The third and final part of our series projecting the best players at each position in the NFC North this season will focus on defense. Be sure to check out the first two parts, if you have not done so already, in which I wrote about the skill position players and John Tuvey doled out recognition to the offensive linemen. Be advised that, unlike binge-watching a series on Netflix during the pandemic, this series need not be done in any particular order.
Now let’s discuss the defensive players.
The Vikings and Lions roll with a 40 front – which is four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs — a good percentage of the time while the Bears and Packers tend toward the 3-4 alignment. Moreover, I suspect we’ll see more elements of the 3-4 in the Vikings’ defense now that Dom Capers has input on the defense. As such, it was difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all defense for the Black and Blue Division.
I settled on an old school 4-3 because that’s what Bud Grant would do and, honestly, it provides the best format in which to showcase the division’s top defensive players – and that’s what this series is all about. The NFC North is heavy on really good defensive linemen, plus it has three All-Pro level linebackers and isn’t exactly loaded with proven cornerbacks. Good coaches let the talent of their players dictate the scheme and put them in a position to be most effective rather than doing the square peg, round hole approach and putting the system first. Therefore, I’m adopting that mindset for our fictitious All-NFC North squad. The 4-3 works, so that’s what we’re running here… at least on first-and-10.
I recently addressed some of the new challenges Danielle Hunter faces this season, but make no mistake, he certainly belongs on this team as one of the headliners. You’re familiar with his accomplishments by now. Hunter’s record for youngest player to reach 50 sacks made headlines. Over the past two seasons, only two players have more sacks than Hunter’s 29.0 and last season no defensive lineman had a higher Pass Rush Productivity rating per PFF.com. He doesn’t turn 26 until October, so settle in because he’ll be here awhile.
The departure of Everson Griffen leaves Chicago’s Akiem Hicks as the clear choice for the other defensive end spot on our All-NFC North team. Honestly, if Hicks was coming off a full season, he would have been the selection here regardless. Yes, I know Hicks plays the 5-technique position in the Bears 3-4 front and kicks inside when they use a 40 front on passing downs, but technically he’s an end, so I’m going with it. Chicago’s defense underperformed last season due in large part to injuries, none bigger than the elbow injury Hicks sustained in Week 5. Judging from his Instagram post earlier this month, it appears that elbow is back to full strength and he’s ready for a return to prominence in 2020.
Hicks had not missed a game since coming to the Bears in 2016, so durability isn’t an issue. He generated 23.0 sacks over the three previous seasons, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2018 and No. 39 in the NFL’s Top 100 for 2019 – a whopping 18 spots higher than Hunter on the list.
Eddie Goldman plays alongside Hicks in the Windy City and warrants recognition as one of the interior linemen on our squad. Nose tackles get recognition about as often as janitors. They do all the grunt work that enables others to look good. Even without fancy stats, he caught the attention of enough folks to garner Pro Bowl alternate status in 2019. And the Pro Football Focus experts gave him the highest mark as a run stopper among NFC North interior defenders last season.
I suspect new Vikings nose tackle Michael Pierce could give Goldman a run for his money for this position by the end of the upcoming season, but for now Goldman gets the nod.
Kenny Clark of the Packers warrants the final spot on our defensive line. Vikings fans are well aware of the kind of disruption he can cause. The 27th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft won’t turn 25 until October, so his prime years are still ahead of him, much like Hunter’s. He led all NFC North interior defenders in both the PFF position grades and pass-rush grades last season. Yeah, he’s a problem.
The NFC North boasts an impressive trio of top-end talent at linebacker. You’d be hard-pressed to name a better set of linebackers in any division.
Let’s start by giving the nod to Eric Kendricks as the inside linebacker on our crew. All he did last season was earn First-Team All-Pro honors and nab the second-highest PFF grade among all linebackers. Simply put, it was one of the best performances by a Vikings linebacker in the history of the franchise. He’s a sure-fire tackler and also has no peers in pass coverage among today’s NFL linebackers.
Green Bay hit a home run with the signing of Za’Darius Smith to a four-year deal prior to last season. He exploded in his first year with the Packers, racking up 13.5 sacks, 17 total tackles for loss, the No. 1 overall Pass Rush Productivity grade from PFF and his first Pro Bowl honor.
Smith will be on regression watch in 2020 after last season’s spike in production, but he’s in his prime so another season or two near this level would not be a surprise.
Lastly, Khalil Mack needs no introduction nor explanation for his position on our All-NFC North squad. He’ll be the captain of this defense. The five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection has averaged 11.5 sacks over the past five seasons. He’s the prototype for outside NFL linebackers and has been one of the most disruptive forces in the game for several years. The numbers dropped off in 2019, as he finished with fewer than double-digit sacks for the first time since his rookie season. However, that likely had more to do with his banged-up supporting cast than age or slip in his skills.
Mack leads a Bears linebacking crew that, if they stay healthy this season, might be the best in the NFL, with Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan on the inside and newcomer Robert Quinn at the other outside position. The Bears’ offense might have work to do, but the defense is loaded.
The Vikings are starting over at cornerback with some interesting young players who could potentially find their names on lists like this in years to come. Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler have the potential to revitalize the Vikings’ secondary. Likewise, the Lions may have a future mainstay on All-NFC North teams in Jeffrey Okudah, who was selected third overall in this year’s draft. The plan calls for him to make Lions fans quickly forget about Darius Slay – who would have been on this list had he not signed with the Eagles this offseason.
Those guys are the future.
As was pointed out earlier, the NFC North is currently lacking depth among proven talent at cornerback. Therefore, the Packers’ Jaire Alexander and the Bears’ Kyle Fuller feel like easy selections here.
Alexander just turned 23 in February. He was Green Bay’s first-round pick in the 2018 draft (18th overall) and has developed quickly into the shut-down corner they envisioned. Only one NFL cornerback played more snaps last season than Alexander, who finished with two interceptions and 17 passes defended – fourth-most in the NFL.
Fuller is an all-around talent and leads a deep Bears secondary. He was right behind Alexander last season in terms of most snaps among NFC North corners. A first-round pick in 2014, Fuller led the NFL with seven interceptions in 2018 and has been to two straight Pro Bowls. In addition, he’s developed into a very good run defender.
The final position in our series on the All-NFC North team should leave a good taste in the mouths of those fans who flock to this site for Vikings coverage.
In fact, there are those who may accuse me of coming up with the concept for this series simply as a means of pandering to our audience of Vikings fans. Those people wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Let’s pull back the curtain. While it’s true that the inspiration for this series of articles was the Twitter debate over the best quarterback in the NFC North, the plan was cemented once it occurred to me that the series would offer yet another opportunity to laud Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith as the best safety combo in the division. Heck, they’re the best safety duo in the league. It’s not even debatable at this juncture.
PFF ranked Harris and Smith second and third overall at safety in 2019, behind only Justin Simmons of the Broncos.
Chicago fans will correctly argue that the Bears have the best overall secondary in the division right now, and safety Eddie Jackson might earn all-division honors elsewhere — just not in the NFC North. Not yet.
Smith has made it to five consecutive Pro Bowls and has been one of the top safeties in the NFL since entering the league in 2012 as the 29th overall pick by the Vikings. A few more seasons like this and we can start having the Hall of Fame conversation. He’s the proverbial quarterback of the secondary, reading and reacting in a mind-meld with coach Mike Zimmer. Meanwhile, Harris is a ballhawk and has had two straight impressive seasons. Most notably, he led all safeties with six interceptions in 2019. The Vikings are reportedly working toward a long-term deal with Harris after he recently signed his franchise tag.
The coverage skills of Harris and Smith combined with those of a certain aforementioned All-Pro linebacker were the reason PFF ranked the Vikings the third-best coverage defense in 2019. It certainly didn’t have anything to do with the cornerbacks. The duo will need to continue to make up for some lapses in coverage as the young Vikings corners get their feet wet in 2020.
This concludes our series on the best players in the NFC North at each position, based on how John Tuvey and I see things shaking out for 2020. We hope you enjoyed it. And don’t worry, you didn’t miss the article on special-team players because we didn’t do one. Let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t have read it anyway.