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 defense and special teams. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2020 NFC North Defense and Special Teams
The Best: Chicago Bears
Bears defenses have a longstanding reputation and the current iteration is no different. An elite run-stuffing group, they really missed Akiem Hicks in the middle for much of last year. This year, they’ll be without nose tackle Eddie Goldman but should have the depth to withstand it. That would mean starter Bilal Nichols and reserve Roy Robertson-Harris need to step up their play after up-and-down campaigns in 2019.
Kenny Clark is the perfect example of the modern NFL nose tackle; stout against the run but still able to push the pocket. That’s why the Packers rewarded him with a four-year, $70 million extension. Tyler Lancaster and Dean Lowry provide nice depth even though they are a bit one-dimensional.
Detroit and Minnesota are in the back but it isn’t really a knock as much as a referendum on how talented this division is in the trenches. Minnesota lost Linval Joseph and will count on former Baltimore Raven Michael Pierce and improvement from Shamar Stephen. Detroit needs Danny Shelton to be more consistent than A’Shawn Robinson but, even more, they need Da’Shawn Hand to have a bounceback season.
The Best: Green Bay Packers
The Rest: Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions
Green Bay’s defense went through years of lethargy before being revitalized last season by the arrival of Za’Darius and Preston Smith. The duo combined for 25.5 sacks and Green Bay expects more from Rashan Gary (2.0 sacks) in his second year in Titletown. How much they will miss Kyler Fackrell (New York Giants) will be something to keep an eye on.
The Bears have one of the best individual pass-rushers in the NFL in Mack but they have lacked a compliment for him on the edges. Enter Robert Quinn who takes over for the departed and disappointing Leonard Floyd. Quinn has had the best Pass-Rush Win Rate in the NFL over the last two years. Chicago is hoping that offsets any deficiencies he has against the run.
Danielle Hunter has statistically been the best pass rusher in the division over the past two years, posting back to back 14.5-sack seasons. This year, he will have to do it alone after Everson Griffen moved on to the Dallas Cowboys. Detroit’s premier EDGE defender is Trey Flowers. The former New England Patriot was reunited with Matt Patricia but is more of an all-around end than true pass-rusher. At any rate, he’s Detroit’s lone threat.
The Best: Minnesota Vikings
The Rest: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers
Eric Kendricks had a case for Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 as he led all linebackers with 12 pass deflections as part of a standout year. He is flanked on one side by Anthony Barr, one of the most versatile linebackers in the game. Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon will compete to man the other side but all that means is the Vikings have a very good backup.
Chicago lost some important depth this off-season, as reserve Nick Kwiatkoski left for a bigger deal and role with the Las Vegas Raiders. That means Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith’s health is extremely important. Neither played a full season last year, but there aren’t many more talented duos.
Detroit is adding another former Patriot in Jamie Collins to a group that has routinely underperformed. Jarrad Davis has been unimpressive in his short career and Jahlani Tavai is still much better against the run than the pass.
The Best: Detroit Lions
The Rest: Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
Detroit has committed resources to their cornerback position, one of the few things copied from the Patriots that has staying power. They traded a disgruntled Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles but replaced him with Desmond Trufant, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons. It is a slight downgrade but opposite him, Jeff Okudah is a definite upgrade making the moves a net positive. Justin Coleman is very steady in the slot.
Bears corner Kyle Fuller has been one of the best in the league for a few years but is coming off a down year where he allowed better than 70 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed. Opposite him will be either second-round pick Jaylon Johnson or Kevin Toliver who hasn’t distinguished himself in two years. Artie Burns opened camp as a starter but tore his ACL.
Jaire Alexander is arguably the best corner in the division but he is all by himself. Kevin King and Josh Jackson are both still trying to prove they belong. Minnesota might have led this section at this time last season. But they revamped the position and will be counting on two rookies in Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler.
The Best: Minnesota Vikings
The Rest: Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions
Harrison Smith is arguably the best in the business and his running mate Anthony Harris has emerged as a terrific running mate. Together, they combined for 145 tackles, nine interceptions, three forced fumbles, and three recoveries. Smith has been a Pro Bowler each of the last five seasons while Harris’ play earned him the franchise tag from Minnesota.
Adrian Amos defected to the Packers from the Bears and he now forms one of the better young duos in the NFL with Darnell Savage. Amos matched a career-high with two interceptions and Savage pitched in two of his own and added two forced fumbles. This group will only improve.
Eddie Jackson is the second-best safety in the NFC North but, like some other on this list, he is all by himself. Chicago got a solid year out of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix but let him walk and are counting on Tashaun Gipson and camp standout Deon Bush. Duron Harmon teams up with Tracy Walker forming a group that may end up being better than the Bears on the whole, but they still lack a player on par with Jackson.
The Best: Detroit Lions
The Rest: Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears
Matt Prater has been doing it for a long time, though he had hit the lowest percentage of his kicks since 2014 last year. He still hit the second-most kicks in the division. Punter Sam Martin had the highest per punt average in the North. Detroit was also the only NFC North team with multiple return touchdowns in 2019, courtesy of Jamal Agnew.
Dan Bailey got his career back on track hitting 93.1 percent of his field-goal attempts in Minny, his best year since 2015. Punter Britton Colquitt recorded the second-best yard per punt average in the division. The Vikings usually potent return game lacked oomph last season.
Mason Crosby had a career-revival of his own after several tumultuous seasons. He rewarded the packers by hitting a career-best 91.7 percent of his kicks. Punter JK Scott was on par with Bears punter Pat O’Donnell, just without the block. The Bears had the better return game with Cordarrelle Patterson running back kicks.
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