AnalysisOpinion

NFC North Rankings: Defensive Line

The modern Purple People Eaters take the top spot.

This is the fifth article in a series that will break down where the Minnesota Vikings rank at each position within the NFC North and ultimately decide which NFC North roster is the most talented.

The Minnesota Vikings have boasted a dominant defensive line for the majority of the last decade. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Jared Allen ran circles around NFC North left tackles and made a habit of sacking Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford.

Since Mike Zimmer took over in 2014, the Vikings’ front four has reached a level not seen since the Purple People Eaters of the 1970s. Everson Griffen has emerged into an elite run defender and pass rusher. Linval Joseph serves as a consistently effective space-clogging nose tackle and Danielle Hunter has produced as much as any 23-year-old pass rusher in NFL history.

Minnesota’s defensive line sets the tone for the rest of Zimmer’s ferocious unit. Before officially awarding the Vikings the No. 1 spot, however, let’s quickly revisit how the standings look after ranking each offensive positional group. For those unaware, I am using a points system with each article in the series to rank the four whole rosters in the NFC North.

  1. Green Bay — 15
  2. Detroit — 13
  3. Minnesota — 12
  4. Chicago — 10

Note: Quarterback points were multiplied by two to account for the position’s extraordinary value relative to other positions.

1. Minnesota (4 points)

Unsurprisingly, the Vikings take the top spot in the defensive line rankings. Minnesota boasts two Pro Bowlers (Griffen and Joseph) and added another former Pro Bowler in Sheldon Richardson.

The starting unit now consists of three Pro Bowlers (two of which were recognized in 2017) and a defensive end who has registered 19.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Griffen notched a career-best 13 sacks in 2017 despite playing half the season with plantar fasciitis.

The Vikings’ defensive line doesn’t just consist of star starters. Brian Robison, an 11-year veteran, will return for his 12th season to provide depth and inside-outside flexibility on passing downs. Additionally, 2017 fourth-round pick Jaleel Johnson will be relied on for depth at both 3-tech and nose tackle.

The Vikings’ defense was No. 1 in both points and yards allowed among all NFL defenses in 2017. Frighteningly (at least for opposing teams), the Z-fense not only returns all of its key starters for 2018, but added a star 3-tech to fill the only slight weakness that did exist on the depth chart.

That’s right — the No. 1 defense (and arguably the No. 1 defensive line) got better.

2. Chicago (3 points)

The Bears’ defense is starting to form nicely with a combination of young talent and seasoned leadership. Akiem Hicks, a 6’5″, 330-pound defensive end in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, returns after a career season that included 8.5 sacks.

Also returning is Eddie Goldman as Chicago’s presumed nose tackle. Goldman anchored a Chicago front line that has exceeded expectations during its rebuild. The Bears are noticeably better when Goldman is on the field and he’s a big reason why the Bears ranked 10th in rushing yards allowed in 2017.

Jonathan Bullard is a strong candidate to slide into Chicago’s open defensive line spot opposite Akiem Hicks. Roy Robertson-Harris could see some action at defensive end in 2018 after recording a pair of sacks at linebacker as a rookie last season.

Hicks and Goldman will lead a defensive line group in Chicago that is vastly underrated and has already wreaked havoc with Fangio’s scheme (the Bears’ 42 sacks in 2017 were 7th in the NFL). Questions remain about a couple of spots, but the talent at the top is certainly there.

3. Green Bay (2 points)

The Packers’ defensive line is quite similar to the Bears’ in that the talent at the top is there, but depth is a concern should an injury or two hit the starters.

Mike Daniels has been a star at 3-4 defensive end for the Packers over the past few years, racking up at least four sacks in each of the past five seasons (which is not easy from an interior pass rushing position).

Kenny Clark, Green Bay’s 2016 first-round pick, started 15 games last year and performed admirably. He earned a spot on PFF’s Top 101 of 2017 list and formed the other half of a solid 1-2 punch with Daniels to lead the Packers defensive line in the 3-4 defense now run by Mike Pettine.

After Daniels and Clark, Green Bay recognized the lack of depth at defensive line and signed Muhammad Wilkerson likely as the third starter. Wilkerson, a former Pro Bowl 3-4 defensive end, has seen his production slip significantly since 2015. If he regains his 2015 form, placing the Packers No. 3 in this ranking would be a mistake.

4. Detroit (1 point)

Ezekiel Ansah’s name is the most recognizable name among those in the Detroit Lions defensive line group. He has posted double-digit sacks in two of the past three seasons and poses a game-plan threat to opposing offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches.

The addition of Sylvester Williams will provide the punch on the interior that the Lions front four has lacked in recent years. Williams was a vital piece of the legendary 2015 Broncos defense that won a Super Bowl.

Besides Ansah and Williams, the Lions have shown little at the defensive line positions. They ranked last in the division in yards per carry allowed (4.2) and sacks (35) in 2017.

Detroit will need players like A’Shawn Robinson, Kerry Hyder and Christian Ringo to step up if the Lions plan on producing better numbers in 2017.

Updated Points Standings:

  1. Green Bay — 17
  2. Minnesota — 16
  3. Detroit — 14
  4. Chicago — 13

Up next: Linebackers.

Previous NFC North positional rankings:

Quarterback

Running Back

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Offensive Line

 

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Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald is the No. 1 Jim Kleinsasser fan and No. 1 Little Caesars pizza enthusiast on planet Earth. That about sums it up.

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One Comment

  1. You overlooked the Vikes D-line during the DC Floyd Peters era (1986-1990) featuring Chris Doleman, Keith Millard, John Randall, and Henry Thomas. One could argue the Peters D-lines during his tenure were every bit as good as the Purple People Eaters.

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