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 7 of this 10-part series focuses on the off-the-ball linebackers. 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 were considered with the defensive linemen.
No. 1: Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ defense has lost a lot of big-name talent the past few offseasons but the linebacker corps remains intact. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, a second-round pick in 2015, signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension in April 2018. He showed he was worth every penny with a huge 2019 season. It’s not just that he led the team with 110 tackles but he also led the team with 12 passes defensed. For comparison, former Packers linebacker Blake Martinez had a total of five passes defensed the past two years combined. Kendricks was No. 1 among NFL linebackers in snaps per reception, according to Pro Football Focus.
Anthony Barr, a first-round pick in 2014, is a do-it-all linebacker who re-signed with the Vikings in free agency in 2019 with a five-year deal worth $67.5 million. He hasn’t been worth that massive payday but he remains an above-average starter. Eric Wilson fills the No. 3 post. He’s an impact run defender; his six tackles for losses were as many as Barr despite playing 600 fewer snaps. He’ll be challenged by fourth-round pick Troy Dye.
No. 2: Chicago Bears
For a third season, the Bears will roll with Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Smith, the eighth pick of the 2018 draft, has back-to-back seasons of 100-plus tackles. That’s excellent production, but he was drafted because of his athleticism and potential to be a stopper in the passing game. Instead, his passes-defensed count slipped from five as a rookie to two last season. Of 64 linebackers to play at least 200 coverage snaps, he ranked 39th in snaps per reception, according to PFF. Trevathan has started more than 12 games three times in eight seasons; he topped 100 tackles each time. However, he missed half of last season with an elbow injury and has two IR stints in four years with the team.
That injury history is a big deal because their depth took a major hit when Nick Kwiatkoski signed with the Raiders in free agency. He had 76 tackles and eight tackles for losses in 16 games (eight starts). A bunch of college free agents will try to fill that void.
No. 3: Detroit Lions
In the Lions’ 4-3 scheme, middle linebacker Jarrad Davis is flanked by Jamie Collins and Christian Jones.
The key will be Collins, who is coming off his second stint with New England and signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Lions this past offseason. He was spectacular with the Patriots, including a career-high 115 tackles in 2015 and career highs of seven sacks, seven passes defensed, 10 tackles for losses and three interceptions last season. Of 64 linebackers to play at least 200 coverage snaps last year, he ranked fourth in snaps per reception. However, he wasn’t nearly as productive during two-and-a-half seasons with Cleveland. So, can Collins be a difference-maker with the Lions, with former Patriots assistant Matt Patricia running the show, or is his success wholly dependent on being with the masterful Bill Belichick?
Davis, the 21st pick of the 2017 draft, has been a tremendous disappointment. He went from 100 tackles, 10 tackles for losses, 10 quarterback hits and six sacks in 2018 to 63 tackles, four TFLs, five QB hits and two sacks last year for the Lions. With that, they declined to pick up his fifth-year option. Jones had 90 tackles for Chicago in 2017 but an average of 60 in two years in Detroit.
No. 4: Green Bay Packers
This is an easy one simply because of the well-established injury history. Christian Kirksey, the team’s big free-agent acquisition, has played in nine of 32 games the past two seasons. Oren Burks, a third-round pick in 2018, had his development thrown for a loss by shoulder and pectoral injuries. Kamal Martin, a fifth-round pick this year, is coming off knee surgery. Ty Summers, a seventh-round pick last year, suffered a pair of torn labrums in college. Curtis Bolton, an undrafted free agent last year, is coming off a torn ACL. That’s a lot of injury history, and that means a lot of uncertainty.
The big question centers on Kirksey. Can he stay healthy and be the difference-maker that Blake Martinez failed to be, despite Martinez ranking No. 1 in the league in tackles the past three seasons? On a per-game basis over the past four seasons, Kirksey averaged 8.29 tackles and 1.07 stuffs (a tackle at or behind the line vs. the run). Martinez averaged 8.39 tackles and 0.67 stuffs. Or, put another way, 12.1 percent of Kirksey’s tackles were stuffs compared to 8.0 percent for Martinez.