Blink, and you’ll have missed the overall accumulation of high-end talent at the cornerback position in the AFC North.
While some of the big-name players such as the quarterbacks, running backs and pass rushers steal the headlines, quietly the cornerbacks in the division are right there with some of the best in the NFL overall. Names like Marlon Humphrey and Denzel Ward should ring a bell when it comes to some of the best in the NFL today.
Though there certainly is star power overall at the cornerback position in the AFC North, the depth is off the charts throughout, making the case for arguably the deepest position overall in the division.
Previously, I highlighted off-ball linebackers in the AFC North.
Let’s dive into the cornerback rankings.
1. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Marlon Humphrey remains arguably one of the best overall cornerbacks in the NFL with his ability to slide inside to the slot, or play outside on the boundary at exceptionally high levels. Humphrey is a physical corner that thrives on contact and appears to be the latest iteration of Charles “Peanut” Tillman with his ability to punch footballs out, forcing fumbles.
I’d like to see him get his hands on more footballs in the air (just eight career interceptions), but it’s very hard to find any type of knock on the All-Pro caliber cornerback.
Along with Humphrey in Baltimore, the Ravens see names like Marcus Peters and Anthony Averett return, along with veterans Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young, the later of which returns from a neck injury and should be able to hold down the slot position at borderline elite level once again.
The Ravens also have third-year corner Iman Marshall in the fold, and drafted two intriguing rookies in slot corner Shaun Wade and boundary corner Brandon Stephens, giving the Ravens some really impressive depth at the position overall
2. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Much like the Ravens, the Browns have invested heavily in the cornerback position over the last few years and are now ready to reap the rewards of that investment.
Cleveland has one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL in Denzel Ward, giving them a legitimate No. 1 cornerback on that defense. Ward is long and has shown the ability to shadow the opponent’s top receiver week to week, allowing the Browns to do a number of things on the back half of that defense.
Along with Ward, the Browns drafted standout LSU cornerback Greedy Williams and Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome in back to back seasons, putting together quite the trio on the back half. Williams struggled to stay healthy and on the field consistently as a rookie, but flashed some strong coverage abilities.
As for Newsome, he looks like the next true shutdown corner, at least coming out of Northwestern. Having him as a potential No. 3 right out of the gate is impressive on paper, but then one has to remember the Browns added veteran cornerback Troy Hill in free agency from the Los Angeles Rams, giving them another legitimate slot option, and still have intriguing second-year cornerback A.J. Green in the fold.
3. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Cincinnati struck a blow to the Steelers in free agency, stealing veteran slot corner Mike Hilton away in free agency, shoring up a young, talented secondary with an elite-level slot corner. Hilton will allow the Bengals to change up their looks and provide more pressure from outside.
Hilton joins a cornerback room that has undergone a bit of change recently, with stalwarts Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson III are no longer around. However, there’s plenty of talent here in Cincinnati with Trae Waynes looking to stay healthy this season and hold down the true No. 1 role with the Bengals.
When healthy, Waynes is a good cornerback. The problem is, he missed the entire 2020 season — his first with the Bengals — so it’s almost as if he’s another new addition to this defense.
Behind Waynes and Hilton, the Bengals signed veteran cornerback Chidobe Awuzie to be the second boundary cornerback. Awuzie has shown flashes throughout his career but just needs to find consistency. He should be able to find that in Cincinnati with the talent around him on the defensive side of the football.
Depth is good for the Bengals too, with a personal favorite in Darius Phillips holding down a complimentary role. He can step in to the starting lineup when needed, as can Eli Apple or Troy Brown, both of whom bring more than five years of experience each.
4. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Losing Hilton and cutting veteran Steven Nelson this off-season really hurts this group for me.
Steelers fans have weirdly talked down Nelson since he was cut, almost trying to downplay his role. He was a good cornerback in Pittsburgh without a doubt. While his 2020 was nowhere near as good as his 2019, Nelson still played an integral role in Pittsburgh. Losing that guy hurts depth and talent overall.
With no Hilton and Nelson in the fold, a lot of the weight will have to be carried by an aging Joe Haden. Haden has been quite the find in Pittsburgh in the last few years, showing just how good the defense can be with a lockdown No. 1 cornerback. He might be losing a step, but he’s learning how to outsmart receivers and quarterbacks at this point in his career.
Opposite Haden, the Steelers quickly re-signed Cameron Sutton to start on the outside. Sutton has been a late bloomer, developing into a key chess piece for the Steelers. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers deploy Sutton this season, especially when they leave base. Will he line up outside still, or in the slot?
A lot of that will depend on the development of James Pierre, who continues to garner a ton of attention during the off-season. If Pierre can develop into a true No. 3 and show he can handle the outside role, Sutton could move into the slot where he’s more comfortable. That sure would be something if the Steelers could hit on another UDFA corner.
Speaking of UDFA corners, Shakur Brown looks like he could make the roster as well and could push for a role in the slot or the boundary. The Steelers still have Justin Layne on the roster and look to see if the third-year corner can grab a role, but overall depth is a concern behind Haden and Sutton, which leads to the drop from No. 1 last season to No. 4 this year.
2020 AFC North CB rankings:
No. 1 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 2 – Baltimore Ravens
No. 3 – Cleveland Browns
No. 4 – Cincinnati Bengals