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2019 NFL preview: Ranking the NFC North defensive lines

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A stacked division of defensive lines is tough to rank.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one thing the NFC North teams have in common, it’s talent on the defensive front. Some of the best players in the entire league lie in the NFC North trenches. The division has arguably one of the best edge rushers in the league, the top run defending nose tackle, and the player that finished tied for fourth in the league with 14.5 sacks last season.

This is also a division that arguably got a lot better on the defensive front this offseason. The Packers added Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, while the Detroit Lions added the best edge in this free agent class: Trey Flowers. A few teams added talent through the draft this year, too.

So where do these units rank alongside each other? Let’s get into it.

Previously:

A couple notes before I get started: Edge rushing linebackers are going to be considered in this group, since they’ll often be playing with their hand in the dirt. Additionally, I am only listing the starters, but I am considering each team’s depth when creating these rankings.

1. Chicago Bears (Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Leonard Floyd)

The Bears don’t have a weak link on their starting defensive line. They’ve got one of the most feared defenders in the league in Mack. Leonard Floyd has shown plenty of flashes but hasn’t quite put it all together. Akiem Hicks is coming off a Pro Bowl year and is still underrated. Eddie Goldman is one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the NFL.

When it comes to depth, the Bears are just okay. Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols got a fair amount of snaps last year, but didn’t move the needle much.

2. Detroit Lions (Trey Flowers, A’Shawn Robinson, Damon Harrison Sr., Devon Kennard)

In terms of run defense, the Lions may have the best defensive line in the division—and possibly the entire league. Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson don’t give up any ground, and the Lions’ defensive ends are phenomenal at setting the edges and drawing players inside.

But you have to question whether that’s really the route the Lions should be taking in today’s NFL, because it’s a passing league and Detroit’s defensive front isn’t chock-full of elite pass rushers. Yes, Trey Flowers was one of the most efficient pass rushers last year, but everyone else on the Lions defensive line combined for just 22 sacks in 2018.

That being said, Detroit’s depth may be the best in the division. Romeo Okwara, who is expected to come off the bench, led the team with 7.5 sacks. Da’Shawn Hand had a phenomenal rookie year, and brings pass rush from the interior—something the Lions have lacked for some time. Throw in fourth-round pick Austin Bryant—who should develop into Devon Kennard’s role in the future—and this defensive front looks pretty darn good going forward.

3. Minnesota Vikings (Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Shamar Stephen, Danielle Hunter)

Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter are one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league. In the past two years, the duo has combined for 40 sacks. Linval Joseph brings the interior run defense.

The only question in this starting lineup is free agent addition Shamar Stephen. Stephen is rejoining the Vikings after a down year with the Seahawks. As a three-technique DT, he hasn’t flashed much as a pass rusher, and his run defending is nothing special.

Depth, again, is just okay. Tashawn Bower and Stephen Weatherly have some medicore NFL experience, while Minnesota is probably hoping Hercules Mata’afa emerges after his rookie year was lost to an ACL injury.

4. Green Bay Packers (Za’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, Preston Smith)

Green Bay may be last in the division, but it isn’t for lack of trying. The Pack added two solid edge players in Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and drafted Michigan’s Rashan Gary with their first pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Combine that with another premier run stuffer in Kenny Clark and the aging-but-still-reliable Mike Daniels, and this is no joke of a unit.

That being said, there’s no huge pass-rushing threat from Green Bay’s defensive linemen, and we’ll have to see how all of these new pieces work together before we give them too much credit.