving of the top spot, but Mike Zimmer’s unit wins out. Anthony Barr is one of the most versatile linebackers in the league. He is great in coverage and has the ability to blitz both up the middle and off the edge. His size and speed combination allows him to cover running backs and tight ends. Barr lines up all over the middle of the field for Minnesota. His college teammate Eric Kendricks is another stud on the defense. Kendricks led the team in tackles last season and diagnoses the play very well. When the Vikings play three linebackers, Ben Gedeon plays as the WILL linebacker. He is limited in coverage, but he is a great force against the run. The Vikings play more nickel and dime packages rather than the base 4-3, so they don’t utilize as many linebackers.

Leonard Floyd is a young pass rusher that the Bears are excited about this year. He is expected to have a breakout season for Chicago as the defense looks to take a big step forward. They are plenty talented in the middle with Danny Trevathan and rookie Roquan Smith. The Bears definitely don’t lack speed and athleticism in the middle of the field. Nick Kwiatkoski started six games last season and will provide solid depth for Chicago, as will Sam Acho.

The Packers would rank higher if it wasn’t for the injury to Jake Ryan. Ryan was lost for the season during camp with a torn ACL. Blake Martinez is still a very good starting middle linebacker, but Ryan’s injury will have a huge impact on Green Bay’s defense. On the outside, the Packers have Nick Perry and of course Clay Matthews. Matthews is getting old and his numbers have fallen off the past few years, while Perry has never played a full season. While the Packers have a good group put together, there are better options within the NFC North.

The Lions are quite a bit behind the rest of the division at linebacker. Jarrad Davis has a very bright future and has the potential to be a star on that defense. Outside of him, there isn’t much talent. Devon Kennard is much more suited to be a backup but he will likely start unless he is unseated by Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Christian Jones is slated to start at the other outside linebacker position and he hasn’t done much of anything in his first four seasons.


The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

Yet again the Vikings top the list, and that’s what happens with the best defense in the NFL. Xavier Rhodes is one of the best cornerbacks in the league without question. Trae Waynes took a big step last season before getting humiliated in the NFC Championship game. Terence Newman is still on the roster for his 16th season, but likely as more of a mentor than a player at this point. Mackensie Alexander was a second-round pick in 2016 and he will compete for the nickel corner spot. Minnesota also spent a first round pick on Mike Hughes this year, giving them four first-round corners. Three of those first-round picks were drafted by the Vikings.

Detroit comes in second because Darius Slay is a star. He is one of the most underrated corners in the league, likely because he plays on an underwhelming defense. However, he is one of the best in the league at making a play on the ball in the air. Slay was an All-Pro last year and finished the season with eight interceptions. His counterpart, DeShawn Shead, is a decent starting corner.

The Bears have Kyle Fuller primed for a breakout year, falling in line with the rest of the defense. While he isn’t on the same level of Rhodes and Slay, he is still a very highly talented cornerback. Fuller has eight interceptions through three seasons with the Bears. Prince Amukamara has had an interesting career to say the least, and starting him says a lot about the Bears secondary behind Fuller. Bryce Callahan is a great nickel corner, though, and he is another candidate to break out this year if he plays to his potential.

There is a reason the Packers spent high draft picks on cornerbacks in back-to-back drafts. Last year they invested a high second-round pick on Kevin King only to spend a first and second-round pick on Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, respectively. While the youth and potential are there, it isn’t fair to judge the position at this stage. Tramon Williams is on the roster, but they will likely look to play the young guys early and see where they stand.


The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

Harrison Smith is the best safety in the league but he is often overlooked. He is great both in coverage and against the run, giving the defense flexibility. He can blitz off the edge and get to the quarterback with ease. Smith is a three-time Pro Bowler and was a first-team All-Pro last season. Andrew Sendejo is one of the most violent safeties in the league that strikes fear in opposing receivers and running backs. There is depth with Anthony Harris and Jayron Kearse also able to fill in and play when called upon.

Glover Quin is an absolute ball hawk for Detroit. He has racked up 24 career interceptions and 10 forced fumbles. Quandre Diggs has moved from corner to safety and looks to have a big year alongside Quin. Diggs has great ball skills and should create turnovers on the back end. Miles Killebrew is also a rotational option, but will not have high expectations. He has only started three of his 32 career games.

A lot of people are high on Adrian Amos, but he hasn’t produced hardly anything in his career. In 44 games, Amos has just one interception and three forced fumbles. That is not enough for a struggling team. Eddie Jackson had a good rookie year for Chicago, recording 53 tackles and two interceptions. He showed glimpses of how special he can be in Chicago’s win over the Carolina Panthers last season. He scored two long touchdowns in that game, which were the difference for the Bears.

The Packers have a rough secondary. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a starting safety, for sure. He has had a great career up to this point, and he is the leader of the secondary, but he doesn’t have any help. Josh Jones played all over the defense for the Packers as a rookie in 2017, but he didn’t stand out by any means. He started just seven games with one interception. This year will be huge for the development of the Packers’ young defensive backs.

Special Teams

The Best: Detroit Lions

The Rest: Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears

The Lions have a complete unit, with a proven kicker and punter already in place. Matt Prater has one of the strongest legs in the league. Prater has connected on 98 percent of his extra points and 83.4 percent of his field goal attempts. Sam Martin is a deadly accurate punter but he was injured in 2017. Jamal Agnew looked very good as a rookie in the return game, and this year will be no different.

Ryan Quigley quietly had a very good year as a punter for the Vikings. Last season, he landed over 40 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. Meanwhile, not a single punt rolled into the end zone for a touchback, which is phenomenal. Daniel Carlson appears to have won the kicking battle as the Vikings recently released Kai Forbath. Marcus Sherels has already broken the franchise record for punt return touchdowns. Rookie Mike Hughes is also expected to contribute in the return game, and he was a great returner in college.

Mason Crosby has been the Packers kicker for a long time. In 11 seasons, Crosby has knocked down 80.3 percent of his field goals and 98.3 percent of his extra points. The Packers drafted J.K. Scott this off-season to become the new punter in 2018, and he was solid at Alabama. Trevor Davis is expected to return kicks and punts for Green Bay. He has never taken a kick for a touchdown, but he has shown the ability to bust a long return. Rookie Jaire Alexander was an excellent returner in college and could look to return some kicks as well.

Cody Parkey has been a great kicker in his short career. He converted 91.3 percent of his kicks for the Miami Dolphins last season, and he has hit 86.4 percent of his career attempts. Pat O’Donnell has been an above average punter for the Bears. He has kept 33 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. The question for Chicago comes in the return game. Knile Davis has a chance to win the job and take the majority of the returns, but Tarik Cohen should also be in play. Both of them are very talented and can break a big return.


The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

Mike Zimmer came in and changed the Vikings’ culture from day one. They turned things around and built one of the best defenses in the NFL in just a few years. Defensive coordinator George Edwards has put together a great defense from the front four all the way to the secondary. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo will bring new wrinkles to an explosive offense in 2018. It is safe to say the Vikings have the best coaching staff in the division by a long shot.

The Lions have a new head coach with Matt Patricia taking over. He comes from the Bill Belichick tree in New England, and the Lions hope he can bring a winning attitude. Jim Bob Cooter remains the offensive coordinator as Paul Pasqualoni takes over as defensive coordinator. The Lions are the lucky beneficiaries of poor coaching in Green Bay and Chicago.

Matt Nagy is another newcomer to the NFC North head coaching table. Nagy is a great mind who realized success as offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs before coming to Chicago. He does not have experience, but he does bring a potent offensive attack to a team that desperately needs it.

Aaron Rodgers might as well be the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Mike McCarthy has not posed a threat in the past few seasons, and his offense has been very vanilla, relying solely on the arm of their star quarterback. Rodgers can only do so much, and his coaches have not done anywhere near enough to help him out on either side of the ball.

Be sure to have a look at the NFC North divisional breakdown on the offensive side of the ball.

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