Vikings vs. NFC North: Defensive ends

Everson Griffen is the only defensive end in the NFC North that had double-digit sacks last year, helping the Vikings in the 2015 positional rankings in the NFC North.

1. Minnesota Vikings
Starters: Everson Griffen, Brian Robison
Key Backups: Scott Crichton, Danielle Hunter
Griffen is the primary reason why the Vikings are ranked No. 1 in the NFC North for defensive ends. The Lions have a better distribution of talent between their two starters, but Griffen is the closest thing to a game-changing defensive end that the division currently has.

After the Vikings signed Griffen to a five-year, $42.5 million contract he seemed determined to come out and show everyone he deserved it. He had nine sacks in the first nine weeks of the regular season, but his numbers dropped off a bit after that, having three sacks in the final seven weeks of the season.

A big reason for the decline in production could be that he got worn out. It was his first time being a full-time starter and both he and Brian Robison played in over 900 defensive snaps because Vikings coaches didn’t trust and other defensive ends to be on the field too much.

At the age of 27, Griffen should still be able to disrupt backfields for years to come, but that same longevity might not be the case for Robison. The veteran defensive end turned 32 in April and is entering his ninth season in the NFL. His age, along with the fact that the Vikings have multiple young and talented defensive ends developing behind him, could mean Robison’s massive playing time might be coming to an end within the next couple years.

One of those young players is the Vikings’ third-round draft pick from a year ago, Crichton. He had a very disappointing rookie season after hardly seeing the field on the defensive side of the ball. That, however, could be attributed to the fact that he missed a lot of the team’s offseason workouts while he finished up school, so he was always playing catch-up. Now he has a year of experience under his belt and the coaching staff is happy with how he looks so far in the offseason.

2. Detroit Lions
Starters: Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Jones
Key Backups: Devin Taylor, Xavier Proctor
As mentioned earlier, the Lions probably have their talent better distributed at the defensive end position than the Vikings do, but they don’t have the game-changing type of player like Griffen. It’s very possible that Ansah, who is 26, could turn into one, but the way things sit right now he is not quite there.

Ansah is a very interesting case. He was originally born in Ghana and never played football as kid. Instead, he was more of a soccer and basketball fan. The first time he played football was in 2010, when he was convinced to walk onto BYU’s football team in college and he made the cut. The Lions selected him in the first round of the 2013 draft.

In his first two years in the NFL, Ansah has recorded 81 tackles, 15½ sacks and five forced fumbles. That’s impressive considering he is still learning the game and, as he continues to develop, he should only get better.

Jones is a little more experienced when it comes to playing football and will be entering into his eighth season in the NFL. He was originally drafted by the Tennessee Titans, spent a year with the Seattle Seahawks and then ended up in Detroit in 2013.

His first year there was disappointing since he only played in three games and recorded one tackle. He was able to bounce back in 2014, though, recording 22 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles. Jones is not going to be the type of players that opponents focus on stopping, but he has the ability to be a very solid defensive end and can make an impact week in and week out.

3. Chicago Bears
Starters: Jeremiah Ratliff, Ego Ferguson
Key Backups: Jarvis Jenkins, Olsen Pierre

With the Bears switching over to the 3-4 defense this season, there are going to be a lot of changes taking place in the front seven. One of the biggest changes is the fact that the Bears will be converting some of their defensive tackles into defensive ends. This means that there will essentially be three defensive tackles types playing along the front of the line.

The Dallas Cowboys originally drafted Ratliff in 2005 and for years was one of the dominant defensive tackles in the NFL. He joined the Bears before the start of the 2013 season and since joining the team he has struggled staying on the field. He played in just five games in 2013 and 11 games in 2014.

At the age of 33, it is not yet clear how much longer Ratliff will continue to play in the NFL, but if injuries continue to pile up, it likely will not be much longer. But the fact still remains that when he is on the field he is still a force, recording 37 tackles and 6½ sacks during the 11 games he played in 2014.

While Ratliff is entering into the twilight of his career, Ferguson is just entering into his prime. The Bears drafted him in the second round in 2014 and, although he played in all 16 games, he played on a limited basis, recording 24 tackles and two sacks. However, with the departure of Stephen Paea to Washington, room opens up along the defensive line for Ferguson to become a full-time starter.

Both Ratliff and Ferguson are very talented players and could easily be ranked higher on this list. One problem, however, is that it’s not yet clear how they will handle the different tasks for which they will be responsible. The other reason is just the fact that defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme usually do not make as big an impact as defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme do, at least when it comes to sacks.

4. Green Bay Packers
Starters: Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd
Key Backups: Datone Jones, Bruce Gaston
The biggest problem for the Packers defensive ends is the same that came with the Bears; the defensive ends in a 3-4 defensive scheme just do not make as big an impact in pass rushing as the defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme. They are more used as extra run stoppers and players who will take on multiple blockers to help free up the pass-rushing outside linebackers.

Daniels is the better of the two defensive ends on the Packers roster, and at the age of 26 he should be sticking around the team for a while. He was originally the team’s fourth-round pick out of Iowa in the 2014 draft and has done a decent job in his first three seasons.

In 2013, Daniels recorded 23 tackles and 6½ sacks. In 2014, he recorded 41 tackles and 5½ sacks, so even though he took a little step backwards in the sack department he stepped up his game in the run-stopping department. If he is able to combine his seasons and play well in both areas of the game, he has the chance to turn into a very solid defensive end.

Jones is another young player and was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2013. However, he has not played like a first-round pick is expected to play and will need to step his game up if he will want to remain on the team.

In 2014 he recorded 22 tackles and 1½ sacks. It can be hard to judge whether he is doing a good job or not because he could be freeing up the Packers outside linebackers to get to the quarterback, but when you just look at a stat sheet, his numbers are underwhelming. But at the age of 24, there is still plenty of time for him to improve. If he does, he and Daniels could become a very good tandem along the Packers line for years to come.

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