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Ranking the NFC North DLs, Pre-NFL Draft Edition

Suh and the Lions need to stop with the dumb penalties off and on the field
Suh and the Lions need to stop with the dumb penalties off and on the fieldGregory Shamus/Getty Images
Andrew GardaFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2012

Last week, we ranked the offensive positions for the NFC North, and this week we turn to the defensive side of the ball.

The defensive line, or the guys in the trenches, are key players for a defense. Along with the linebackers, the defensive line is the first group to stifle a run play and the guys whose pressure on the quarterback helps the secondary look good.

Ask last year's 32nd-ranked Packers pass defense—you can have tremendous cornerbacks, but if the line gets no push, even they can be beat eventually.

Along with my own observations, I am using Football Outsiders' Defensive Line rankings, which they did post-season back in January.

As it stands, their basic rankings line up pretty well with my own so, it works out.

There are, of course, two separate but equally important aspects to the defensive line's job, much like the offensive line. They have to stop the run, and they have to pressure the quarterback and/or stop the pass.

The combination of these things is where you get your rankings today. I adjusted a bit for age and overall talent (just because Green Bay sucked last year in both categories according to FBO doesn't automatically mean they're the worst in the division every year).

I will say that this is a very tight group. It wouldn't shock me if any of them ended up "on top" at the end of next season, and there is very little distance between the first and the last.




While the Vikings outperformed the Lions last year statistically, I have the Lions ranked higher. Why?

Quite simply, the young talent they have in guys like Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Cliff Avril is fantastic. And while they have some aging players, they aren't overrun by them.

The Lions were right in the middle of the pack in terms of ranking both against the ground attack and the pass. They need to amp it up, play a bit more consistently and keep the stupid down to a minimum.

Silly infractions like Suh's face stomp and off-the-field problems such as Fairley's recent infractions have to stop before they really hurt the team on the field.




MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 01:   Jared Allen #69 of the Minnesota Vikings sacks  Josh McCown #15 of the Chicago Bears to set a franchise record of 22 sacks for the season at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on January 01, 2012 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

People were genuinely surprised by Jared Allen's play last year, but both he and Kevin Williams are getting up in years. While I like Fred Evans and Letroy Guion, neither of them really excite me as replacements right now.

At end, beyond Allen, Brian Robison took a huge leap forward this past year. And while he's not going to rack up Allen's sack totals, he should fit in well down the road.

The transition will be the key for this unit, as the older players wear out and the newer ones get a shot.




DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 11:  Quaterback Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos looks for a receiver as defensive lineman Julius Peppers #90 of the Chicago Bears pursues him at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 11, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. The Br
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Bears have two outstanding defensive ends in Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, but I don't love the tackles—though, you can easily argue that the fact that they can put out any number of guys on the field and still get performance means that as a unit, it's pretty good.

The problem comes when you start examining the pass protection numbers and the problem there. While part of the issue is undoubtedly the sub-par secondary, as a whole the unit isn't getting enough pressure rapidly enough to stop the quarterback from getting the ball out.

I think we'll see some improvement this year, especially if the secondary improves. Once a quarterback knows he has trouble in coverage, it may buy the line time to get at the quarterback because he has to read the field more.




I was actually a little shocked to see the run ranking, as I had been focusing more on the issues in pass defense since that's what they are likely aiming for in the draft.

GREEN BAY, WI - NOVEMBER 14:  B.J. Raji #90 of the Green Bay Packers rushes against John Sullivan #65 of the Minnesota Vikings as Christian Ponder #7 throws a pass at Lambeau Field on November 14, 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Vik
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

However, B.J. Raji didn't have a great season last year at tackle. And while Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn play all right, they don't bring enough pressure on the quarterback—an enormous problem for the Packers last year.

As difficult a season as the secondary had last year—and they struggled often—a large portion of the blame also rests on the front seven, especially the defensive line.

This unit needs to step its game up, or the Packers will struggle again when facing a very good quarterback.

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