The NFC North has a long tradition of stout defenses. In this series, the Last Word on Sports NFL department will select the best players in each division by position, with this article focusing on the 2022 NFC North defense.
2022 NFC North All-Division Team: The Defense
Edge Defender: Rashan Gary, Packers
After being labeled a bust in his rookie season, Gary broke out last season and heads into 2022 as the centerpiece in the Packers defense that most pundits feel are in the top 5 in the NFL. All he did in 2021 was post career highs in sacks (9.5), quarterback hits (28), tackles for loss (8.0), forced fumbles (two), and combined tackles (47). He was also second in the league with 81 pressures and had a pressure every 8.4 snaps.
The Packers would like to see some of those pressures turned into sacks. However, he has finally found his form by being a versatile player who can do multiple things up and down the line of scrimmage. Gary has finally seemed to hit his stride after wowing scouts at the 2019 NFL Combine, leading all defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash (4.63), vertical jump (38 inches), and broad jump (10-0). The 24-year-old, who also battles dyslexia, is prepared to make his way to the top tier of edge defenders in the NFL.
Edge Defender: Danielle Hunter, Vikings
A healthy Hunter is an elite pass rusher in the NFC North and the entire NFL. However, he has missed 26 games over the past two seasons. The Hunter that most want to see is the one that has 60.5 sacks over 85 career games. He is also the youngest player ever to reach 50 career sacks.
He is still one of the NFL’s most physically dominant edge rushers because of his size, strength, and burst. The 27-year-old should benefit in 2022 from playing in a new defensive scheme alongside new pass rush partner Za’Darius Smith. This should allow Hunter to find one-on-one matchups and be a major impact player in 2022.
Defensive Lineman: Kenny Clark, Packers
His pass-rushing impact when he’s lined up over center makes Clark different from most nose tackles. He tallied 14 more pressures from that alignment than any other player in the league since 2018. In 2021, he registered 48 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 13 QB hits. Since being drafted in 2016, he has started 75 games and has made two Pro Bowls.
This season, the Packers are giving him a little help as they added Devonte Wyatt (a first-round pick) and Jarran Reed (a free agent signing). This should take some of the focus off of Clark, allow him to stay fresh, and terrorize NFC South and NFL opponents consistently throughout 2022.
Defensive Lineman: Dalvin Tomlinson, Vikings
A new coaching staff in Minnesota does not change the fact that the Vikings will count on Tomlinson to continue providing interior pressure while solidifying their run defense. In fact, the Vikings hired Tomlinson’s defensive coach from Alabama, Chris Rumph, as the Viking’s defensive-line coach. As part of the defensive overhaul, Minnesota is switching from the 4-3 defense used during Tomlinson’s first season with the Vikings to a basic 3-4 scheme.
To help solidify the defensive line, the Vikings also brought in Harrison Phillips to help transition to the new scheme, which will also help free up Tomlinson. Not only can he stop the run, but he also has 10.5 sacks for his career that started with the New York Giants. 2022 could be the year that Tomlinson steps up and is selected for his first Pro-Bowl.
Linebacker: De’Vondre Campbell, Packers
De'Vondre Campbell's 85.0 PFF Grade in 2021 is the highest by a Packers LB since 2010 💪 pic.twitter.com/Sb6lFNJNp3
— PFF GB Packers (@PFF_Packers) March 26, 2022
All Campbell did in 2021 was to lead the Packers in tackles, as many made the case that he may have been the best all-around linebacker in the NFL. While that might be a bit of a stretch, there is little doubt that Campbell was elite in 2021. He was the only player in the NFL last season with more than 140 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 5 passes defended, 2 sacks, and 2 interceptions. He has also recorded more than 90 tackles in five of his six career seasons.
Fast forward to 2022 as the Packers have added Georgia middle linebacker Quay Walker, which has many talking that this duo could be as good as former Packer linebackers Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk. Campbell has developed elite vision, instincts, and athleticism that will anchor one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Linebacker: Roquan Smith, Bears
As the undisputed playmaker on the Bear’s defense, Smith recorded nearly 100 solo tackles in the last two seasons, combining for just under 200. He is one of just two players in NFL history, the other being Ray Lewis, who has recorded 300 tackles and 30 plus tackles for loss in two seasons. He has accomplished this without much help from those around him, especially up front.
As of this writing, Smith is doing a “hold-in,” meaning that he is showing up to practice but not taking the field in light of his contract. Like many of these situations, it is likely that the situation will be resolved, and Smith will take the field and be the impact player that he has been in previous seasons. The team recently announced that he will be the starting “Will” linebacker that will be employed in the Bears’ new defensive scheme. This means that Smith will get to do what he does best, flying around the field and chasing down ball carriers with his lightning-fast speed.
Linebacker: Eric Kendricks, Vikings
We are looking for Kendricks to rebound in a division deep with quality linebackers after a couple of disappointing seasons. The former second-round draft choice had injury issues in 2020 that spilled into 2021. As Viking fans know, injuries and poor play plagued the team last season, leading partly to a coaching change. This coaching change, along with some new acquisitions and healthy returning players, has many ranking the Viking defense in the top 10 in 2022.
All of this could mean that Kendricks returns to the form that had him selected as First-Team All-Pro back in 2019. Adding Jordan Hicks means that Kendricks does not have to shoulder an entire load of being a run-stopper, which should help his productivity. While he may not return to the exact same player that he was in 2019, good health and defensive philosophy changes in Minnesota should see Kendricks become one of the top linebackers in the division.
Cornerback: Jaire Alexander, Packers
Injuries limited Alexander in 2021 after he was considered one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in 2020. He has 44 passes defended in four career seasons, which averages to 11 per season. He has elite ball skills and great footwork. His 4.3 speed allows him time to recover if a receiver gets behind him. In his last full season of 2020, he was voted to the Pro Bowl and named a second-team All-Pro after defending 13 passes and frustrating almost every receiver he faced.
In 2022, many experts have him ranked as the second-best cornerback in the league behind Jalen Ramsey. He is one of the top defenders in the league and a cornerstone piece of the Packer defense.
Cornerback: Jaylon Johnson, Bears
A new coaching regime in Chicago might be the ticket for the young cornerback to become among the elite shutdown cornerbacks in the NFL. Last season, Johnson was targeted 72 times, giving up 43 receptions for 564 yards and a passer rating allowed of 101.9. Most of the time, he faced the other team’s top wideout. Despite having just one interception since entering the league in 2020, he ranks eighth in forced incompletion rate (15.3%) since then.
The plan with the new philosophy in Chicago is that the focus of their defense will come in terms of being physical and playing press, something that fits well with Johnson’s style. If the improvement comes in key areas such as man coverage, forcing takeaways, and lowering that passer rating this season, he will be in the conversation for many post-season awards.
Safety: Harrison Smith, Vikings
Once considered the premier safeties in all of football, Smith has dropped off a bit in production but is still one of the more solid safeties in the NFL. His ability to line up in any safety position within any coverage shell allowed the rest of the defense to succeed. After the entire Viking defense struggled in 2021, the six-time Pro Bowler seems ready to return to form under a new coaching staff.
In addition to a new coaching staff, Smith will be partnered with the talented first-round pick out of Georgia, Lewis Cine. All of this means that Smith, who has played in 145 regular season games, the most by any safety in the league, is primed to have a very productive season in 2022.
Safety: Adrian Amos, Packers
Passing over teammate Darnell Savage is difficult at this position unless you factor in that Amos was the best-graded safety over the past two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2021, Amos started all 17 games and led the defense with 1,048 snaps. Amos was second on the team with 94 tackles and tied for third with two interceptions.
The amazing thing is that Amos has never been named to a Pro Bowl, making him one of the more underrated players in the league. This may be due to the fact that Amos rarely makes “splashy plays” but instead focuses on consistently being in the right place at the right time. It may be that 2022 is the year that the rest of the league takes notice of Amos in his fourth season in the league.