Vikings vs. NFC North: Defensive tackles

With solid starters and rotational depth, the Vikings have a formidable force in the middle of their defensive line.

1. Minnesota Vikings
Starters: Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph
Key Backups: Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen
After his rookie season, Floyd seemed as though he was could be a bust. The Vikings selected him in the first round of the 2013 draft and he never seemed to have success in Leslie Frazier’s defense. That all changed when the Vikings decided to part ways with Frazier and hire Mike Zimmer.

While Floyd struggled in Frazier’s defense, he found a lot of success in Zimmer’s defense and quickly became one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. He had the ability to both clog up holes in the running game and rush the quarterback. In 2014, Floyd recorded 42 tackles and 4½ sacks in 14 games. Moving forward, the biggest thing for Floyd will be to stay healthy. He may have played in 14 games, but he was only in for a few plays or a few series for some of them.

In 2014, the Vikings made two free agent acquisitions that really helped them on the interior of the defensive line. The first was Joseph, who comes in at 6-foot-4, 329 pounds. Even though he was primarily used to take on multiple blockers and clog up running lanes, Joseph was also able to record 48 tackles and three sacks. At the age of 26, him and Floyd should be able to create a solid tandem in the middle of the defensive lines for years to come.

The other player they brought in that was able to make a big impact was Johnson. They signed the 30-year-old to a one-year deal to see how things worked out last year. He had bounced around between multiple NFL teams, the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League, so the Vikings were not entirely sure what they were going to get out of him. What they did end up getting was 22 tackles and 6½ sacks from a rotational defensive end, so they decided to sign him to a multi-year deal in the 2015 offseason.

The final piece of the puzzle for the Vikings’ defensive tackles was Shamar Stephen, whom they drafted in the seventh round in 2014. Even though he was a late-round draft pick, he was able to work hard and get into the defensive end rotation – he even started multiple games when Floyd was forced to sit out. Stephen did not put up flashy numbers during his rookie season – 23 tackles and zero sacks – but Zimmer liked him because he did everything he was asked to do and did it correctly.

2. Chicago Bears
Starter: Will Sutton
Key Backups: Eddie Goldman
The Bears are changing things up a little bit defensively this season. For years they have been operating as a 4-3 defense but this season they will be changing to a 3-4 defense. It seems as though it is going to be Sutton’s job to hold down the nose tackle spot at the beginning of the year but don’t be surprised if Goldman, who was the Bears’ second-round draft pick, surpasses him at some point during the season.

Sutton is also a very young defensive tackle on the roster, though. He was selected in the third round of the 2014 draft and played in 15 games during his rookie season. He registered 22 tackles in his limited amount of snaps, but all his numbers should increase once he becomes the starter.

This is going to be a new role for Sutton since he has not played in a 3-4 role before. In his first season, he was a rotational player in a 4-3 scheme and even played in the 4-3 roll in college. He thrived in that role at Arizona State so it will be interesting to see if his skill set can transfer to the nose tackle position.

The fact that the Bears used a high draft pick on Goldman will not help Sutton hold down his starting job. They drafted Goldman knowing that he has the ability to play the nose tackle position in a 3-4 defense and if Sutton is not performing well early don’t be surprised if you see a short leash.

It will be interesting to see how this position battle unfolds during the course of the preseason and regular season. If Goldman eventually wins the starting role it will be curious to see what the Bears decide to do with Sutton, if they try to move him to more of a defensive end role or just try to trade him to some other team.

3. Detroit Lions
Starters: Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker
Key Backups: Jermelle Cudjo, Caraun Reid
The Lions’ group of defensive tackles is close behind the Bears’ and could very easily pass them during the course of the season. But you have to take into consideration that this offseason the Lions lost Ndamukong Suh – arguably the best defensive tackle in the NFL – and Nick Farely, who is also a very talented player. And to top it off, they also lost C.J. Mosley, who was responsible for 26 tackles and 2½ sacks in 2014.

That is a lot of talent that the Lions have to try to replace, and even though it appears they are on the right track we will not be able to see how big a difference there is until the season begins. It is very possible that the players they have on their roster are able to hold their own and produce the same type of numbers that Suh, Farley and Mosley produced.

The player who will be expected to lead the Lions defensive tackles this year is Ngata. The 31-year-old was originally a first-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 2006 and he spent the first nine seasons of his career there amassing 445 tackles, 25½ sacks, six forced fumbles and five interceptions. The Lions are hoping that he can continue that type of production for them in 2015 and for multiple years after that.

The Lions are also hoping that Walker is going to be able to step in and be a productive starter in 2015. Last year he was down in New Orleans playing with the Saints and he recorded 19 tackles, 2½ sacks and a forced fumble. That production is going to have to increase if he hopes to match what the Lions’ defensive tackles from a year ago were able to do. But at 6-3, 294 pounds he has good size to play defensive tackle.

This year could end up going very well for the Lions’ defensive tackles, but it also hurts when you lose three of your players at the position from a year ago. Especially when two of them were your starters and one was possibly the best defensive tackle in the NFL.

4. Green Bay Packers
Starter: B.J. Raji
Key Backup: Letroy Guion
The Packers play a 3-4 defense. The middle of their defensive line was a weak point for them last year after Raji had to miss the entire 2014 season with a torn right bicep.

Raji has the ability to be a dominant force in the middle of the line when he is healthy, but the problem is that he has not been healthy very often. His last good season came in 2011, when he recorded 22 tackles and three sacks. The Packers signed Raji to a one-year deal this offseason so he will be working hard to prove he is worth a multi-year deal once the season is over.

When Raji went down with his injury, it became up to Guion to take over the starting nose tackle role. He recorded 32 tackles and 3½ sacks, which is not a bad season by a player who is not normally a starter and a player who came from playing in a 4-3 system in Minnesota.

Guion was also signed to a one-year deal by the Packers this offseason and will also be working to earn a multi-year deal, although legal troubles will entangle the decision there. These two players will likely be splitting time in the middle of the line this offseason, but Raji should be getting a majority of the snaps.

The middle of the Packers defensive line has been a weakness for some time, and if these two players can’t turn things around this year, then expect the Packers to address the position in the offseason next year.

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