When it comes to star power and high-level talent in the AFC North, the running back position holds down the top spot overall. Coming in a very close second, at least in my opinion, is the safety position within the tough division.
Featuring names like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jessie Bates III, John Johnson III and Marcus Williams headline the list of standout safeties in the AFC North, while names like Kyle Hamilton, Grant Delpit, Ronnie Harrison Jr., Terrell Edmunds, Vonn Bell, Dax Hill, Tycen Anderson and Chuck Clark could all elevate into household names eventually for their respective teams.
Any way you try and slice it at the safety position in the AFC North, top to bottom the division is loaded. It’s quite remarkable to look at on paper, though it made it very difficult to try and flesh out and rank for my Ranking The Rooms series for Steelers Depot.
I did my best though. Let’s dive in.
1. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Even with Fitzpatrick headlining the position here for the Steelers, this ranking at No. 1 has more to do with the depth the Steelers have at their disposal, more than it does Fitzpatrick’s greatness.
Yes, Fitzpatrick is arguably one of the best safeties in the NFL, and he’s certainly paid like it. Though he had a down season from a turnover perspective in 2021, he was exceptional as a tackler, recording a career high in stops, leading the Steeles in the process, serving as the last line of defense in a year in which the Steelers struggled to stop the run. He also made a number of game-changing plays down the stretch that helped the Steelers get into the playoffs, including in Week 18 at Baltimore.
Alongside Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds has quietly grown into a strong starting safety in the box. He’s a sound tackler, defends the run well and has really developed into a good coverage safety against tight ends and running backs, taking away tight ends throughout the season for the Steelers, which was often a massive problem for them in the past.
Behind those two, the depth is really, really good for Pittsburgh. Tre Norwood really impressed as a rookie, moving all over the formation for the Steelers from centerfield safety, to box safety, to slot cornerback. His coverage skills were rather strong overall, and he should take a step forward in 2022.
The addition of veteran Damontae Kazee an hour after the conclusion of the 2022 NFL Draft was a great move by the Steelers. He can play in the box and in the slot, is a violent, physical tackler and has great ball skills, having led the NFL in interceptions in 2018. Veteran Miles Killebrew is a great special teams asset for the Steelers, having blocking two punts in 2021.
Veteran Karl Joseph is another box safety option for the Steelers. He saw action in 2021 and brings physicality to the room, though he is facing a numbers crunch for the 53-man roster.
2. BALTIMORE RAVENS
I absolutely love what the Ravens did at the safety position this offseason with the addition of Marcus Williams on a big contract in free agency, and then the addition of Kyle Hamilton in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, landing the best safety in the draft out of Notre Dame.
Pairing Williams and Hamilton with Chuck Clark gives the Ravens a high-level trio. Williams can handle the centerfield role well for the Ravens, giving Baltimore its first true centerfield option since Ed Reed’s heyday. He has great ball skills, having recorded 15 interceptions in five seasons with the New Orleans Saints before signing with Baltimore.
Hamilton can play all over the formation for the Ravens, which gives new defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald a real chess piece to work with. Though he had poor testing numbers, Hamilton is a true football player, one that finds a way to succeed at a high level time and time again.
Chuck Clark has proven me wrong the last few seasons, developing nicely into a true box safety that plays with his hair on fire, combining for 178 tackles the last two seasons for the Ravens. He rarely misses tackles, takes on blockers well and has a nose for the football.
Behind that trio, the Ravens brought back veteran Tony Jefferson II as a depth option in the box. He’s dealt with major injuries in recent seasons and is on the backside of his career, but he’s played more than 100 career games and is one of the top tacklers at the position overall. He brings that fire and leadership the Ravens have desperately needed at the position the last two seasons.
Young safeties Geno Stone and Ar’Darius Washington are intriguing depth options moving forward for the Ravens. Stone is a strong special teams player that can play in the box and brings versatility to the table, while Washington is on the smaller side, but plays bigger than his size and has good ball skills overall.
Top to bottom, it’s hard to find issue with this group in Baltimore.
3. CINCINNATI BENGALS
It’s a real shame what’s happening with Jessie Bates III in Cincinnati. In the discussion for the best safety in football, Bates can’t secure a long-term deal with the Bengals and is currently holding out of training camp. When on the field, he’s right there with Fitzpatrick, in my opinion.
Tremendous ball skills, great tackler, incredible range overall. They should pay him.
Next to Bates, Vonn Bell has had a career resurgence in Cincinnati, turning into a strong box safety who plays downhill with great force and is a consistent tackler. He’s the emotional heartbeat of the Bengals, from an outside point of view. He quietly played a big role in the Bengals’ defense turning it on in the playoffs and reaching the Super Bowl.
Behind the two starters, Michael Thomas and Brandon Wilson are very good special teams aces for the Bengals. Asking them to provide much at safety though is a stretch. That’s where the likes of rookies Tycen Anderson and Dax Hill will come into play. Hill is a true chess piece for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. He can play cornerback, in the slot, in the box or deep safety and has great ball skills. The Bengals got a good one with him.
Anderson can line up in the slot or play in the box, is a physical tackler and will get some run on special teams right away.
4. CLEVELAND BROWNS
John Johnson III is a very, very good safety, one that plays with violence, has impressive ball skills and is consistently around the football. The Browns did a great job spending big money on him last offseason in free agency.
Behind Johnson though, the Browns have some serious question marks.
Delpit has great talent, but he can’t stay healthy and make an impact. If he can stay healthy though, look out. He’s able to play all over the defense. The only real concern is his tackling abilities, which were a major issue at LSU. Harrison is a veteran who can play in the box and has played pretty well since coming over from the Jaguars in a trade, but he’s relatively limited overall, and the Browns have been looking to upgrade him.
After those three though, the Browns are in a bit of dire straights, at least for now. Cleveland added Richard Lecounte III in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he has not carved out a role yet. Same for Javonte Moffatt and Luther Kirk IV. Rookie D’Anthony Bell is an intriguing name at the bottom of the roster as a player to watch.
The Browns seem top heavy right now, but this room could look a lot different this time next season.
2021 AFC North S rankings:
No. 1 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 2 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 3 – Cleveland Browns
No. 4 – Baltimore Ravens