How does each AFC North team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?
Baltimore Ravens: I expect the Ravens’ secondary, like the rest of their defense, to be vastly improved from a year ago. Of course I realize that nine-time Pro Bowler Ed Reed is gone, along with fellow starting safety Bernard Pollard and starting cornerback Cary Williams. I felt Williams’ value was overblown during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and, while he is an enforcer, Pollard is a liability in coverage. As for Reed, well, he isn’t what he once was, but of course his ability to quarterback the secondary and make plays on the ball is still very valuable. Reed and Pollard were replaced by veteran Michael Huff and Matt Elam, the 32nd overall pick of the draft. Expect Huff to more often than not play the Reed role, as a deep middle player, but Huff also has cornerback skills and can play man coverage against wide receivers. Elam is a great hitter like Pollard, but is much younger and has tons more upside. Baltimore’s safeties are better in 2013. But the key here is the return of Lardarius Webb, one of the best corners in football who no one seems to know. Corey Graham was very solid for the Ravens last year, but it is Jimmy Smith who needs to step up. If that happens, this secondary should be among the league’s best, but depth here overall isn’t great.
Cincinnati Bengals: Overall, this looks like a fine group, with a lot of able bodies and depth. The safety spot next to Reggie Nelson, who has played at a Pro Bowl level since arriving in Cincinnati, might have been the Bengals’ worst starter in 2012, but the drafting of Shawn Williams in the third round should improve that situation. Expect Williams to unseat Taylor Mays before long. At corner, Leon Hall is the top guy, but the Bengals also get 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick back from injury, so this will more or less be his rookie season. Terence Newman should start if Kirkpatrick isn’t ready; Newman proved to have quite a bit left in the tank during the 2012 season. Adam Jones obviously entered the NFL with a ton of physical ability. At this stage of his tumultuous career, Jones has established himself as one of the top No. 3 cornerbacks in the league. There might not be a true star on the back end of Cincinnati’s defense, but overall it is a quality, well-coached unit with a good blend of veterans and youth. If Kirkpatrick hits big, this secondary could be exceptional.
Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden is the star here. He is a top-five-type corner and is capable of shutting down the opponent’s No. 1 wideout -- and could get better. The only other top-flight member of Cleveland’s secondary is T.J. Ward, a very capable two-way safety who could be on the verge of a true breakout in 2013. Beyond Haden and Ward, the Browns’ secondary has a lot of question marks. Third-round cornerback Leon McFadden is a good-looking prospect, and Cleveland picked up Chris Owens on the cheap for cornerback depth. Is McFadden ready for a starting role that will be sure to attract attention from every quarterback the Browns face? Also in the mix is Buster Skrine, who is best suited as a third corner. Several players will be fighting for playing time at safety alongside Ward, with sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter possessing the most long-term upside of that group of relative unknowns. Overall, the Browns’ secondary might be a major priority for upgrade after the 2013 season, but at least Cleveland looks to have significantly improved its pass rush, which could mask some coverage problems.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Keenan Lewis emerged at cornerback for the Steelers last season, but he is now playing for the Saints. Pittsburgh also allowed its depth safeties, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen, to depart via free agency. The only prominent secondary signing was former Steeler William Gay, who is obviously familiar with the system. Gay isn’t starting caliber, but he can play outside or in the slot as a third or fourth cornerback. Ike Taylor often shadows the opponent’s top wideout and overall has done a very good job. He rarely secures the interception, but Taylor is a high-end coverage player. The Steelers are counting on Cortez Allen to replace Lewis opposite Taylor. From what we saw from Allen in 2012, he should be ready for full-time action. Lewis, Gay, Taylor and Allen were all Pittsburgh mid-round picks that the Steelers developed. This past draft they again used a mid-round pick on the position with Terry Hawthorne. They did the same in 2011 with Curtis Brown. As most of these mid-rounders do, Hawthorne will likely "redshirt" during his rookie season, but Brown’s role could increase. At safety, the Steelers have one of the best starting pairs in the league -- when Troy Polamalu is healthy. Still a superb player, Polamalu just has to stay on the field. The Steelers’ defense with and without Polamalu is remarkably different. Ryan Clark has been Polamalu’s partner in crime for some time and has somewhat quietly put together a very impressive career, including an excellent 2012 season. Wisely, the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas, who could be Polamalu’s successor -- or his injury replacement. In the meantime, expect this young heat-seeking missile to be a dominant special-teams player.