In the last edition of Ranking the Rooms: AFC North here at Steelers Depot, I took a look at the linebacker rooms within the division. Today, I’ll move into the secondary and take deep dive into the cornerback rooms throughout the AFC North.
In recent years, the AFC North has been a bit weak at cornerback, at least top to bottom within the division. Heading into the 2019 season that’s not the case as all four teams appear strong at corner, from starters to depth players.
Let’s dive right in.
1. Baltimore Ravens
If there’s one thing former general manager Ozzie Newsome did really well for current general manager Eric DeCosta, it was leaving the cupboard stacked at cornerback for the Baltimore Ravens.
Newsome invested heavily in cornerback over the years, giving the Ravens a strong 1-2 punch on the outside with veteran Brandon Carr and third-year player Marlon Humphrey, who should take a substantial step forward this season.
Along with the a strong starting duo, the Ravens possess veteran Jimmy Smith as a depth piece, while slot corner Tavon Young is in the discussion for one of the best players at his position.
Behind those four, Baltimore still have second-year player Anthony Averett, veteran Maurice Canaday – who brings length and athleticism, rookie Iman Lewis-Marshall out of USC, and veterans like Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Cyrus Jones.
This room is so deep that Smith could find himself cut or traded near the end of camp to give the Ravens some cap relief while allowing them to get some younger players onto the field.
It will be hard to throw against the Ravens once again, largely due to their depth at cornerback.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Some may scoff at this ranking, and that’s perfectly understandable. A lot of it has to do with the starting combination of Joe Haden, free agent signee Steven Nelson, and slot corner Mike Hilton.
Haden continues to play at a high level, even if the production isn’t quite there. Nelson was thrown at a lot last season in Kansas City and more than held his own. With a better pass rush in front of him, and more talent around him in the secondary, I think Nelson could have a really good first year in Pittsburgh.
Hilton needs a new long-term contract, but even without it he’s a problem for offenses, largely due to his blitzing prowess and his open-field tackling abilities. He’s pretty darn underrated as a cover corner in the slot as well.
Behind the starting trio, the Steelers invested heavily in rookie Justin Layne out of Michigan State, snapping him up in the third round. Ideally, Layne sits out all year to learn the speed of the game and the nuances of the defensive system, and then slides right in opposite Haden next season, pushing Nelson inside. Layne has all the tools to be a great cornerback, so hopefully the Steelers figure out how to develop a cornerback during Layne’s time in the black and gold.
Along with Layne, guys like Camron Sutton, Artie Burns, Herb Waters, and Brian Allen provide veteran depth. That being said, I’m keeping my eyes on Alexander Myres, an undrafted free agent out of Houston.
Sutton can play outside, in the slot, and will likely get some work at safety in the preseason, so he appears locked into a roster spot. Burns could theoretically make the team with a great preseason, but I just feel a change of scenery is best for the young corner. Waters is a former receiver with some serious athleticism, but he feels like a practice squad player, while Allen never quite put together the length and athleticism to get onto the field defensively.
It’s not a big-name group, but it’s not deep with experience and upside, which is something the franchise couldn’t say at the position for quite awhile.
3. Cleveland Browns
I can foresee the Browns jumping the Steelers in this series next year, but for now I have them slotted in at No. 3 despite having a budding star lockdown cornerback in second-year player Denzel Ward.
Ward had a terrific rookie season for Cleveland and looks to be on the fast track for stardom, but opposite the former Ohio State product, the Browns appear to have some question marks.
Terrance Mitchell and TJ Carrie are nice depth pieces to have and can hold their own when called upon, but they’re just not ideal No. 2 corners for contending teams. That’s where rookie second-round pick Greedy Williams comes in. Williams has all the tools to form a lockdown pairing with Ward moving forward; it’s just way too difficult to expect that right away from a rookie corner.
Behind those four, Cleveland has guys like Phillip Gaines and Lenzy Pipkins that they can rely on for depth and experience. Realistically, it wouldn’t surprise me if Gaines works his way into the No. 2 role opposite Ward right away.
Rookies Jhavonte Dean and Donnie Lewis Jr., and veteran Justin Burris give the Browns some depth and athleticism to work with.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
Just two years ago, I had the Bengals with the best cornerback room in the division. My, how the mighty have fallen.
Dre Kirkpatrick has never quite taken that next step forward that was expected after resigning in free agency on a big contract. That’s a big reason this group has fallen way off. The same goes for Darqueze Dennard, who has yet to fulfill his potential. Dennard never had any interest in free agency this spring, resulting in the former Michigan State star returning to the Queen City on a 1-year deal.
William Jackson III is the real bright spot for the Bengals are cornerback. He’s an athletic cornerback that can shadow No. 1 receivers and has some ball skills that are starting to get tapped into.
Veterans KeiVarae Russell, Tony McRae and B.W. Webb give the Bengals some depth, while second-year corner Darius Phillips and rookie Anthony Brown gives Cincinnati some hope for the future, due to athleticism, explosiveness, and ball skills.
For the Bengals’ defense to bounce back in 2019, the cornerbacks will need to take a significant step forward.
Last season’s rankings: