This week, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be selecting starting lineups consisting of the best players from each division. In this article, the NFC North defense is the focus. Half of the teams in the division run a 4-3 defensive scheme, and since the best defense in the division runs a 4-3 scheme, that will be used in this article.
2017 NFC North All-Division Team: The Defense and Special Teams
Right End: Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings
Everson Griffen has arguably been the best defensive end in the division since Jared Allen moved to the Bears. Although Griffen only had eight sacks last season, he remained a force on both running and passing downs. His three sack performance against the Carolina Panthers last season was a thing of beauty. Griffen is one of the best run defending ends in the league and is versatile enough to rush from inside or even drop into coverage.
Under Tackle: Mike Daniels, Green Bay Packers
Mike Daniels may play defensive end in the Packers’ 3-4 front, but he has the skill set to excel in any defensive scheme. His 22 career sacks translate well as an interior rusher, and his penetration as a run stopper is elite. Daniels has never played three-technique in the NFL yet he would be the best at that position of any player in the NFC North.
Nose Tackle: Linval Joseph, Minnesota Vikings
Linval Joseph was already being mentioned as one of the best 4-3 nose tackles in the league after the 2015 season. Then, in 2016, he added pass rush to his game. The former second round pick by the New York Giants has taken his play to a new level, racking up four sacks and an unheard of 77 combined tackles as a 330 pound run-stuffer. Joseph was named to his first Pro Bowl last season and is definitively the best nose tackle in the NFC North and perhaps the league.
Left End: Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings
If you read a list of the top young pass rushers in the NFL that does not include Danielle Hunter, it is a shoddy list at best. Hunter entered the league as a raw third round pick and the league’s youngest player in 2015. He racked up six sacks in support as a rookie. In 2016 though, he took his game to a new level, leading the division with 12.5 sacks (third in the league), despite playing less than 60 percent of snaps. He will likely start next season, and the sky is truly the limit for Hunter. He is the kind of defensive building block every NFL team wished they had.
Strong-Side Outside Linebacker: Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings
Anthony Barr had a down year last in 2016, but in a league without deep talent for 4-3 SAM Linebackers, Barr remains the prototype. At his best, he is a long athletic cover linebacker with elite pass rush and run stopping ability. At his worst, he struggles with missed tackles and mental lapses. Arguably the best linebacker in the league in 2015, he is out to prove that 2016 was a fluke.
Inside Linebacker: Jerrell Freeman, Chicago Bears
Jerrell Freeman came to the Bears from the Colts via free agency last offseason. He wasn’t even their first signing at the position, as the team signed Danny Trevathan earlier in the 2016 off-season. Freeman had one of his better years as a pro, despite missing four games. He had 86 tackles and was PFF’s top linebacker in the league.
Weak-Side Outside Linebacker: Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
Eric Kendricks is listed as a middle linebacker, but playing in a defense that spends more time in a 4-2-5 nickel look, Kendricks spends plenty of time as a weak-side backer in space. A fantastic player against the run and pass, fans actually want him to move the WILL full time as to better utilize his cover skills. Kendricks proved his doubters wrong as a blitzer and run defender, making 6.5 sacks in his first two seasons.
Cornerback: Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings
All Xavier Rhodes does is lock down receivers. Last season he held Kelvin Benjamin catchless. He got into Odell Beckham Jr.’s head, holding Beckham to his worst career game. Rhodes locked down DeAndre Hopkins until garbage time. He picked off opposing passers five times, including one which he returned 100 yards for a score against the Arizona Cardinals (one of two he had that game). He allowed the lowest completion percentage and lowest passer rating of any corner in the league. Teams would have been better served throwing it into the dirt each play than Rhodes’ way. He was also a force against the run. If these aren’t the making of the best (and likely soon to be highest paid) corner in the league, what are?
Free Safety: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers
A first round pick in 2014, Ha Ha Clinton Dix has been about the only consistent playmaker for a secondary that has a reputation for being burned. His five picks last year earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl, and his 4.5 career sacks speak to his versatility. One of the better young safeties in the league, the arrow is pointed up for Clinton-Dix.
Strong Safety: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
The problem with listing Harrison Smith as either a free or strong safety is that either label diminishes his value to the Vikings. The engine that makes one of the best defenses in the NFL go, Smith is one of the most consistent and versatile defensive playmakers in the league. While he can play deep, his best place is in the box, laying out bone crushing hits and stopping the run. He may be the best pass rushing safety in the league, his 7.5 career sacks are tied for the most among safeties since he entered the league. While he did not have any interceptions last season, he has shown ball hawking ability with 12 career picks and a team record of four pick-sixes.
Cornerback: Darius Slay, Detroit Lions
Darius Slay or “Big Play Slay” may only have had two picks last season, but do not let that number fool you. The man lives up to his nickname. His forced fumble against the Eagles helped to win one game and his late pick of Sam Bradford on Thanksgiving helped the Lions win another.
Kicker: Matt Prater, Detroit Lions
Aside from Matthew Stafford, Matt Prater was the biggest reason the Lions made the playoffs last year. He hit multiple game-tying and game-winning kicks last season in addition to leading the division in total field goals by a wide margin. Prater was accurate from deep and was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week three times. He also was named Special Teams Player of the month once. Prater went to his second Pro Bowl.
Punter: Sam Martin, Detroit Lions
Like Prater, Sam Martin was the NFC North leader in several major punting statistics. He was tied for the fewest touchbacks in the division. He led the division in yards per punt gross and net. Martin did not lead the division in total punting yards or punts, but his is not a statistic under his control (nor one he should wish to lead in).
Returner: Marcus Sherels, Minnesota Vikings
it is a tough decision between Marcus Sherels and Andre Roberts of the Lions. Both players had two touchdowns. Sherels had a long of 79, while Robert’s long was 85. Sherels racked up 292 yards to Robert’s 246. Roberts also returned kicks, while Sherels was one of the top gunners in the league. Ultimately though, Sherels gets the nod for his higher yards per return. Further, he should not be faulted for not returning kickoffs as well. After all, last year the Vikings had Cordarrelle Patterson, already one of the great returners in the league.
In case you missed the NFC North all-division offense, check it out.