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2018 NFC North preview: Ranking the division’s linebackers

Can the Lions compete with some of the league’s best linebackers within their own division ?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Today, our NFC North preview focuses on the linebackers. To catch up on our divisional preview, you can read the following positional breakdowns:

(Note: Each team’s top five linebackers are listed, but the entire depth chart was considered in these rankings)

1. Green Bay Packers (Blake Martinez, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Jake Ryan, Reggie Gilbert)

Clay Matthews gets all of the press in this linebacking corps, but it’s really his supporting cast that does the heavy lifting these days. At 32, Matthews still has some pass rushing skills, but they’re clearly diminishing.

Luckily for Green Bay, they have a guy like 2016 fourth-round pick Blake Martinez, who had a career year last season, leading the entire league tackles last season. He also led the team in tackles for loss with 10. But don’t sleep on former Wolverine Jake Ryan and veteran pass rusher Nick Perry. There isn’t a weak link among the bunch, as all four starters graded in the 80s by Pro Football Focus last year.

Green Bay’s depth is shallow and unproven, but no team in the NFC North has better starters than this group.

2. Chicago Bears (Leonard Floyd, Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Aaron Lynch, Joel Iyiegbuniwe)

As if the Bears’ linebacking corps wasn’t stacked enough with Leonard Floyd, one of the most underrated pass rushers in the division, and bone-crushing Danny Trevathan, the Bears spent three draft picks on the position this year.

Headlined by first-round pick—and the first linebacker off the board—Roquan Smith, the Bears put a ton of resources into the linebacker position, looking to return to the glory days of Brian Urlacher and the gang.

This group still has a lot to prove, as guys like Floyd show flashes of brilliance but have trouble staying on the field, but in terms of pure talent, this unit is threatening to take the top spot in the division.

3. Minnesota Vikings (Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Ben Gedeon, Devante Downs, Kentrell Brothers)

Barr and Kendricks lead this group as legitimate starters, but, again, the depth is a big concern here. Gedeon, a 2017 fourth-round draft pick, showed promise last season, but only finished with 37 tackles in nine starts. This year, he’ll likely take on a bigger role and how he adjusts will likely be crucial to this unit’s success.

Outside of Gedeon, the Vikings will have to rely on late-round pick Kentrell Brothers (fifth round in 2016) and Devante Downs (seventh round in 2018).

In any other division, the Vikings linebackers may rank first or second, but in the stacked NFC North, they sit third.

4. Detroit Lions (Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Christian Jones, Jonathan Freeny)

The Lions aren’t just last in the division here, they’re a distant fourth. While Devon Kennard and the (hopeful) progression of Jarrad Davis should make this unit better than last year, even with the departure of Tahir Whitehead, there’s still a pretty big lack of talent both in the starting crew and in depth.

The hope here is that coaching can elevate this unit well beyond what their talent has shown thus far in the NFL. Head coach Matt Patricia comes from a linebacking background, so he knows what he wants out of each player. But he’s really going to have to work his magic to make a good linebacking corps out of Davis (46.1 PFF grade), Kennard (71.0), Reeves-Maybin (73.6), and Jones (45.3).

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