Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers talk about Matt Patricia's new defense in Part 2 of Lions Lowdown after minicamp. The Detroit News
Eric Coughlin of The Detroit News ranks the top 25 defensive players in the NFC North.
1. Harrison Smith: Vikings, FS
With 78 tackles, 1.5 sacks and five interceptions, Smith established himself as the best all-around safety in the NFL in 2017. He can play center field or man-up one-on-one with the league’s best tight ends. Entering his seventh season, Smith is poised to stay atop the heap of NFL safeties.
2. Everson Griffen: Vikings, DE
For the first eight games of 2017, Griffen recorded at least one sack, and he finished the season with 13. Add in three forced fumbles and you've got one of the best players in the division. Griffen will look to lead the Vikings defense back to the NFC title game in 2018.
3. Xavier Rhodes: Vikings, CB
Along with Harrison Smith, Rhodes was an All-Pro in 2017. As an integral part of Minnesota’s fearsome secondary, he has double-digit passes defensed in each of his five NFL seasons. Rhodes is in the middle of his prime at 28 years old and is among the NFL’s best corners.
4. Linval Joseph: Vikings, DT
Defensive tackles don't always rack up big stats, but don't tell Joseph, who's had 145 tackles over the 2016 and 2017 seasons. With 3.5 sacks and 38 quarterback hurries last season, he's no stranger to pressuring the quarterback, either. At 29 years old, Joseph might start to decline soon, but his play would have to decline drastically to not be on this list.
5. Darius Slay: Lions, CB
Reaching his first Pro Bowl, Slay’s 2017 was one to remember. He racked up eight interceptions, tied for the league lead, while displaying excellent coverage. Slay truly lives up to his “Big Play” moniker and is easily one of the best secondary players in the NFC North.
6. Akiem Hicks: Bears, DE
With a big contract extension came big production from Hicks, who racked up a career-high 8.5 sacks last season. He also had 54 tackles for the secon -straight year. Hicks is an anchor on the Chicago defensive line.
7. Mike Daniels: Packers, DE
As a 3-4 defensive end, Daniels has impressive pass-rushing skills, netting at least four sacks in each of the last five seasons. He was a big reason Green Bay had one of the best defensive lines in the league last year. Daniels made his first Pro Bowl in 2017 and seems like a prime candidate to make it back in 2018.
8. Anthony Barr: Vikings, OLB
The 'backer responsible for breaking Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone, Barr bounced back in 2017 after a disappointing 2016. At 26, he’s just entering his prime and is already one of the best linebackers in the NFC North. Expect tackle numbers in the 50s or 60s and probably more than the single sack he registered last year.
9. Kyle Fuller: Bears, CB
Fuller was a big reason the Bears allowed only 211 pass yards per game in 2017, good for seventh in the NFL. Fuller, who re-signed with Chicago for four years and $56 million, had 22 passes defensed last season. To keep pace in the NFC North, the Bears will need another good season out of Fuller.
10. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: Packers, S
Even after a down year, Clinton-Dix is still one of the best safeties in the division. He was locked deep in the secondary in 2017 instead of being closer to the line of scrimmage, like in 2016, and it led to a drop in production. If the Packers are smart, Clinton-Dix will be closer to the action in 2018, and his numbers will reflect it.
11. Glover Quin: Lions, FS
An underrated safety nationally, Quin has been a solid last line of defense for the Lions since 2013. Entering his 10th season, Quin is getting a little long in the tooth, but he’ll be a big part of the Lions defense this season. Quin had three interceptions and one touchdown in 2017.
12. Adrian Amos: Bears, S
After getting attention for quietly being one of the best safeties in the league, Amos is primed for a big season in Chicago. The former fifth-rounder won’t make a lot of spectacular plays, but he’s always where he should be on the field. Amos won’t create a ton of turnovers or rack up tackles for loss, but sometimes the best safeties are boring ones.
13. Muhammad Wilkerson: Packers, DE
A free-agent signing for Green Bay, Wilkerson is a challenge for any team to run around. At 315 pounds, he's hard to move, and he can still get after the quarterback a little, sacking opposing signal-callers 3.5 times in 2017. Wilkerson won't ever get back to the 12 sacks he had in 2015 with the Jets, but he adds a lot to the Packers defensive line.
14. Dean Lowry: Packers, DE
Versatility is the key to Lowry's game. He can move all over the defensive line and is probably one of the more underrated players in Green Bay. Lowry might not produce eye-popping numbers, but he helps make the Packers' defensive line one of the most feared in the league.
15. Eric Kendricks: Vikings, LB
An able blitzer, tackler and cover-man, Kendricks has been the leading tackler in Minnesota for all three years of his career. He was 15th in the league last year in tackles (113) and returned an interception for a touchdown. Kendricks is becoming a player division rivals need to scheme around.
16. Clay Matthews: Packers, LB
No longer in his prime, Matthews is still a darn good pass-rusher, getting 7.5 sacks last season. He took a line drive to the face in a charity softball game and will need surgery but should be ready by the time the season starts. Matthews has 80 career sacks, and if 2018 happens to be a renaissance, the rest of the NFC North needs to look out.
17. Ezekiel Ansah: Lions, DE
After a 12-sack season last year, the former No. 5 overall pick should be poised for a big year, but injury issues dog Ansah. Combine that with a 2016 season in which he nearly disappeared with only two sacks, and it's hard to know what kind of year he'll have in Detroit. If Ansah gets fully healthy, he could be one of the best defensive players in the division.
18. Sheldon Richardson: Vikings, DT
A free-agent pickup, Richardson adds to what was already an imposing defensive line. His interior rushing ability will get him plenty of snaps in Minnesota. Richardson will demand attention, freeing up teammate Everson Griffen to wreak even more havoc in opposing backfields.
19. Kenny Clark: Packers, DL
The signing of Muhammad Wilkerson will pull attention away from Clark, who finished last season strong. He had similar stats to teammate Mike Daniels without as much attention. Clark, like teammate Blake Martinez, is only entering his third year in the league and has a ton of potential.
20. Blake Martinez: Packers, ILB
It might depend on how new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine decides to use Martinez, but Martinez could be due for a big year in his third season. He improved from his rookie season to last season, recording an impressive 144 tackles in 2017. Even if the Packers defense struggles this year, Martinez will still be a tackling machine.
21. Leonard Floyd: Bears, OLB
After missing 10 games due to injury over the last two seasons, 2018 is seen as a pivotal year for Floyd. As a top-10 pick in 2016, he’s got tons of potential but hasn’t lived up to the hype yet. Floyd’s pass-rushing skills are good but if they become elite, Floyd has the chance to move up this list and make the Bears contenders in the NFC North.
22. A’Shawn Robinson: Lions, DT
With 53 tackles and an interception last season, Robinson showed he could make an impact from the defensive tackle position. He’s young, entering his third year, and if his numbers improve even a little bit, his season will be considered a success. Robinson already has a lot of experience, and he’s versatile enough to play in three- or four-man fronts, making him likely to become an important cog in new coach Matt Patricia’s defense.
23. Roquan Smith: Bears, LB
Maybe the next Brian Urlacher in Chicago? The Bears spent the No. 8 overall pick on Smith this season, so expectations are about as high as they can get for a linebacker. He had 137 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and a forced fumble for Georgia in 2017.
24. Jaire Alexander: Packers, CB
The rookie might not see a ton of snaps playing nickel corner, but Alexander showed at Louisville that he has the cover skills to make a splash in the NFL. The 18th overall pick in the 2018 draft turned heads during OTAs when he intercepted Aaron Rodgers. Alexander will have to prove it in Green Bay during the regular season, but he has the potential to be a lock-down cornerback in the NFL one day.
25. Mike Hughes: Vikings, CB
The 30th pick in 2018’s NFL draft, Hughes had four interceptions and four total touchdowns last season at UCF. Three of those touchdowns came on kickoff or punt returns, making him a special teams asset. Hughes joins a talented secondary in Minnesota.
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.