2017 NFC North Breakdown: The Defense and Special Teams

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During the month of August, Last Word on Pro Football is analyzing the top positional units within each NFL division. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of defense and special teams in the NFC North. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2017 NFC North Breakdown: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

It isn’t a question who has the best defensive front in the NFC North. The Vikings fearsome foursome of Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd (Non-football injury list), and Danielle Hunter is extremely hard to beat. Behind these players, Brian Robison, Tom Johnson, and Datone Jones provide great depth. Since Floyd is currently on the Non-Football Injury list, Datone Jones will likely start at least part of the season in his place. Floyd or no Floyd, this is a stacked defensive line loaded with run-stuffers and disruptive pass-rush. No quarterback likes seeing this group of players coming for him.

The next best defensive line in the NFC North has to be Detroit. The Lions have a solid group of Ziggy Ansah, Haloti Ngata, A’Shawn Robinson, and Cornelius Washington. Washington is the only question mark on this line, having just three career sacks. Washington needs to prove himself for this defensive line to be elite. The rest of the line are all proven pass-rushers and run-stuffers.

The Bears trio of Mitch Unrein, Eddie Goldman, and Akiem Hicks is solid. Good, but not great. Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman both have Pro Bowl potential, though the same can’t necessarily be said for Unrein. If Goldman can stay healthy and Hicks keeps playing at a high level, the Bears could have a very good defensive line.

Defensive line is one of the strengths for Green Bay’s defense, but it still isn’t as good as the rest of the division. Their starters are Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, and Dean Lowry. The only one of that trio to have any sacks last season was Lowry, who had just two. Green Bay needs to add some elite talent up front to be any higher in these rankings.

Linebacker

The Best: Chicago Bears

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

Spoiler alert: This is the one defensive position Minnesota didn’t come out on top with, and they were still second here. Just edging them out is the Chicago Bears, who have a very talented linebacking group. All four of their starters are above average at worst. The group of Willie Young, Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, and Leonard Floyd make up one of the most talented linebacker cores in the NFL. Freeman received an elite grade from Pro Football Focus and is one of the most reliable inside linebackers in the league. Young and Floyd provide a good pass-rushing duo, having combined for 14.5 sacks last year. That total should increase as Leonard Floyd comes into his second season more experienced.

Minnesota’s linebackers are almost as good as Chicago’s, but Chicago beats them because Minnesota has a question mark at outside linebacker with the departure of Chad Greenway. Currently their starters are slated to be Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Kentrell Brothers. Barr and Kendricks have already proven to be high-level talents, but second year player Brothers hasn’t had enough playing time yet to determine his skill level. If Brothers plays at a high level, the Vikings easily have the best linebackers in the North.

The only household name Green Bay has at linebacker is Clay Matthews, but even he is now getting old and has lost a step. Playing with him Green Bay has Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez, and Nick Perry, but none of them are elite talents. The standout of this group is Nick Perry, who racked up 53 tackles and 11 sacks last season. None of the Packers linebackers aside from Matthews are over 27, so there is plenty of room for growth.

There is little to know certainty at the linebacker position for Detroit. The only returning starter, Tahir Whitehead, has had his struggles so far in his NFL career and it is unclear what level of production he will sustain. In addition to Whitehead’s struggles, Rookie Jarrad Davis is unknown as he has yet to play a regular season game, and Nick Bellore has just one career sack.

Cornerback

The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

One of the only true shutdown corners in the NFL wears purple and gold. Xavier Rhodes can cover the NFL’s best one-on-one and win much more often than not. He is arguably top five at the position. The depth behind him is great, headlined by talents like Trae Waynes, Tramaine Brock, Terence Newman, and Mackensie Alexander. This is one of the deepest and most talented corner groups in the entire NFL.

The cornerback group in Detroit is nothing to sneeze at. Darius Slay provides a top-15 talent at the top, and the trio of Nevin Lawson, Jalen Tabor, and D.J. Hayden is very solid behind him. Detroit has a top-15 corner group in the NFL.

Much the same can be said about both the Chicago and Green Bay cornerback groups. The Bears corners are set to be Prince Amukamara across from Marcus Cooper. Bryce Callahan is set to take on a bigger role as a slot corner after holding quarterbacks to a 72.9 rating while covering the slot position. Due to the uncertainty in Amukamara’s play, Kyle Fuller may end up taking over half way through the year. Fuller spent last season sidelined with a knee injury.

The Packers corner slots are headlined by Davon House and Damarious Randall. As neither possess star-power, rotational piece Quinten Rollins will be key. The unknown prospect is rookie Kevin King from the University of Washington. King was drafted with the expectation to revitalize the Packers secondary, but has struggled over the tenure of his rookie preseason. Depending on how much King has learned through his struggles, the Packers corners could be much improved come December.

Safety

The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

The Vikings have arguably the best safety in the league in Harrison Smith. His career numbers through his first four years are comparable to guys like Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed, and Brian Dawkins. If he keeps playing at an elite level, Smith could be a Hall-of-Famer. Across from him is Andrew Sendejo, who played well last season but could be upgraded. All in all, the Vikings are very hard to beat at safety.

Green Bay has a very talented safety duo in Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Last season, Clinton-Dix put up an impressive stat line with 80 tackles and five interceptions. Burnett was equally as impressive, posting 93 tackles, three sacks, and a pair of interceptions. In most other divisions, the Packers safety duo would easily be first.

The Bears and Lions have similarly talented, good but not great safety duos. For Detroit it’s Tavon Wilson (89 tackles, one sack, two interceptions) and Glover Quin (68 tackles and two interceptions). In Chicago, the duo is Adrian Amos (65 tackles, no interceptions or sack) and Quintin Demps (55 tackles and six interceptions).

Kicker

The Best: Green Bay Packers

The Rest: Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears

Green Bay and Detroit both have good, reliable kickers in Mason Crosby and Matt Prater. Both players have a big leg and good accuracy and can be counted on for both extra points and field goals. Minnesota’s Kai Forbath is an average but not terrible place kicker and has been solid so far. For Chicago, Connor Barth is the one trusted to make all the kicks, and he is a cut below the rest of the kickers in the division.

Punter

The Best: Detroit Lions

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

Detroit has the only truly notable punter in the division, assuming Sam Koch comes off the Non-football injury list in reasonable time. If Koch doesn’t play, the next best among punters is Pat O’Donnell. The Minnesota punter Ryan Quigley has been so-so, and Green Bay has a rookie at punter.

Returner

The Best: Minnesota Vikings

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

Minnesota’s Marcus Sherels is a proven, talented return man and a speedster. He can break huge plays if the defense isn’t careful or gets lazy. Golden Tate is a shifty and explosive return man for Detroit, and Green Bay has Randall Cobb and Jeff Janis to keep defenses on their toes. Chicago’s Deonte Thompson and Bryce Callahan are bigger unknowns.

If you have not yet, check out the NFC North offensive breakdown!

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