If the Chicago Bears are going to be relevant in the NFC North in 2020, it’s going to be because of their defense.
Last week I published a ranking of the teams in the NFC North positions on offense and the Bears didn’t fair well. They were ranked last in two positions — including the most important in the sport — and weren’t first in any. While the hope and expectation is that the Bears climb out of the bottom-10 when it comes to offensive efficiency, the reality is that expectations going into 2020 should be that the team will still have its struggles and will very likely be the worst offense in the division.
But the defense is a very different story.
2. Green Bay
Not only are the Bears first in the most important defensive position, it isn’t really all that close. That isn’t to throw shade at Green Bay’s duo of Za’Darius and Preston Smith, but breakout seasons don’t necessarily put them ahead of two guys who have actual Hall of Fame credentials.
We need to start talking more about the Robert Quinn addition.
While it’s easy to focus on his down year with Miami, Quinn has 80.5 career sacks in 106 starts and has added 25 forced fumbles and 20 passes defensed. He averages more sacks per game than Julius Peppers did in his career.
What Quinn should do is take pressure off of Khalil Mack, who became the only front-seven defender offenses had to worry about last year after Akiem Hicks went down. Mack is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate and should be expected to return to that form. Even in a down year, he was among the league leaders in pressures.
There’s no question Za’Darius Smith is a star, his combined 35.5 quarterback sacks and knockdowns are incredible. There should be some question about if Preston Smith can repeat his 2019 season in which he got nearly a third of his career sacks.
The Vikings have some questions opposite Danielle Hunter. Ifeadi Odenigbo had seven sacks last year, but those are all he has for his career. The Lions paid Trey Flowers to get to the quarterback, but he has never had more than 7.5 sacks in a season and he’s their best pass rusher.
Interior Defensive Line
2. Green Bay
Akiem Hicks is among the most disruptive interior defensive linemen in the league when healthy. Over the past two seasons, he has 38 pressures and 19.5 sacks/knockdowns. (For comparison, Kenny Clark is really freakin’ good. He has had 30 pressures and 14 sacks/knockdowns. Hicks has played in 21 games. Clark, 29.)
But it isn’t just Hicks. The Bears have one of the best run-stuffers in the league in Eddie Goldman, who is probably the third best interior defensive lineman in the division. Add in Roy Robertson-Harris, John Jenkins and Brent Urban and the team has quality depth. The wildcard is Bilal Nichols, who showed flashes of being really good as a rookie.
The Packers take second on this list because of Clark. The rest of the players they have along the defensive line are unproven or mostly ineffective, outside of the occasional Dean Lowry flash.
The Vikings signed Michael Pierce away from Baltimore, but don’t have much depth. The Lions appear to be anchored by Danny Shelton and Nick Williams.
4. Green Bay
After an odd start to the 2019 season, Roquan Smith balled out and played like a top-10 pick before an injury ended his season. Smith pairs with Danny Trevathan, one of the most underrated players in the league. Together, they cover nearly every inch on the field and usually arrive to ball carriers angry.
Minnesota has quite a formidable duo in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks too. Barr often struggles in coverage but is strong in pretty much ever facet in the game. Kendricks is very similar to Trevathan in that they both cover a lot of ground.
The Lions try to throw a handful of bodies out there, from 2017 first-round pick Jarrad Davis to former Bear Christian Jones. It’ll be interesting to see if coach Matt Patricia can get Jamie Collins to play as well as he did in Baltimore.
The Packers are relying on Christian Kirksey to stay on the field – something he has struggled to do the last two seasons. They typically only play one linebacker, but if Kirksey struggles, they’ll be looking at either Oren Burks or Kamal Martin. The former hasn’t been able to find the field since being drafted in the third round in 2018 and the latter was a fifth-round pick last spring.
2. Green Bay
This is one area the Bears drop back a bit largely because they’re unproven opposite Kyle Fuller.
Fuller might be the best cornerback in the NFC North, but we haven’t seen Jaylon Johnson play yet. If Johnson plays like many expect, the Bears could easily be first in this group. The Bears have a solid slot corner in Buster Skrine, but he figure to be challenged by Duke Shelley and Kindle Vildor.
Detroit took the top spot here because Desmond Trufant is solid and the general expectation is that Jeff Okudah is an elite prospect, which is different from Johnson as their draft slots suggest. They also have a solid slot corner in Justin Coleman.
The Packers are probably the best in terms of outside corners with Kevin King and Jaire Alexander, but they have little depth and King has struggled to stay healthy. They made an odd decision electing not to bring Tramon Williams back after the veteran played nearly 75% of the snaps for them last year.
The Vikings let their top three cornerbacks from a year ago leave. Mike Hughes is expected to be their top cornerback, but has struggled through two seasons in the NFL. They spent a first-round pick on Jeff Gladney and a third rounder on Cameron Dantzler.
3. Green Bay
The Vikings get a slight edge over the Bears, but they might be the best two teams in the entire league. Minnesota has two studs in Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, both of whom allowed passer ratings below 45 last year. Smith missed 10 tackles last year, rare for him, but Harris has proven to be a stud opposite him.
Eddie Jackson is the best safety in the NFC North and has proven to be among the best playmakers in the league. An improved pass rush should help him find the end zone more. Tashaun Gipson is widely expected to win a battle with Deon Bush after signing with the Bears late. Last year in Houston, Gipson allowed an opposer passer rating of 55.
Adrian Amos is as reliable as they come and was so for the Packers last year, but still showed plenty of struggles in coverage with an opposing passer rating of 85.5. The Packers need Darnell Savage, a first-round pick in 2019, to step up and be a ball hawk. When teams blocked the Packers up front, they usually torched their safeties and linebackers in coverage.
The Lions added Duron Harmon in free agency, a veteran who played well in spot-starts for the Patriots last year, but has never earned a starting job in the league since 2013. Opposite Harmon figures to be Tracy Walker, who was smoked with an passer rating allowed of 117.2. They traded their best safety, Quandre Diggs, in order to make room for Will Harris, who allowed a passer rating of 125.7 last year. Neither Harros nor Walker are good tacklers either.