Last week we took a look at the top players in the NFC North on the offensive side of the ball. This time, we're taking a closer look on defense, and admittedly, it was not easy to sift through different positions on different schemes and put them all on one team. So for the sake of making things much more simplistic, I'm putting together this team as if it ran a 4-3 defense. Plus, if we're adding coaches into the mix, wouldn't you want Teryl Austin running your defense?
Starters: Ezekiel Ansah and Everson Griffen
There is some pretty solid talent along the defensive line on this All-NFC North team, all of whom have five fingers on each hand. Ezekiel Ansah is coming off of a stellar sophomore year and tied for the fifth-highest grade among all 4-3 DEs on Pro Football Focus. Everson Griffen also played at a much higher level than we're prone to seeing and recorded a career-high 12 sacks on the year.
Green Bay Packers D-lineman Mike Daniels has been spectacular as a 3-4 DE in Dom Capers' system. He's one of the few 3-4 DEs who has a balanced attack and is effective both as a pass rusher and a run stuffer.
Detroit Lions fans rejoice, as everyone's favorite Bear, Jared Allen, is still a relevant pass rusher at the ripe old age of 33.
Reserves: Mike Daniels and Jared Allen
Starters: Jeremiah Ratliff and Haloti Ngata
The Lions lose both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and still have two DTs on this list? How could this be?
Well... for one, Haloti Ngata is really good. He's clearly not on Suh's level, but he's one of the best replacements the Lions could have possibly found via trade or free agency. Secondly, there just isn't a whole lot of talent at DT to choose from in this division. Your cream of the crop ends with studs like Ngata, Jeremiah Ratliff and Sharrif Floyd (who has blossomed into a beast versus the run). Tyrunn Walker has a lot to prove as a starter, but he has already shown a lot of promise in limited time compared to other options.
Reserves: Sharrif Floyd and Tyrunn Walker
Starters: DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Clay Matthews
Try to name a better linebacker corps in the NFL than the Lions. I'll save you some time, because you can't. DeAndre Levy is finally getting the recognition he deserves, although some continue to believe he's underrated. I don't think there is anyone who can play the WILL position better than Levy, and next to him you have Stephen Tulloch, who's returning from a freak season-ending knee injury. There is no guarantee that Tulloch will be able to return to the high level of play where he left off, but he is easily the best inside linebacker in this division regardless.
Clay Matthews has been moved around by the Packers, but is much more suited to playing on the outside and fills out this star-studded starting lineup after earning Pro Bowl honors for the fifth time in his career.
For the reserves, Anthony Barr is an obvious choice considering his outstanding rookie campaign, finishing with the eighth-highest grade (+9.3) among all 4-3 OLBs on PFF. His teammate Gerald Hodges also had a solid year, switching back and forth between playing WILL and SAM for the Minnesota Vikings after seeing the field for just two regular-season snaps as a rookie in 2013.
Last but not least, you have Julius Peppers, who, despite switching to a 3-4 system, maintained his dominant form as a pass-rushing linebacker and fills a big need on this team as someone who can cook up some pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Reserves: Anthony Barr, Julius Peppers and Gerald Hodges
Starters: Darius Slay and Xavier Rhodes
There is a bright future for young cornerbacks like Darius Slay and Xavier Rhodes, and they have a lot in common. The two second-year CBs were both drafted in 2013 and were selected only 11 picks apart. Since then, they've both developed into the No. 1 CBs of their respective teams and continue to get better and play at a high level.
The best nickelback in the division is easily Green Bay's Casey Hayward, and it isn't even close. Rashean Mathis has been a godsend for the Lions, serving as their No. 2 CB and also as a mentor to their young CBs. Filling out the final spot is the Chicago Bears' Tim Jennings, who is about as consistently good as outside CBs come in the NFL.
Reserves: Casey Hayward (nickel), Rashean Mathis and Tim Jennings
Starters: Harrison Smith and Glover Quin
Smith was an absolute stud for the Vikings last year. PFF gave him the second-highest grade among all safeties (+17.9) behind Eric Weddle, as well as the second-highest run defense grade (+10.8) behind Morgan Burnett. Lions safety Glover Quin was pretty damn good too and led all safeties with seven interceptions. Although Quin and Smith are both considered free safeties, you could probably get away with starting both of them considering they're more than capable of playing both safety positions.
The aforementioned Burnett had arguably his best year to date for the Packers with a total of 130 combined tackles (fifth among all defensive players), and rounding out this list is Robert Blanton, who had a breakout year for the Vikings with a +8.8 PFF grade.
Reserves: Morgan Burnett and Robert Blanton