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Ranking the AFC North: Cornerbacks

In a league focused on the passing game more than ever, a good secondary is essential for success. Good thing for the Bengals, they are in the top half of the North, as well as the top of the NFL when it comes to their secondary.

Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

We are down to ranking the last two positions in the AFC North - cornerback and safety - and for my money, these positions are both a two horse race - a race which resides in Ohio.

Note: * Indicates projected starters

1) Browns

Projected Depth Chart

CB: Joe Haden*, Tramon Williams*, Justin Gilbert, Pierre Desir, K'Waun Williams, Charles Gaines

When it comes to the cornerback position in the AFC North, this is a two horse race and by the end of the year, the Bengals cornerbacks may have something to say about this top ranking. However, as it stands today, I give the nod to the Browns. In my opinion, Joe Haden is a top five corner in the league and has an argument for the top corner in the league. I have seen him shut down A.J. Green in person and if he didn't play for the Browns, I think he would be talked about nationally with the likes of Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis. Across from Haden in 2015, will be new face in Tramon Williams. Though Williams is 32-years-old, he is a Pro Bowl corner who still has gas left in the tank. Regardless of whether Gilbert ever pans out, I think these two alone carry the Browns to the top of this list and could very well be the top cornerback tandem in the league in 2015.

2) Bengals

Projected Depth Chart

CB: Adam Jones*, Dre Kirkpatrick*, Leon Hall, Darqueze Dennard, Josh Shaw, Chris Lewis-Harris

By the end of the year, the Bengals may be on the top of this list, but with the inexperience of Kirkpatrick and Dennard, I cannot put them there yet. Jones will turn 32 in September, but the former sixth pick overall (2005) is playing the best football of his career right now. Kirkpatrick, a first round disappointment his first two years in the league, finally showed his potential at the end of 2014, highlighted by his two picks (one pick-six) against Peyton Manning on Monday night to clinch a playoff birth for the Bengals. Kirkpatrick will be starting opposite Jones, and all indications out of camp this year are that Kirkpatrick looks like a top NFL cornerback. In the slot, the Bengals with either have their 2014 first round pick, Dennard, or their 2007 first round pick, Hall. Either way, this group is so deep, a first round pick will be their fourth cornerback and it won't be because of bad play. From a depth and potential standpoint, this is the top group.

3) Ravens

Projected Depth Chart

CB: Lardarius Webb*, Jimmy Smith*, Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin, Tray Walker, Anthony Levine

The Ravens are not terrible at the cornerback position, but in my opinion, it is a steep drop off from the Browns and Bengals to the Ravens. Webb and Smith are solid corners, but neither have played at the level of Haden, Williams and Jones, nor do they have the talent of Kirkpatrick or Dennard. Additionally, both are coming off injuries from 2014 and Webb is still fighting off a hamstring issue from this offseason. Beyond Webb and Smith, the Ravens will be relying on a lot of young and inexperienced corners.

4) Steelers

Projected Depth Chart

CB: Cortez Allen*, William Gay*, Brandon Boykin, Senquez Golson, Antwon Blake, Doran Grant, B.W. Webb

The Steelers are clearly the bottom of the division when it comes to the cornerback position (and secondary as a whole), and while there weren't many Steelers fans sad to see Ike Taylor retire, what is left to replace him is nothing to be excited about. In fact, the Steelers best corner may be Boykin - who may not know the defensive system and has only been with the team for two weeks. Allen and Gay will likely be the starters on the outside and while both are experienced, neither are exceptional players. If the Steelers cannot put pressure on the quarterback with their front seven, this secondary may be primed for exposure.

Insight from the AFC North SB Nation Writers:

Chris Pokorny (@DawgsByNature), Dawgs By Nature

It's admittedly hard to compete with the Seahawks' and Jets' talent on paper, but Cleveland will be in the running for the best secondary in the NFL.

Matthew Stevens (@MatthewS_balt), Baltimore Beatdown (@BMoreBeatdown)

The caveat is that this unit has to be healthy. If completely healthy, it has the potential to be one of the best in the league. However, with Lardarius Webb having his injuries start to seriously affect his performance, the Ravens might be in the buying mood with another second corner in the coming seasons. Jimmy Smith played at a Pro Bowl level last season before his injury, but looks to be coming back just fine and picking up where he left off.

Jeff Hartman (@BnGBlitz), Behind the Steel Curtain (@btsteelcurtain)

The Steelers might be the thinnest at the CB position with William Gay, Cortez Allen and Antwon Blake as their only players with significant NFL experience on their roster. Outside of those three, the team will look at second round pick Senquez Golson and fourth round pick Doran Grant for depth. (*Note analysis was provided prior to the signing of Boykin)