Baltimore has historically boasted some of the top safeties in the NFL, and that tradition will only continue in 2017. The Bengals are expected to challenge the Ravens for the top spot in the AFC North, while the Steelers and Browns are also in the thick of the race.
1. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore may boast the best starting duo in all of football in Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson. Jefferson came over in free agency this year after four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, where he proved to be an effective cover man.
Weddle was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft and has emerged as one of the top free safeties in the National Football League. He is a four-time Pro Bowl selection, was named first team All-Pro on two occasions and second team three more times.
Weddle came to the Ravens in 2016 and promptly recorded 89 total tackles, one sack and four interceptions. He also recorded 13 passes defensed, the most of his illustrious career.
Lardaruis Webb, who was profiled as a cornerback, is the top backup, followed by Anthony Levine, another versatile player who can also fill in as an extra cover linebacker. Levine joined the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Packers in 2010, joined the Ravens in 2012 and has shown steady improvement ever since.
Baltimore may have the best starting safeties in the league, but Cincinnati, featuring the team of George Iloka and Shawn Williams, is not far behind. Iloka, formerly of Boise State University, was drafted by the Bengals in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He stepped into the starting role as the strong safety for the Bengals the following season and has quietly developed into the leader of a unit that is perennially among the NFL leaders in scoring defense.
Consistency has been a hallmark of Iloka’s game. In two of the past three seasons, he started all 16 games. In 2014, Iloka recorded 79 total tackles, had three interceptions and 10 passes defensed. Last year, when he moved to free safety, Iloka had 74 total tackles, three interceptions and seven passes defensed. He only played in 12 games in 2015, but still managed 47 total tackles and four passes defensed.
Williams joined the Bengals in 2013 as a third-round selection out of the University of Georgia and stepped into the starting strong safety role last year. He responded with 81 total tackles, a sack, three interceptions and five passes defensed. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 33rd best safety in the league, and credited him with 14 total pressure and 19 defensive stops. It also named him as the Bengals’ secret superstar entering this season.
However, Iloka suffered a sprained ligament in his right knee and is expected to miss the entire preseason. But he will be ready for the season opener against Baltimore. Williams may not be so fortunate, as he’s dealing with an elbow injury that could sideline him for the start of the regular season.
The next two men up are Derron Smith, a sixth-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft who is entering his third season with the Bengals, and Clayton Fejedelem, who was chosen in the seventh round of last year’s draft. Both have shown promise in limited playing time. Fejedelem got the start in place of the injured Iloka in the preseason opener and performed well, for the most part. Demetrious Cox, an undrafted free agent and safety prospect from Michigan State, had the Bengals’ lone interception that night.
Mike Mitchell is the undisputed leader among Steeler safeties, although Sean Davis is coming off of an impressive rookie season. Mitchell was a second-round selection of the Oakland Raiders and joined the Carolina Panthers in 2013. He responded with the best season of his career after recording four sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions. He finished that year with 66 total tackles and 10 passes defensed.
Mitchell joined the Steelers in 2014 and has played the full slate of 16 games every year since. Last year, he contributed 77 total tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery and nine passes defensed.
Davis was another pleasant surprise for the Steelers last year, joining fellow rookie Artie Burns to help propel Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship game. Davis finished the year with 70 total tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
Robert Golden, who joined the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2012, started seven games last year and is probably the first safety on the field if either Mitchell or Davis get injured. Jordan Dangerfield and Daimion Stafford, who came to Pittsburgh from the Tennessee Titans, are also in the mix.
Cleveland bolstered its secondary with the additions of Calvin Pryor, who came to the Browns via trade with the New York Jets, and Jabrill Peppers, a first-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Michigan. Pryor was drafted by the Jets in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft and made Pro Football Focus’ All-Rookie team that year.
Peppers was the all-everything defender who is expected to make an immediate impact for the Browns. Peppers was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, along with Linebacker of the Year and Return Specialist of the Year, and was a unanimous All-American selection.
Jamar Taylor, who was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, joined the Browns last year and promptly set career highs with 57 total tackles, three interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Depth is the primary area of concern for the Browns, with only fourth-year man Ed Reynolds providing any measure of experience.