The last time we checked on the “Ranking the Room: AFC North” series here at Steelers Depot, I took a look at the outside linebackers room, where the Baltimore Ravens held a sizeable lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the rankings.
Today, we’ll move back into the secondary and take a look at the cornerbacks in the AFC North for this portion of the series.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
I know that most fans reading this aren’t high on Cincinnati’s Dre Kirkpatrick, but he’s a big, physical cornerback that seemed to take a big step forward in the 2016 season in his coverage ability, run support and knack for forcing turnovers.
The Steelers were certainly interested in free agency, but the Bengals were fortunate to bring him back into the fold in a deep cornerback class in Cincinnati.
Behind Kirkpatrick, veteran Adam Jones — a serious head case — is still a useful cornerback in today’s game and brings an edge to the Bengals’ defense, while veteran Darqueze Dennard has yet to really turn the corner as the Bengals expected after taking him in the first round in 2013 out of Michigan State.
Fortunately for the Bengals, 2016 first round pick William Jackson is fully recovered from last year’s injury and is in line to possibly grab the starting spot away from Jones opposite Kirkpatrick.
Veteran Bene Benwikere and young players Josh Shaw and KeVarie Russell provide good depth at corner for the Bengals.
The team seems to be in some disarray at other positions, but heading into the 2017 season the Bengals’ cornerback room is loaded.
2. Baltimore Ravens
The loss of standout second-year corner Tavon Young to a torn ACL suffered in OTA’s last month really hurts this group, but there’s still plenty of good depth here for the Ravens.
Free agent signee Brandon Carr should be able to put up a better performance this season with a more consistent pass rush in front of him after leaving the Cowboys for the Ravens in free agency.
Carr joins incumbent veteran Jimmy Smith, who has been hit or miss the last few years, but still has plenty of talent at his disposal and should bounce back with better cornerback play opposite him this season.
Rookie Marlon Humphrey will bring some serious physicality to the cornerback room for Ravens after being selected 16th overall by Baltimore in the 2017 NFL Draft. He’ll most likely play in the slot to start his career, giving the Ravens three very good cornerbacks to start the year.
With no Young, the Ravens still have veteran free agent Brandon Boykin, second-year pro Maurice Canady and former Steelers corner Al-Hajj Shabazz in the room.
Young was a huge blow for the Ravens, but fortunately for the purple and black, this was one area on the team where they could cover for a big injury to a key player thanks to very good depth on the boundary and in the slot.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
While the Steelers have addressed cornerback early in recent years, Pittsburgh still lags behind Cincinnati and Baltimore at the position.
Second-year pro Artie Burns really came on strong last season and should continue to grow and thrive in Keith Butler’s defense, which will play more man-to-man concepts this season after the embarrassment that was the AFC Championship Game against New England in January.
Opposite Burns, veteran Ross Cockrell returns and will attempt to hold off veteran free agent addition Coty Sensabaugh and rookie third-round pick Cameron Sutton.
Both Sensabaugh and Sutton have experience in the slot, so realistically they could slide into the starting slot spot if they can’t beat out Cockrell, so there’s some versatility to work with in that area.
Veteran William Gay is still around and competing at corner, but I’m just not sure he’s long for this roster any longer, as sad as that is. A move to safety could be in the cards, but more on that in the next piece.
Behind Gay, rookie Brian Allen is a long-term project with serious upside, while third-year corner Senquez Golson looks to finally make an impact on this team after missing the last two years due to injuries after being a second-round pick.
As of now, Brandon Dixon, Mike Hilton and Greg Ducre are camp bodies, but I could see Hilton fighting his way onto the 53-man roster.
Although the Steelers come in third in this list, I like how the future is shaping up to look at corner for the black and gold.
4. Cleveland Browns
Let’s face it: Joe Haden is getting long in the tooth and simply isn’t the cornerback that he once was, which is a problem for the Browns, considering he’s their No. 1 corner and still collects a paycheck that values him as one.
Jamar Taylor really came on strong last year for the Browns, as did Brien Boddy-Calhoun, but neither are No. 1-caliber corners for Cleveland. That doesn’t mean they’re not very valuable in their roles as No. 2/slot corners for Cleveland.
Behind Taylor and Boddy-Calhoun, rookies Najee Murray and Channing Stribling could develop into decent role players due to size (Stribling) and ball skills (Murray), but neither should be viewed as long-term building blocks.
Rookie Howard Wilson should have been able to overtake Haden as the No. 1 corner quickly on this roster, but a devastating knee injury in OTA’s thwarted those hopes for the Browns.
The guy everyone seems to forget in this picture is veteran corner Jason McCourty, who signed with Cleveland last month after being released by the Titans. He’s coming into his 10th year in the league, but he still has some football left in him. I won’t go on record saying he’ll be a good No. 1 or 2 for Cleveland this year, but the Browns are starting to get some big names and high-level talent into the room.
That’s all you can ask for at this point.
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