By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. Now it is time to check out the NFC North’s top players on defense.
AFC: East | North | South | West
DE: Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions
After starting his career with three seasons of at least 7.5 sacks, Ansah experienced a down-year in 2016. The defensive end injured himself in Week 2 and didn’t seem to get back on-track until the very end of the regular season, recording just two sacks on the year. However between the regular season’s final three games and Detroit’s Wildcard loss to Seattle, Ansah started to look like his old self, picking up 24 combined tackles and four sacks in those four contests. It was only two seasons ago that the young end had 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, and between 2014 and 2015, Ansah’s 129 total pressures were the fifth-most in the NFL. Entering a contract year, Ansah has all the motivation he needs to return to his dominant ways.
DT: Linval Joseph, Minnesota Vikings
Joseph has been consistently good against the run since he entered the league in 2010. But his performance in Minnesota over the last two seasons is what earned him a four-year, $50 million contract extension a few days ago. Joseph earned the fourth-best run-defense grade and 14th-best pass-rush grade by Pro Football Focus among defensive interior players in 2015, and has collected 60 total pressures over the last two years. That is an impressive number for a nose tackle who’s known more for his role in Minnesota’s run defense. Joseph had career-highs in combined tackles (77) and forced fumbles (three) last season, while matching his career-high of four sacks, and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
DE: Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings
It’s hard to believe that Hunter is only 22-years-old considering he has already racked up 18.5 career sacks. In 2016 alone, Hunter recorded 56 combined tackles, 12.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, all while playing mostly as a pass rush specialist. The Vikings announced this summer that Hunter will move into a starting role in 2017, which should not come as a surprise considering his success at rushing quarterbacks last year. Hunter was the sixth-most productive pass rusher on third down among all edge defenders with at least 200 pass rush snaps, according to PFF. 29 of his 55 pressures came on third down, and 34.5 percent of those were converted into sacks or hits. Hunter is one of the most promising, young edge rushers in the league, and still has room to grow.
OLB: Leonard Floyd, Chicago Bears
Floyd had a very solid rookie campaign last year despite missing four games due to injury. The rookie linebacker notched 33 tackles, seven sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 12 games, but showed just how dangerous of a pass rusher he can be during Weeks 10-14. In that stretch, Floyd posted the second-highest pass-rushing productivity mark in the NFL. 24 of his 36 total QB pressures for the season came during this span, despite the 24-year-old missing Week 12 because of a concussion. Floyd will have to improve as a run defender though, as he ranked towards the bottom in run-stop percentage among the 56 qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers. Still only 24-years-old, Floyd will continue to get bigger, faster, and better at getting to opposing quarterbacks.
ILB: Jerrell Freeman, Chicago Bears
Freeman might have been the most underrated signing of last offseason. The Bears inked the linebacker to a three-year, $12 million contract, which one year later looks like a massive steal. Freeman was off-the-charts in 2016, amassing 110 combined tackles in 12 games (he sat out four games due to a suspension). He made 40 tackles in coverage while missing only one tackle attempt, the best ratio PFF has recorded since 2012. In fact, PFF called it “one of the most impressive pure statistics” that any player picked up last season. Freeman’s 93.8 overall grade was the third-highest of all front seven defenders in the NFL, trailing only Kahlil Mack and Aaron Donald. Freeman, Floyd, and Danny Trevathan combine to create quite the linebacker corps for Chicago.
ILB: Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
Kendricks was one of the league’s most improved second-year players last season. The inside linebacker allowed an average of 8.9 yards per catch and had a passer rating of 85.3, a significant upgrade over his rookie season when he allowed 11.6 yards per catch and a 110.8 passer rating. Kendricks also increased his passes defended from one in 2015 to nine in 2016, while forcing his first fumble, recovering his first fumble, and catching his first interception. Kendricks was great as a run defender as well, finishing the season with the seventh-best run-stop percentage among inside linebackers. Kendricks is not flashy, but his ability in pass coverage, along with his skills against the run, make him a vital cog of Minnesota’s defense.
OLB: Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers
Perry has been with Green Bay for five full seasons now, but 2016 truly served as his breakout campaign. After sacking the quarterback 12.5 times through his first four years in the NFL, Perry exploded for 11 sacks and 47 total QB pressures in 14 games last season. The 6-foot-3 linebacker recorded 37 defensive stops, ranking him ninth among all NFL edge defenders despite player fewer snaps than any of the players above him on that list. PFF graded Perry as the 17th most efficient pass rusher among all 3-4 outside linebackers last year, which earned him a spot on their Top 10 breakout players of the 2016 season. If Perry can build on last year’s success, he might soon find himself as one of the league’s top overall linebackers.
CB: Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings
Always considered a good corner, Rhodes took the step up to elite status in 2016. After collecting two interceptions in his first three years in the NFL, Rhodes managed to pick off five passes last season, including one he returned for his first professional touchdown and the longest interception return in Vikings history (100 yards). But the corner’s success last year goes beyond interceptions. Rhodes ended the season giving up a passer rating of 47.0 when targeted, which was the best mark in the NFL. He also allowed a completion rate of 48.0, which was the second-best in the league (first if you only look at players with 50+ targets). The Vikings rewarded their Pro Bowl corner with a massive five-year, $70 million contract extension this offseason, making him one of the highest-paid corners in the game.
CB: Terence Newman, Minnesota Vikings
Newman’s dominance last season could be even more impressive than Tom Brady’s. The veteran corner was 38-years-old during the 2016 season, yet with the way he played, you wouldn’t think he’s a day over 25. Newman was PFF’s ninth-ranked corner, earning an overall grade of 86.4. He finished second in snaps in coverage between giving up receptions with 14.7, and allowed only 245 receiving yards in 15 games. His 62.0 passer rating in coverage was the fifth-lowest rating in the league. Still not convinced? Newman also surrendered the lowest yards per coverage snap at just 0.57, which represents the best mark any corner has posted since the 2010 season. While Rhodes gets most of the attention in Minnesota’s secondary, Newman deserves a ton of credit for the group’s success as well.
S: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
In his fifth NFL season, Smith was unable to secure an interception for the first time in his career. However, the former Notre Dame safety still had himself a very solid 2016 campaign. Despite an ankle injury affecting his player towards the end of the season, Smith was still able to finish with the 10th-highest grade among safeties by PFF, his third consecutive season finishing in the Top 10. Smith was a force against the run, with his run-defense grade of 90.3 ranking sixth and his 8.4 run-stop percentage ranking third at his position. The safety earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl, and appeared at No. 74 in the NFL’s Top 100 Players of 2017. The Vikings made Smith one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL last offseason, and after his first year with the new contract, Smith looks worth every penny.
S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers
Clinton-Dix has emerged as one of the best safeties in the NFL over the last two seasons. In 2016, the 6-foot-1 safety racked up five interceptions, upping his career regular season total to eight, as well as a career-high seven passes defended. He allowed a passer rating of 61.2 when he was the primary defender in coverage, which ranked him eighth-best in the league. Clinton-Dix has also developed into one of the best tackling safeties in the NFL, as his three missed tackles last season tied him for the third-lowest at the safety position. His performance in 2016 landed him in the Pro Bowl, in addition to being named a second-team All-Pro. Clinton-Dix has yet to miss a game in his three-year career, and if he continues to improve in 2017, could push Landon Collins for the honor of the NFL’s top safety.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to email@example.com.