2019 NFC North Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

NFC North

During the month of August, Last Word On Pro Football will be breaking down every division in the league by position. Below is an analysis of the 2019 NFC North defensive breakdown. There is “the best” of each unit, followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2019 NFC North Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

2019 NFC North Breakdown by Position: The Offense

Defensive Line

The Best: Detroit Lions

The Rest: Chicago BearsGreen Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings

This may come as some of a surprise, but the Detroit Lions have created quite the intimidating defensive line this off-season. The team was tenth in total yards allowed and 11th in sacks last season. An inefficient offense also meant they were rarely leading in games. Then general manager Bob Quinn went out and added star defensive end Trey Flowers who head coach Matt Patricia developed during his time with the New England Patriots. Flowers excels in a variety of facets against both the run and pass. He should be the focal point of the defense for years to come. The team then drafted defensive end Austin Bryant in the fourth round. The forgotten member of the vaulted Clemson defensive line could end up being a steal if he can find his way on the field in his rookie year. Quinn made an aggressive offer to secure defensive tackle Mike Daniels after his surprising release from the rival Packers on the eve of training camp. These additions add to a line that already featured Damon Harrison and promising young players Da’Shawn Hand and A’Shawn Robinson. This is a defensive line with a great combination of established veterans and young potential that should have at least six very solid rotational players.

The rest of the division is a bit of a mixed bag along the defensive line. The Chicago Bears undoubtedly have the best defense in the division but much of their pass rush comes from their linebacking corps. With new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano switching to more 4-3 looks, superstar Khalil Mack and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd may play more with their hands in the dirt. Those two join interior disruptors Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman as the foundation for perhaps the best front seven in football. Hicks has recorded at least seven sacks in each of the last three years. Bilal Nichols and Jonathan Bullard also return from last year’s dominant group.

The Minnesota Vikings could be experiencing a fall from grace along the defensive line. Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, and Linval Joseph all remain but the loss of Sheldon Richardson will hurt. Hunter is as imposing as ever but Griffen and Joseph may be falling off as they get up in age. Fourth-year pro Stephen Weatherly will be counted on to grow into the role at the end spot across from Hunter. This once-dominant group has a lot to prove in 2019.

The Packers are all about potential after completely reshaping the front seven this off-season. The loss of Daniels hurts what could have been a strong defensive line grouping. Kenny Clark is a star and could break out even further this year. Dean Lowry and Montravius Adams have shown flashes but are far behind the other line starters listed above. This team could get a slight boost due to how much outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary will be playing in sub-packages, but more on that below.


The Best: Chicago Bears

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

Here is another easy win for the Bears. Mack may play more down lineman this year, but he is an all-around force at outside linebacker. He is easily a top-three defensive player in the NFL. He partners with fourth-year pro Leonard Floyd to provide a pair of strong pass rushers on the outside. Floyd has been inconsistent since being drafted ninth overall in 2016. He only posted four sacks last season but still pairs nicely as an athletic finesse rusher opposite the bruising Mack. Danny Trevathan and last year’s first-round pick Roquan Smith create one of the league’s best inside linebacker duos. Smith posted 121 tackles and five sacks in his rookie year and didn’t even report to the team until the final week of training camp. With a full off-season under his belt, Smith could take a major leap forward in year two.

The Packers traded out their top two outside linebackers from last year for upgrades on the free-agent market. They let all-time team sack leader Clay Matthews sign with the Las Angeles Rams before cutting Nick Perry with three years remaining on a lucrative extension he signed in 2017. Kyler Fackrell remains after recording the first double-digit sack season of his career. General manager Brian Gutekunst aggressively retooled the linebacker room. He signed Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith on the first day of free agency before drafting Gary from the University of Michigan with the 12th overall pick. All three add beef and versatility to the Packers’ pass rush. Blake Martinez returns as the leader and captain in the middle of the defense. He is a stable player that does a bit of everything but doesn’t really excel in any aspect of the game. The final linebacker spot on this defense was supposed to go to second-year pro Oren Burks but he tore a pectoral muscle in the first preseason game. Undrafted rookie Curtis Bolton has played well above his stature and is worth monitoring early in the season.

The Vikings have a strong linebacking group as well. Mike Zimmer implores a 4-3 defensive scheme with two well-established linebackers. Retaining Anthony Barr after he agreed in principle to a deal with the New York Jets was a key decision made by general manager Rick Spielman. Barr is a staple of this Vikings defense and a four-time Pro Bowler without ever posting gaudy statistics. He is a stalwart against the run but struggles mightily in pass coverage. Barr is supposed to be a game-wrecking pass-rusher, but his single-season high is four sacks his rookie season. Inside linebacker Eric Kendricks is entering the first of a five-year, $50 million contract extension he signed last year. He is an above-average middle linebacker who provides a solid presence against the run and pass. The third linebacker spot is being held by third-year pro Ben Gedeon. Playing a limited role over the past two years, Gedeon could see a sharp snap increase in 2019.

Easily the worst group of linebackers in the NFC North, the Lions are hoping to get more out of the position in 2019. 2017 first-round pick Jarrad Davis is an ascending bright spot. He has started 30 games in his first two years. He is a bit of a liability against the pass but is strong against the run. Davis also recorded six sacks, showcasing athleticism that translates into pass-rushing ability. Unfortunately, Davis is currently dealing with an injury that could lead to a slow start early in the year. The Lions signed Devon Kennard and Christian Jones last off-season to bring some veteran support to the second level of their defense. Both were serviceable last year but could be upgraded. Kennard did record seven sacks, so he can be a rotational pass-rusher still. The team did make a shocking decision to draft Jahlani Tavai in the second round of the 2019 draft. Appearing to be one of the biggest reaches early in the draft, the inside linebacker out of Hawaii will be tasked with becoming a versatile impact player in Patricia’s hybrid scheme. It will be very interesting to watch how he will be utilized, especially while Davis recovers from injury.


The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

All four teams in the NFC North ranked in the top half of the league in pass defense for 2018. The Vikings finished third in the league and boast one of the deepest groups of cornerbacks in the league. They have a premier lockdown corner in Xavier Rhodes who can travel with the opposing team’s best receiver. There has been some inconsistency from his partner on the outside, but Trae Waynes still has plenty of potential. Mike Hughes only played in six games during an injury-riddled rookie season, but he should be an impact nickel corner in year two. Mackensie Alexander and Bene Benwikere would be strong third options on most NFL teams. For the Vikings, they will only play small roles in sub-packages.

The Bears have the only 2018 All-Pro cornerback on this list. Kyle Fuller earned his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nod while having the best season of his career in 2018. He recorded a league-leading seven interceptions and 21 pass deflections. In the first year of a lucrative extension, Fuller finally lived up to his potential. Fuller’s running mate was in a similar position. Prince Amukamara has been very inconsistent but has plenty of talent. Last year was the best of his career as well, recording three picks, two forced fumbles, and the first touchdown of his career. The Bears lost slot man Bryce Callahan to the Denver Broncos in free agency. He was one of the best nickel corners in the league last season. His replacement, Buster Skrine, will be under a bit of pressure to fill the void. He is a replacement player at this point in his career.

The Packers have a lot of potential depth at cornerback for the first time in years. Second-year pro Jaire Alexander looks like an absolute stud. If he can stay healthy all year, he could elevate this entire defense. He partners with injury-prone boundary corner Kevin King who has tons of talent but has ended each of his first two seasons on injured reserve. The Packers do have several young depth options as well. 2018 second-round pick Josh Jackson was inconsistent last year and has been hurt most of training camp. He was an impressive playmaker at Iowa though. Undrafted second-year pro Tony Brown has actually been starting opposite Alexander at times. He was impressive in limited action last season and has the athleticism to succeed at this level. With so many players in their first three years, the Packers also still employ Tramon Williams. The 13th-year pro started all 16 games for the Packers last year. He provides versatility and veteran stability to one of the league’s youngest secondaries even though he has lost a step

The Lions find themselves in the cellar on this one. Although they do boast one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Darius Slay, the front office has struggled to find an acceptable running make opposite him on the outside. They have brought in free-agent additions Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman this off-season to compete with former 2017 second-round draft pick Teez Tabor. Slay has been voted to two straight Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro in 2017. He typically travels with the team’s best receiver and plays with moxie and a fire that few others possess. Melvin is on his third team in three years after playing poorly for the Oakland Raiders last season. Coleman is one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league and played with Patricia over his first two years in New England. Tabor has struggled mightily when given playing time and will have to prove he can succeed in Patricia’s defense.


The Best of the NFC North: Chicago Bears

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

Here is another easy win for the Bears. Eddie Jackson is one of the best young safeties in the game. He recorded six interceptions last year to go along with 15 pass breakups. He is also a playmaker with the ball in his hands, scoring five defensive touchdowns in his first two years. Jackson has come a long way from being a fourth-round draft pick out of Alabama. He was a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl nominee in 2018. He should be recognized as the most integral piece of this Bears defense after Mack. The Bears brought in former Packer and Washington Redskins safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to fill in for the departed Adrian Amos next to Jackson. The two were teammates at Alabama and Clinton-Dix claims he left more money on the table in free agency to rejoin his college teammate. He has been an inconsistent performer but has never played on a defense this talented. His risky style of play could pay off behind a strong front seven.

Harrison Smith continues to impress year-in and year-out. He is on a string of four-straight Pro Bowl appearances with an All-Pro nod mixed in. He has eight interceptions over the past two years and continues to make plays as a physical box safety. The Vikings are losing a lot of snaps at the safety spot next to Smith though. They will be counting on fifth-year pro Anthony Harris to step into a more prominent role. The Vikings have used a lot of three safety sets in recent years, so they may have difficulty utilizing unproven talent on the back end.

With a complete overhaul this off-season, the Packers secondary has new starters at both safety spots. First, Gutekunst brought Amos in on a competitive free-agent offer the Bears could not match. He is a stable and unexciting safety who is a great tackler and solid in coverage. The hope is that he solidifies a perpetual weak spot in the Packers’ defense. They then doubled down on the position by trading up for Darnell Savage out of Maryland with the 21st overall pick. He is a rangy electric playmaker who should be tasked with flying around the field and complimenting Amos. Savage came into OTA’s working with the first-team defense and has received rave reviews all camp. The Packers did just release former second-round pick Josh Jones, so they are very thin at the position.

Glover Quin hadn’t missed a game in any of his six seasons with the Lions. He has been a staple of this defense for half a decade but officially retired this off-season. In his stead, fifth-year pro Quandre Diggs will be counted on to be the new leader of the back end. He is undersized but very athletic and has recorded three interceptions each of the last two years. Tracy Walker and Tavon Wilson both played nearly a third of defensive snaps last season. Walker is the younger option so the Lions may want to see what they have in the second-year player out of Louisiana. Wilson did play with Patricia in New England as well, though. This position group lacks star power, but the Lions have a good mix of youthful talent and veteran expertise to stay afloat in the secondary.

Special Teams

The Best of the NFC North: Detroit Lions

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

None of the special team units in the NFC North are particularly astounding. Each team ranked in the bottom half of the league in special team efficiency rankings last season. That being said, the Lions have the least questions marks in the division. Kicker Matt Prater enters his age-35 season but has gone to two Pro Bowls and should still have plenty of leg. Punter Sam Martin has also been with the team for some time. He was taken in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft and has panned out pretty well for the Lions. Jamal Agnew is back after an injury ended 2018 for him. He was an All-Pro return man in 2017 which is better than most teams in this division can hope for.

The Vikings may finally have found a solution to their kicking woes. After the draft debacle of Daniel Carlson, the Vikings traded another fifth-round pick for punter/kicker combo Kaare Vedvik from the Baltimore Ravens. The thought is that he will be handling kickoff and punting duties for the Vikings while seasoned veteran Dan Bailey continues as the placekicker. Bailey is 31 and has been dealing with some injuries over the last few years. Matt Wile remains on the team but it would be surprising if he made the final 53 after the draft assets the Vikings have poured into their special teams. Currently listed atop the return man depth chart for the Vikings is former Lions running back Ameer Abdullah. He is also in a battle for the third-string running back job. If he were to lose that battle, slot receiver Chad Beebe could be in line for return duties.

The Bears still provide more special teams ability than the Packers, although much has been made of the kicker situation. Both off-season addition Cordarrelle Patterson and third-year running back Tarik Cohen are All-Pro-caliber returners. They can create electric plays in a split second. Pat O’Donnell has been a sturdy punter during his five-year career with the Bears. He has a career mark of 45 yards per punt. Then there’s the kicker, where Eddy Pineiro has officially beaten out Elliott Fry for the job. Pineiro has been strong throughout camp and secured his spot after making a 58-yarder against the Indianapolis Colts in the preseason. But can he hit a 43-yard field goal to win the divisional round? We shall see.

The Packers, one of the league’s worst special team units last year, have been below par for years. They drafted punter J.K. Scott in the fifth round last year. He has plenty of leg but was inconsistent in year one. Mason Crosby is coming off one of the worst years of his career which included a complete meltdown against the Lions in week five. The Packers brought Sam Ficken in for competition, but Crosby’s job should be secure. The return duties for the Packers could still be up for grabs. Wide receivers Trevor Davis and undrafted rookie Darrius Shepherd have rotated throughout training camp but are both currently on the roster bubble.


The Best of the NFC North : Chicago Bears

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

There are several levels to the NFC North coaching tree. Matt Nagy and Matt Patricia are entering their second years with the Bears and Lions, respectively. Matt LaFleur takes over a Packers team that hasn’t seen a head coaching change since 2005. Then there is Mike Zimmer who is officially the seasoned veteran of the group as he enters his fifth season with the team. Patricia and Lafluer have very unproven track records. Zimmer has had a variety of success and his teams are consistently competitive. Nagy takes the cake here as he won the NFL award for Coach of the Year in his inaugural season.

Nagy will have a new defensive coordinator this year after Vic Fangio left for the Broncos. Former Colts coach Chuck Pagano brings plenty of experience to the unit. After a 12-4 record that secured the team’s first division title since 2010, the Bears have some high expectations. The ceiling of this team will depend on how well quarterback Mitch Trubisky progresses in year two of Nagy’s offense. The defense will be fearsome. It’s on Trubisky to show he can take his game and this team to the next level.

The Vikings have rotated between winning the division or hovering around .500 every other year since Zimmer has been with the organization. This is a team that was in the NFC Championship game just two years ago and they haven’t had much roster turnover outside the quarterback room. Kirk Cousins must prove that he can elevate this team in year two. Zimmer needs to take an aging defense and prove they can still be one of the league’s best.

The Lions have completely bought into Patricia’s idea of roster-building. They couldn’t get out of the NFC North cellar in year one, but they did hold a top-ten defense. Flowers should change the culture of the defense. First-round pick T.J. Hockenson packs a punch as an athletic blocking tight end that should elevate the ground game. This will be a more physical version of the Lions that has been missing since Ndamukong Suh left in 2015.

LaFleur and the Packers bring up the rear in this part of the NFC North breakdown due to their overall uncertainty. The team did retain defensive coordinator Mike Pettine who enters year two with a budding defense. LaFleur has had a variety of levels of success for a first-time head coach. He was revered for his job as quarterback coach of Matt Ryan during his MVP season in Atlanta. Much was made of his time spent as the Rams’ offensive coordinator with Sean McVay. Then, he called plays for one of the most inconsistent offenses in the league in Tennessee last year. Much has been made of the LaFleur’s ability to coach quarterback Aaron Rodgers. LaFleur must rejuvenate the offense and a two-time league-MVP on the back nine of his prime.

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