Arms Race: AFC North defenses load up on pass coverage

The top three teams in the AFC North have replenished their defensive backfield to gear up for potential shootouts on Sundays.

The trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton averaged 286 passing yards per game last season. The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers needed reinforcements for when they face at least two of those guys. And the Cleveland Browns, well, they cut some people.

Corner was such a priority within the hate-fueled Bengals-Steelers vortex that Cincinnati undercut Pittsburgh on one of its top draft targets, Houston cornerback William Jackson III. The Bengals drafted No. 24 overall, one spot ahead of Pittsburgh. Cincinnati went corner in the first round for the third time in five years. Baltimore might have gotten the steal of free agency with veteran safety Eric Weddle. And Pittsburgh's all-in with defensive back selections in the top two rounds last week.

With the help of ESPN NFL reporters from the AFC North, here’s a look at how each team in the division addressed the secondary since free agency. Yes, there have been key losses for each team. But defensive back was a prioritized position for at least a few.


Acquired: Safety Eric Weddle (free agency), cornerback Tavon Young (fourth round)

Key departure: Safety Will Hill (released)

From Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley: The Ravens allowed a franchise-worst 30 touchdown passes and made an NFL-worst six interceptions last season, so anything would technically be an improvement. Baltimore upgraded at safety by giving $13 million guaranteed to Weddle and moving Lardarius Webb from cornerback to safety. The Ravens hope top cornerback Jimmy Smith will be healthier two years removed from foot surgery, and it's possible that fourth-round pick Young will be the team's top nickelback. Shareece Wright, the other starting cornerback, played better toward the end of the season and was re-signed this offseason.


Acquired: Cornerback William Jackson III (first round, No. 24 overall), safety Taylor Mays (free agency)

Key departure: Safety Reggie Nelson (signed with Oakland Raiders)

From Bengals reporter Coley Harvey: If we’re basing this purely on additions, it’s tough to say exactly how much better-positioned the Bengals’ secondary is because we have yet to see how Jackson -- the first-round Bengals pick who had been said to be on the Steelers’ radar one pick later -- is going to fit in the cornerback rotation. That being said, the Bengals lost a lot this offseason. Nelson tied for the league lead in interceptions last season before signing with Oakland. He was a Roethlisberger bugaboo, too. Three of Nelson's eight picks came against the Steelers quarterback. Jackson certainly should give the Bengals more back-end corner help than aging free-agency casualty Leon Hall, but it remains to be seen how Nelson’s replacement, Shawn Williams, will hold up as a starter for a whole season. The Bengals are optimistic he will, though.


Acquired: Cornerback Artie Burns (first round, No. 25 overall), safety Sean Davis (draft, second round, No. 58)

Key departure: Cornerback Brandon Boykin (signed with Carolina Panthers)

From Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler: This had to be done. This was a corner-safety draft for Pittsburgh, which considered 270 passing yards allowed a good day last season. Jackson might have been the Steelers' target, but they sound awfully high on Burns, a natural press corner who's freaky athletic but a bit raw. Davis is big, physical and has experience at cornerback and safety at Maryland. The Steelers hope these two pieces are the last in a lengthy defensive rebuild, but they'll rely heavily on veterans -- cornerback William Gay, safety Mike Mitchell, corner Ross Cockrell -- early in the season.


Acquired: Cornerback Jamar Taylor (via trade with Miami Dolphins, seventh-round swaps)

Key departures: Safeties Tashaun Gipson (signed with Jacksonville Jaguars) and Donte Whitner (released)

From Browns reporter Pat McManamon: Secondary is one area the Browns did not strengthen greatly in the offseason. The Browns lost their starting safeties, and look to replace them from within with Jordan Poyer and Ibraheim Campbell. Corner remains a concern with Joe Haden coming off ankle surgery and Tramon Williams as the second corner. The only veteran of note added was Taylor, a corner who didn't work out in Miami after being a second-round pick in 2013. It seems the Browns will rely on an improved pass rush to help the secondary.