GREEN BAY, Wis. – Who has the best personnel in the NFC North?
We took that question to a high-ranking scout whose focus is pro personnel. He ranked each team’s position groups. Part 6 of this 10-part series focuses on the defensive line. The scout considered all edge defenders as defensive linemen. Thus, for the sake of this story, Packers outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith are defensive linemen.
No 1: Chicago Bears
The Bears have two elite players in defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and outside linebacker Khalil Mack. Mack had a monster first season in Chicago with 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and one interception in 2018. He wasn’t quite as dominant last season with 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. Moreover, he went from second to 21st in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rushing productivity, a metric that measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. Still, Mack is an elite, game-changing defender who demands attention on every snap.
Hicks is the rare three-down interior lineman. In his first three seasons with the Bears, he piled up 23 sacks and five forced fumbles. Last year, an elbow injury limited him to one sack in five games. Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols join Hicks on the defensive line. In four career games against Green Bay, Robertson-Harris has two sacks and five quarterback hits.
The big question is Robert Quinn. Mack’s new sidekick had a turn-back-the-clocks season last year for Dallas. After averaging 6.7 sacks the previous three seasons, Quinn had 11.5 sacks in 14 games in 2019. He ranked ninth in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity. The Bears signed him to a five-year, $70 million contract. If Quinn can repeat last year’s success, he’ll be worth it.
No. 2: Green Bay Packers
The Packers finished ninth in the league in scoring, their first top-10 showing since winning the Super Bowl in 2010. The play of the triumvirate of defensive tackle Kenny Clark and outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith were the big reasons.
In four seasons in Baltimore, Za’Darius Smith had 18.5 sacks and started 16 games. Given a blockbuster four-year, $66 million contract in free agency, Smith exceeded expectations by recording 13.5 sacks and starting 16 games. According to PFF, he finished No. 1 in pressures and its pass-rushing productivity metric. In four seasons in Washington, Preston Smith had 24.5 sacks. Given a four-year, $52 million contract in free agency, Smith tallied a career-high 12 sacks and finished 14th in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity.
Clark was the only interior lineman to finish in the top 16 in PFF’s pass-rushing and run-defending metrics. Clark did more than finish in the top 16. He finished sixth in pass-rushing productivity and seventh in run-stop percentage. The rest of the defensive line was a sore spot, with Dean Lowry having an underwhelming season, Tyler Lancaster not playing up to his rookie-year standard and Montravius Adams looking like a third-round bust.
The big question is whether last year’s top pick, outside linebacker Rashan Gary, and fifth-round pick, defensive tackle Kingsley Keke, can help the defense take the next step.
No. 3: Minnesota Vikings
Time and free agency have chipped away at what was an elite unit. In 2018, Minnesota’s front wall consisted of defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen and defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson. Now, the last man standing is Hunter. A third-round pick in 2015 based almost only on potential, Hunter has rewarded the Vikings with 54.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in five seasons. That includes back-to-back seasons of 14.5 sacks and a career-high three forced fumbles last year.
Michael Pierce, Shamar Stephen and former fourth-round picks Jalen Johnson and Jalyn Holmes will fight for playing time at tackle. Pierce, a mammoth run-stopper, signed a three-year, $27 million deal after starting 14 games last year for the Ravens last year. Ifeadi Odenigbo will get the first crack to replace Griffen, who remains unsigned. He had seven sacks off the bench last season. The depth is hard to find. Beyond that, the big question is whether there’s enough pass rush to help a new-look secondary.
No. 4: Detroit Lions
Last offseason, the Lions signed Trey Flowers away from New England with a five-year, $90 million contract. Flowers was just fine with seven sacks and two forced fumbles, but the production wasn’t even close to what the Packers got from the Smiths for less money. He’ll be flanked by an Okwara – either five-year pro Romeo or his younger brother, third-round rookie Julian. Romeo Okwara had 7.5 sacks for the Lions in 2018 but only 1.5 in 2019.
At defensive tackle, Detroit didn’t re-sign run-stuffers Damon Harrison or A’Shawn Robinson. They replaced the indomitable Harrison with Danny Shelton, who had a career-high 61 tackles last year with New England. He’s surrounded by the unheralded group of sixth-round rookie John Penisini, former seventh-round pick Nicholas Williams and college free agents John Atkins, Olive Sagapolu and Kevin Strong.
The big question is whether there’s enough horsepower up front to help the Lions match last year’s No. 10 ranking in yards allowed per carry.