NFC North rankings: 5 best edge defenders
By Dan Zinski
The NFC North has a lot of quality edge defenders, but who are the five best?
Welcome to part one of an on-going series where we will rank the five best players in the NFC North at each position. First off, let’s begin with edge defenders.
With two teams in the division employing a 3-4 and two teams employing a 4-3, ranking defensive ends and outside linebackers gets a little blurry and frankly annoying. The only fair way of resolving this is to resort to wonky designations like “edge player,” the catch-all name given to 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers.
Who are the five best edge players in the division going into 2016?
5. Julius Peppers – Green Bay Packers
Every year people want to write Peppers off as washed up and every year he goes out and produces. Last year he gave the Packers 10 1/2 sacks, his highest total since 2012, and made the Pro Bowl. Yes I realize sacks and Pro Bowl appearances are overrated means of measuring player value. I also realize that Julius Peppers remains one of the most-respected players in the NFL and is a guy you should never under-estimate. One of these days he’s going to stop producing but until that day comes, I’m not throwing any dirt on him.
4. Everson Griffen – MInnesota Vikings
Griffen was not quite as good in 2015 as he was in 2014, but he was still a very disruptive, at times fearsome edge-rushing force for the Vikings. Griffen finished the year with a team-high 10 1/2 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl (same caveats on those accomplishments as noted in the Peppers blurb). Griffen may not be as well-rounded as Mike Zimmer would like and at times he shows a lack of discipline but he’s still a key player for the Vikings.
Future star alert: Danielle Hunter is developing quickly for Minnesota and may be ready to take the next step this year and steal some snaps away from Griffen.
3. Clay Matthews – Green Bay Packers
Vikings fans love to hate Clay Matthews. Heck, some Vikings players love to hate Clay Matthews. But who can deny that Matthews remains one of the best defensive players in the league? Matthews produced only 6 1/2 sacks last year but remember, the Packers were forced to play him at inside linebacker, limiting his opportunities to rush the passer. This year Matthews is expected to return to his familiar outside linebacker position and the stat production should return. He’s still only 30 and has plenty of good years left.
2. Pernell McPhee – Chicago Bears
The Bears switched over to a 3-4 base last year and things actually went fairly smoothly as they finished in the middle of the pack in overall defense. A key player in the Bears’ success was Pernell McPhee, a guy they signed as a free agent before the 2015 season. McPhee came out of nowhere last year and became one of the top pass rushers in the entire NFL according to the analytics crowd. McPhee will be mentioned in a ton of “breakout stars of 2016” posts between here and the start of the season.
Next: What if the O-line doesn't improve?
1. Ziggy Ansah – Detroit Lions
With only two NFC North teams still running a 4-3, there aren’t as many great traditional defensive ends in the division now as there used to be. The best of those is undoubtedly Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah. The speed-rushing Ansah put up big numbers last year, finishing with 39 tackles, 14 1/2 sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Not a lot went right for the Lions last year on either side of the ball but Ansah was a definite bright spot and for my money he’s the best edge player in the division. He’s just now entering his prime and is set to become a dominating defender. Guys like Ansah, McPhee and Matthews are a big part of why the Vikings invested so heavily in shoring up their offensive line this year.