Welcome to our 10-part series in which we rank the four NFC North clubs at every position. Our rankings are based on performance to date, scouting reports and a consensus of evaluations from general managers, coaches and scouts around the NFL.
Part 7 – Linebackers
1. Chicago Bears – A-: The Bears will be the only team in the NFL this season with two former NFL Defensive Players of the Year at linebacker with Khalil Mack (2016) and Robert Quinn (2013).
Mack is the complete package: pass-rush extraordinaire, run stuffer and solid dropping into coverage. Quinn is really more of a pure pass rusher who prefers to play with a hand on the ground, but at the end of the day, the Bears have game-wreckers at both outside linebacker positions.
What makes that particularly troublesome is the Bears also have one of the league’s best pairs of inside linebackers in Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith, both smaller, quicker run stuffers who are four-down guys and roam sideline to sideline.
The only reason for the minus after their A grade is depth, which is an issue inside with both of last year’s backups, Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis, gone as free agents and Trevathan and Smith both having lost time to injuries last year.
Barkevious Mingo, Isaiah Irving and rookie Trevis Gipson offer plenty of backup outside.
2. Green Bay Packers – B-: The Pack doled out more than $100 million in contracts last year to the “Smith Brothers,” Preston and Za’Darius. If they play the way they did last year, they could be the next best outside pair in the league after Mack and Quinn.
Like Quinn, Za’Darius Smith is pretty much a pure pass rusher, but Preston is effective against the run, although neither is likely to drop in coverage often.
Green Bay used the 12th pick in the draft last year on Rashan Gary, so the depth behind the Smiths should be outstanding, although Gary didn’t show much as a rookie.
The Packers have had issues inside for several seasons now, and some were surprised they allowed their leading run-stuffer and tackler, Blake Martinez, to leave via free agency.
They added the Browns' Christian Kirksey, who had big seasons in 2016 and 2017 before playing only seven games in 2018 and two last year because of injury.
The Packers hope Oren Burks will emerge next to him, although he hasn’t done much his first two seasons and missed four games to injuries last year. Other than that, young prospects such as Ty Summers will have to step up.
3. Detroit Lions – C+: The Lions invested heavily inside over the past three seasons, using the 21st pick in the 2017 draft on Jarrad Davis and the 43rd pick last year on Jahlani Tavai.
Davis was solid if not special his first two seasons before missing five games last year because of injury, and Tavai had a nice rookie season after many thought the Lions reached a bit for him.
We have to assume coach Matt Patricia wasn’t completely sold on his young pair considering that Detroit went shopping in free agency and brought back veterans Jamie Collins – coming off a highly productive year in New England – and Reggie Ragland from Kansas City. We assume they will be the starters outside with Tavai getting reps at all three spots.
Christian Jones, a starter the past two years in Detroit after spending his first four seasons with the Bears, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin offer solid depth.
4. Minnesota Vikings – C: Anthony Barr is the SAM linebacker and most notable name in the Vikings' linebacker group, but in six seasons since they used the ninth pick in the draft on him, he’s never become the dominant force they hoped he would.
Barr is a great athlete with exceptional size at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, and he is a four-down guy who threatened to leave for the Jets in free agency before deciding to stay in Minneapolis.
Eric Kendricks has been the Vikings' leading tackler most often since they drafted him in the second round in 2015, like Barr, out of UCLA. But he is undersized at 6-0, 230 pounds and can get pushed around at times.
Eric Wilson also is small at 6-1, 230 but is penciled in as the starter on the weak side. He won’t hurt you, but he won’t win a lot of games for you, either.
Ben Gedeon, Cameron Smith and rookie Troy Dye will provide depth, but this is a pretty nondescript group.