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. The breakdown will list “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2021 NFC North Defense Breakdown by Position
The Best: Green Bay Packers
Green Bay struck gold a couple of offseasons ago when they signed Za’Darius Smith away from the Baltimore Ravens. He has 26 since coming over in 2019, tying him with Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald for third in the NFL. Across from him is Preston Smith who is of no relation but similar disposition on the field. At least he was in 2019 when he recorded 12 sacks of his own. He dropped to just four this season and pressure the pocket less but the Packers still finished in the top-10 in sacks. Behind them 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary showed life in his second season but second-year backer Jonathan Garvin is unproven.
Khalil Mack didn’t put up the gaudy sack totals we’re used to seeing from the top EDGE defenders in the league. But he still enters 2021 as the top at his position, per Pro Football Focus. He’s admitted a bounceback year is still in order. Getting some production to bookend him would certainly help. But 2020 free-agent acquisition Robert Quinn was a bust in his first season. He was bothered by injury again during camp but did look better in his brief preseason action. Second-year man Trevis Gipson looks like a player and they added Jeremiah Attaochu as well.
The Vikings could have a very good claim to this spot if everyone is back to form. Danielle Hunter posted back-to-back 14.5-sack seasons in 2018 and 2019 but a neck injury ended his 2020 before it began when he went down in training camp. He’s healthy but now they’ll count on some combination of Jaylyn Homes, Stephen Weatherly, and “situational pass-rusher” Everson Griffen to provide support. The Detroit Lions are trying to convert Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara (who had 10 of the duo’s 12 sacks) to outside linebackers in their new 3-4. Their depth is non-existent.
The Best: Bears
The Rest: Packers, Vikings, Lions
The return of Eddie Goldman couldn’t have come at a better time for the best defensive line in our NFC North defense breakdown. Their offense could struggle once again and, with questions in the secondary, they’ll need a strong front to at least slow down the run. He joins Akiem Hicks who had a bounceback year in 2020. Around them are unheralded performers Bilal Nichols, Mario Edwards (who will be suspended to start the year for PEDs), and free-agent signee Angelo Blackson. They also have seventh-round rookie Khyiris Tonga backing up Goldman for better nose depth this time around.
Green Bay’s top two of Kenny Clark and Kingsley KeKe could give Chicago’s top duo a run for their money. Both are more than space-eater with a real ability to collapse the pocket in passing situations. Dean Lowry has flashed behind them but the rest of their depth has yet to play a down in the NFL. That is the definition of being top-heavy.
If their moves pan out, this could be a good year for the Vikings defending the run. They ranked 27th last season after losing Michael Pierce to COVID opt-out. They also signed former New York Giants tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and get Sheldon Richardson back after two seasons in Cleveland. That’s just a lot of ‘ifs’ to bank on. Detroit’s longest-tenured (starting) defensive lineman is Nick Williams who came over from Chicago last offseason. Michael Brockers was acquired via trade and third-round Alim McNeil was taken in the third round.
The Best: Vikings
The Rest: Bears, Packers, Lions
Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan are a formidable pair with the former looking to continue the tradition of great linebackers in the team’s history and the latter providing veteran leadership and, this preseason, looking to have regained a step. Health and the occasional lost tight end in coverage have been the only things to hold these two back and free agent Alec Ogletree could help with the second part.
Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks recorded his fifth consecutive season with 100-plus combined tackles. He’s had at least 90 total tackles every year he’s been in the league. Anthony Barr missed all but two games with a pectoral injury last season and has dealt with a groin injury this year during training camp. When healthy, he and Kendricks have long held the title of ‘Best Duo’ in the NFC North defense breakdown. Troy Dye and rookie Chazz Surratt provide some nice athletic depth behind them.
The Packers haven’t had great linebacking in some time but it’s rarely been an Achilles heel. Over the past few seasons, however, the amount of turnover clearly tells you just how they feel about the level of production. Krys Barnes is in his second year after being undrafted and is joined by former Atlanta Falcons linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. Detroit’s linebacking corps has been in even more of a shambles despite their spending on the position until Jamie Collins’ arrival last season. But there isn’t much else here, especially after 2019 second-rounder Jahlani Taivai was released.
The Best: Packers
The Rest: Vikings, Bears, Lions
For all of the negative publicity Kevin King of the Packers gets, he is the best “other” corner of any team in the division. In fact, he was better than the new top options on a couple of the teams last season. Having just re-signed a week ago, this was almost a shaky area for Green Bay behind Jaire Alexander. They did spend the 29th-overall pick to take Georgia’s Eric Stokes and have fourth-year reserve Chandon Sullivan as well. It’s a deep group for the first time in a while.
How much does Patrick Peterson have left in the tank? That’s the key question for the Vikings as he’s coming off of his worst season as a pro and is on the wrong side of 30. Bashaud Breeland was also added and maybe, at this point in their respective careers, he is the better cover corner. The Vikings have a ton invested in their depth with draft picks Cameron Dantzler, Mackenzie Alexander, and Kris Boyd.
Second-year pro Jaylon Johnson steps into the role of top corner that was vacated by Kyle Fuller’s trade. It’s a tall task after an up-and-down rookie campaign that saw him allow just 56.4 percent completion but also give up some big plays and record zero takeaways. Behind him, it gets scarily thin. Desmond Trufant was signed in free agency but his absence all summer has left Kindle Vildor to earn the nod opposite Johnson. Trufant has been released If the Bears ever have to count on Artie Burns, they’re in even more trouble. Detroit made Jeff Okudah the highest cornerback ever drafted and then sat him for a good chunk of the season. Now they want him to cover the opponent’s best receiver. Amani Oruwariye will start opposite him and Nickell Robey-Coleman is the nickel (clever, right?).
The Best: Packers
The Rest: Vikings, Bears, Lions
Darnell Savage has quickly become one of the better playmaking safeties in the game today. But he also packs quite the punch despite not being the biggest. Adrian Amos has transitioned from his time with the Bears to give Green Bay not only the best safety tandem in the NFC North defense breakdown but the entire NFL. Where it gets questionable is their depth where a couple of second-year players in Vernon Scott and Henry Black back them up.
Vikings safety Harrison Smith just re-upped to become the highest-paid player at his position at the tender age of 32. He’s coming off of a season where he notched five interceptions but failed to force or recover any fumbles or make for just the second time in his career. He also missed the Pro Bowl for the first time in four seasons. Xavier Woods comes over from Dallas where he never had a running mate like Smith. They are backed up by a pair of rookies just like the Packers guys.
Eddie Jackson was once in the argument for best safety in the division but has had a rough go of it for the past two seasons. He’ll look to bounce back under his second defensive coordinator since his peak under Vic Fangio three seasons ago. Tashaun Gipson is a capable starter but is probably playing a level too high. Their depth is good as well with DeAndre Houston-Carson and Deon Bush. The Lions are just trying to get by with Tracy Walker and Will Harris. Maybe one of Dean Marlowe or C.J. Moore takes a step forward.
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