Football was founded on the act of large men crashing into one another. At its birth, football didn’t even include the forward pass. The game involved running the football exclusively, which put a high emphasis on the battle in the trenches.
Since football was created, the linemen have become much larger and faster and offenses have adopted the forward pass more than anybody could have expected decades ago.
And yet, the battle in the trenches remains just as important.
Year after year, teams that are able to assemble a dominant defensive line find success. The San Francisco 49ers vaulted from the bottom of the ranks to the Super Bowl in one season largely because of their dominant defensive line.
Heck, the Minnesota Vikings are another good example of this. The nucleus of Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph spearheaded one of the best defensive units in the NFL the past few years, and the wins have stacked up.
Minnesota has lost both Joseph and Griffen this offseason (at least we think). Where does the Vikings’ new defensive line group rank in the NFC North?
4. Detroit Lions
Detroit doesn’t rank highly in very much these days. However, the Lions did allow just 4.1 yards per carry in 2019, which was good for 11th in the NFL. That’s not bad.
But the Lions defense struggled in just about every other area and especially struggled rushing the passer. They recorded the second-fewest sacks in the entire league in 2019 (28) and ranked 28th in the NFL in pressure percentage (18.8%).
Simply put, when quarterbacks drop back to pass against Detroit, they don’t fear the pass rush.
Trey Flowers represents Detroit’s best player on the defensive line, co-leading the squad with seven sacks and recording 21 quarterback hits in 2019. He will give opposing offensive tackles a hard time protecting their quarterback.
From there, the rest of the Lions defensive line is essentially a question mark. They lost nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison and replaced him with former Patriot Danny Shelton to fill the nose tackle role. The 6’2″, 340-pounder has a Super Bowl pedigree from his 2018 season with New England and will carry over the pipeline of players joining former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in Detroit.
Romeo Okwara is in line to start opposite Flowers at defensive end for the Lions. The Notre Dame product was productive in 2018, but only started one game in 2019. He’ll be trusted to alleviate the pressure from Flowers in terms of rushing the passer off the edge.
Defending the pass is of the utmost priority in today’s NFL, and that begins with the ability to rush the passer. The Lions need to improve there if they are to contend in the NFC.
3. Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota’s defensive overhaul this offseason has forced out some big names who have played key roles in Mike Zimmer’s defense over the last several years. Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph are both out, leaving the Vikings to quickly find replacements to help Danielle Hunter maintain the Vikings’ dominant defensive line play.
Michael Pierce joins the Vikings from Baltimore as the nose tackle replacement for Joseph. On the surface, he appears to be a replica of what the Vikings signed in Joseph back in 2014. He’s got a high motor and will take up a lot of space to open things up for star linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr.
Opposite Hunter at defensive end, Ifeadi Odenigbo appears to be in line for the starting job. Odenigbo was a solid rotational piece in 2019 and actually registered seven sacks of his own. Is he ready for a full-time starting role? That is yet to be determined. But Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson has earned a reputation as a quick developer of defensive linemen and Odenigbo has already shown an array of moves and strengths.
Minnesota’s defensive tackle spot has been an issue since Sharrif Floyd‘s unfortunate career-ending injury. Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson appear to be the favorites to earn that starting spot in 2020, but Minnesota’s massive draft class includes some other potential candidates.
Danielle Hunter alone keeps the Vikings out of fourth in this category. He’s one of the most underrated players in the NFL and holds the record for most sacks prior to age 25. His muscular physique is almost cartoonish, but his dominance is all too real.
The unknowns with Minnesota’s defensive line prospects in 2020 are all too real, and it drops the Vikings to No. 3.
2. Green Bay Packers
The Packers invested in their defensive line prior to the 2019 season, and it paid off. Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith proved to be a valuable addition to the Green Bay pass rush, totaling 25.5 sacks between the two of them and hounding opposing quarterbacks week in and week out.
However, outside of the two Smiths, Green Bay didn’t get much from anyone else in the pass-rushing game. Kenny Clark added six sacks, which is extremely efficient for a nose tackle, and he’ll continue to play that role for Green Bay in 2020. Clark is sneakily one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFC.
But the Packers ranked around the middle of the pack in terms of pass-rushing efficiency in the NFL, and actually allowed 4.7 yards per rush attempt, good for 24th in the NFL.
Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster and Montravius Adams are also in line to get a shot at the other interior defensive line spots for the Packers. But based on 2019, teams will pretty much just need to worry about guys named Smith or Clark when dealing with the Packers defensive line in 2020, which is easier said than done.
1. Chicago Bears
The Bears have certainly begun to slide following their explosive 2018 season. But the Chicago defensive is still dominant, and it’s sparked by a dominant defensive line. Khalil Mack is still a superstar by every meaning of the word. Any Vikings fan that has watched Mack play against Minnesota the past couple of seasons knows that he lives in the opponent’s backfield. It seems like that would be a good place to start with Chicago’s defensive line.
Chicago also upgraded at the opposite side of the line, adding Robert Quinn to the fold to take away some of the attention from Mack. The tandem of Quinn and Mack is poised to rank as one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL, and could very easily overtake the Smiths in Green Bay as the best duo in the NFC North.
The Bears ranked in the top 10 in 2019 in both hurry percentage and pressure percentage, and that’s before adding Quinn. Chicago also allowed the sixth-fewest yards per carry in 2019 (3.9). This is a complete defensive line group that excels in each phase.
The Bears have held the crown of best defensive line in the NFC North since Mack was added a couple of seasons ago, and it appears as if that will continue in 2020.