After evaluating the offensive position groups in the NFC North division, we’ll shift to the defensive side of the ball, starting with the front seven.
For the sake of simplicity, given the differences in where players line up in a 3-4 base vs. a 4-3 base, I’ve decided to lump the defensive line and the linebackers together.
As always, I’ll base these rankings on depth charts available on ESPN. Some of these players may not be starters by September, but for now, we’ll go with what is given to us.
Without further ado, let’s get to the rankings!
Defensive Line: Aiden Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, Isaiah Buggs, James Houston
Linebackers: Jack Campbell, Alex Anzalone, Malcolm Rodriguez
Detroit’s defense struggled last season, but that defensive line proved murderous. Hutchinson lived up to the hype in his rookie season, racking up 9.5 sacks, while Houston was a surprising stud, recording eight sacks himself.
With solid depth behind them, this line could be causing problems for the NFC North for a long time.
The Lions shocked a lot of NFL analysts when they selected linebacker Jack Campbell 18th overall in the 2023 draft, but I actually liked that move a lot for them. Their linebacker corps was a glaring weakness last season, and it could still be improved, but Jack Campbell has all the goods to be a bona fide star in this league. He can be a leader in the middle of that defense.
Defensive Line: Dean Lowry, Khyiris Tonga, Harrison Phillips
Linebackers/EDGE: Danielle Hunter, Brian Asamoah II, Jordan Hicks, Marcus Davenport
Gone are the days of the Williams brothers anchoring the Vikings’ defensive line. The three starters on their line combined for just 2.5 sacks last season. There’s just not much here worth writing home about.
Minnesota’s linebackers are a different story. Hunter is a savage, one of the most underrated pass rushers in the league. An injury limited the rookie Asamoah to just six games coming off the bench, but he flashed great potential. Hicks and Davenport are recent additions to the Vikings, and they provide a steady level of play with potential for big games.
The Vikings did not make many changes in their defensive personnel this year, but adding former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores to lead the defense was a widely applauded move that could have enormous implications for that unit.
Green Bay Packers
Defensive Line: Kenny Clark, TJ Slaton, Devonte Wyatt
Linebackers/EDGE: Preston Smith, De’Vondre Campbell, Quay Walker, Rashan Gary
The Packers’ defense was expected to be among the league’s best going into 2022, but it turned into a disappointing year on many fronts.
Highly touted rookies, especially in the front seven, underwhelmed. Walker is known more for his two ejections than his actual play. Wyatt recorded just 1.5 sacks and three QB hits in his first season. Campbell regressed significantly just one year after an All-Pro season and a big contract extension.
Gary, Clark, and Smith are all dominant players at their positions, capable of wrecking an opposing team’s game plan on any given Sunday. But Gary ended the season on IR, and Smith is entering his ninth season in the NFL; he’ll be 31 in November.
The overarching storyline to all of Green Bay’s recent defensive woes is coordinator Joe Barry. Packers fans almost unanimously want him gone, but as a close friend of head coach Matt LaFleur, that does not seem to be an option. Whether he can learn from past mistakes and lead a highly talented unit on paper to better finishes remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t bet on it (especially not if you’re a Lions player).
Defensive Line: Trevis Gipson, Andrew Billings, Justin Jones, DeMarcus Walker
Linebackers: TJ Edwards, Tremaine Edmunds, Jack Sanborn
Chicago’s 2022 defensive front seven was the worst I’ve seen in all my years studying this team. Thankfully, there’s nowhere to go but up, and some key additions look to make this unit go way up.
The line still lacks an elite pass rusher on the ends, but Jones had a decent season in 2022, and Billings brings Chicago the force of a true run-stuffer up the middle.
Chicago may have the second-best linebacker corps in the NFL, second only to San Francisco (and even that’s arguable). Edmunds and Edwards are both Top 10 linebackers in the league, and Edmunds specifically has the potential to crack the Top 5 list.
Sanborn shocked many last year when as an undrafted rookie, he assumed a starting role following the trade of Roquan Smith and recorded double-digit tackles in three of the five complete games he started. He also recovered a fumble against Atlanta and would have had potentially the game-sealing interception against Detroit if not for a phantom penalty against Eddie Jackson.
He ended the year on IR, but Sanborn has put the league on notice.
Bears' defensive front has a lot to prove in 2023
Ranking this group was tough as there’s so many unanswered questions for each team. Will Joe Barry finally get the most out of the long list of talent available to him? Can Brian Flores turn around a fledgling Vikings defense that hasn’t made many major additions? Did the Lions and Bears do enough this offseason to field a respectable defense?
For now, I will give the title of best defensive front in the division to the unit I trust the most: Detroit.
I think Hutchinson is a budding superstar. Campbell will be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Next comes the Packers, followed closely by Minnesota.
That leaves us with Chicago in last place, but as I said with the offensive line, I believe this unit will show significant improvement in 2023. I have a lot of faith in the coaches and the talent that was added, but until they prove it on the field, I can’t justify moving them ahead of any of their division rivals.