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2022 NFL preview: Ranking the NFC North defensive lines

You can’t go wrong with a good defensive line, and the NFC North has plenty of talent. Which team takes the top spot in the division?

Detroit Lions v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Whether your team prioritizes pass rush or run defense, it all starts with the defensive line.

A good defensive line can make everyone on defense look good. A stellar pass rush will help secondaries by limiting a quarterback’s time to throw. A capable run defense can prevent your opponent from, quite literally, running away with the game. If your defensive line can force quick punts and turnovers, the offense will undoubtedly appreciate that.

Of course, comparing defensive lines can be difficult solely due to the variation we see in today’s NFL. With the line between defensive tackle and defensive end or defensive end and outside linebacker becoming more blurred, it is better to assess the group as whole rather than individual positions.

As such, we’ll be looking at each NFC North’s defensive line, but it is worth noting that these lists are not finalized nor official. For the sake of consistency, I will be using Ourlad’s 2022 depth charts as of July 29. These depth charts will certainly change as preseason approaches. For example, Jarrad Davis is listed as a middle linebacker, but he may challenge for a pass rushing role. Since he is listed as a linebacker, I will not include him in the defensive line group.

Previously:

Note: Players on each team are listed alphabetically. Defensive line includes players listed as DT, DE, or OLB. Bold indicates probable starters.

1. Green Bay Packers

Akial Byers, Kenny Clark, Kingsley Enagbare, Jonathan Ford, Tipa Galeai, Jonathan Garvin, Rashan Gary, LaDarius Hamilton, Jack Heflin, Kobe Jones, Dean Lowry, Chauncey Manac, Randy Ramsey, Jarran Reed, T.J. Slaton, Chris Slayton, Preston Smith, Devonte Wyatt

It’s hard to argue against Aaron Rodgers being the backbone of the Green Bay Packers, but this defensive line is in contention. Rashan Gary somehow failed to win any accolades in 2021 after earning a PFF grade of 89.8, good for eighth in the NFL on defense. His sack total of 12 was nothing to scoff at either, and he paired it with a second-ranked pass rush win rate of 26.3 percent. Entering his fourth season, Gary could be one of the premier pass rushers in the league.

Preston Smith’s first two season with Green Bay were rough, but 2021 was a vastly different story. Stepping up for an injured Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith recorded nine sacks while also posting some solid run defense. Not to be outdone, the Packers also have Kenny Clark, one of the best pass rushing defensive tackles in the league. The trio of Gary, Smith, and Clark gives Green Bay ample pass rushing talent on defense.

The remaining two starters, Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed, are average to above-average, with both contributing more as pass rushers than run defenders. Reed had an 11-sack season in 2020, but his first season with the Kansas City Chiefs proved to be a rough one, with that sack total dipping to four.

The good news for Green Bay is that their depth is fantastic. The Packers added two linemen in the 2022 NFL Draft. Devonte Wyatt was selected 28th overall and will likely be an important rotational piece at defensive end, and Kingsley Enagbare slots in nicely as a backup rush linebacker.

2. Minnesota Vikings

Jonathan Bullard, Danielle Hunter, Patrick Jones, James Lynch, Zach McCloud, T.Y. McGill, Andre Mintze, Esezi Otomewo, Harrison Phillips, Janarius Robinson, T.J. Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Tyarise Stevenson, Jullian Taylor, Dalvin Tomlinson, Jaylen Twyman, Luiji Vilain, Armon Watts, D.J. Wonnum

Danielle Hunter has been one of the best pass rushers in the league, but injuries have crept up on him in recent seasons. 2020 was a missed season for Hunter, and while 2021 started off at a great pace (six sacks in seven games), he suffered a torn pectoral that forced him onto the Injured Reverse once again. Hunter will shift to outside linebacker in the Vikings’ new 3-4 defense, but he has the tools to thrive in that role as well—if he can stay healthy.

The Vikings defense acquired two new starters this offseason, both of whom look primed for significant roles. Za’Darius Smith needs little introduction, having terrorized the NFC North with the Green Bay Packers. If Smith can shake the back injury that plagued his 2021 season, he could make an excellent pairing with Hunter. The other acquisition was Harrison Phillips, a very underrated defensive tackle formerly with the Buffalo Bills. The Vikings were gashed by the run in 2021, so a premier tackle like Phillips should be an asset. However, he’ll move from tackle in Buffalo’s 4-3 to end in Minnesota’s 3-4, so the transition might cause a few hiccups.

Dalvin Tomlinson (nose tackle) and Armon Watts (defensive tackle) round out the starters; Tomlinson has been stalwart as a run defender throughout his career, while Watts has some pop as a pass rusher. Both should benefit from the shift to 3-4. The depth along the defensive line is fairly good too. D.J. Wonnum recorded eight sacks in 2021, while Patrick Jones (2021 third-round pick) and Esezi Otomewo (2022 fifth-round pick) could see action as rotational pieces.

3. Detroit Lions

Eric Banks, Michael Brockers, Austin Bryant, Isaiah Buggs, John Cominsky, Jashon Cornell, Charles Harris, Bruce Hector, James Houston, Aidan Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, Julian Okwara, Romeo Okwara, Levi Onwuzurike, Josh Paschal, Demetrius Taylor

The Detroit Lions have an abundance of potential, but a number of questions hold them back from a higher spot on this list. Aidan Hutchinson is a Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner, and the early returns in camp illustrate how badly Detroit needed a pass rusher of his caliber. However, this is merely training camp—can he be that game-changing talent against NFL tackles in a game setting?

Charles Harris had a stellar 2021 campaign, but with little track record over the course of his career, is this repeatable? Alim McNeill looks poised as a breakout candidate this year, but can he live up to that hype? Inversely, can Michael Brockers show he still has it after a disappointing first year with Detroit? Can Levi Onwuzurike rebound from a rough rookie season filled with injury and middling play? How quickly can Josh Paschal return from surgery? Can Romeo Okwara bounce back from a torn Achilles—not to mention the question of when he’ll return. How effectively will the coaching staff balance even versus odd fronts?

I think the Lions defensive line will see a significant improvement from 2021, but they’ll need everything to click in order to be a truly formidable group. Hutchinson and McNeill look like building blocks for the future, with a handful of other players capable of joining them.

4. Chicago Bears

Auzoyah Alufohai, Angelo Blackson, Micah Dew-Treadway, Mario Edwards, Trevis Gipson, Justin Jones, Sam Kamara, LaCale London, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Mike Pennel, Robert Quinn, Dominique Robinson, Charles Snowden, Carson Taylor, Khyiris Tonga

For a good chunk of the 2010s, the Chicago Bears were carried by their revered defensive line. Entering 2022, and it’s a very different picture. The likes of Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, and Leonard Floyd are gone, and while this current iteration of the Bears defense is still decent, they aren’t as threatening as they once were.

The star of the defensive line is Robert Quinn, who had an incredible 18-sack campaign last season. A combination of a scheme change (from 3-4 to 4-3) and age might result in some regression, but he still looks like a key piece of the Bears defense—assuming he remains a Bear, however.

Across from Quinn is Trevis Gipson, who is looking to build upon his 10-sack season. The third-year defensive end is a below-average run defender, but his PFF pass rush grade of 87.0 was among the best in the NFL. The interior of the defensive line is filled out by Angelo Blackson and Justin Jones, one of the weaker starting defensive tackle duo in the league. Blackson and Jones have largely been role players, so it could be a drastic jump for the pair.

Speaking of role players, the Bears have a few decent depth pieces to work with, such as Al-Quadin Muhammad and rookie Dominique Robinson, but as a whole, the defensive line is unimpressive beyond their starting defensive ends.

Poll

Where does the Lions defensive line rank in the NFC North?

  • 8%
    1st
    (66 votes)
  • 36%
    2nd
    (296 votes)
  • 41%
    3rd
    (332 votes)
  • 14%
    4th
    (115 votes)
809 votes total Vote Now