If the Cincinnati Bengals front seven is able to live up to expectations this season, its cornerback group should easily prove to be one of the best in the National Football League. Joe Haden is the key to the success of the Cleveland Browns’ defensive backfield, while a bevy of newcomers seek to make their way into the Baltimore Ravens’ starting lineup. The Pittsburgh Steelers feature an intriguing mix of young and old talent that could easily result in a rise from the group after this year.
Heading into the 2017 season, which team in the AFC North boasts the best cornerback unit?
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Adam Jones is the patriarch of the Bengals’ cornerback room, but age and continuing off-field issues have left a questioning of his ability to be an on-the-field leader.
Jones, a first-round selection of the Tennessee Titans in the 2005 NFL Draft, had the best season of his career in 2015 when he recorded 62 total tackles, three interceptions, a sack and 12 passes defensed. His efforts earned him a Pro Bowl selection. Jones was also named first team All-Pro as a return specialist in 2014.
Jones’ production slipped slightly in 2016, but he was still the team’s top cornerback and was ranked seventh on Ike Taylor’s list of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Jones has been suspended for the first game of the 2017 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Dre Kirkpatrick, a first-round selection of the Bengals in the 2012 NFL Draft, became a full-time starter in 2015 and has developed into a consistent defender. In 2016, Kirkpatrick tallied 46 total tackles, three interceptions and 10 passes defensed.
Darqueze Dennard, another first-round selection of the Bengals, came to Cincinnati from Michigan State in 2014, but injuries and inconsistent play have limited his impact with the team. Dennard got the most work of his career in 2016 when he started three games in the slot. He finished with 41 total tackles and one pass defensed.
Should Dennard continue to struggle, Josh Shaw is ready to step into his shoes as the slot cornerback. Shaw, who was selected by the Bengals in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, has already proven himself to be a reliable option at the position. In 2016, Shaw impressed with 47 total tackles, one interception and three passes defensed, despite starting only one game. However, he was the primary slot cornerback for the majority of the season in 2016 and saw far more playing time than Dennard. Shaw’s versatility (he also logged time as a safety for the Bengals in 2016 as well as in the 2017 preseason) makes him a valuable piece of the puzzle.
And the Bengals have plenty of depth at the position. William Jackson III was the 24th overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, but his promising career was quickly sidelined when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in training camp and missed the entire season. In his final college season at the University of Houston, Jackson allowed just a 47.4 percent completion rate and notched 13 pass breakups out of 97 passes thrown his way. Jackson is currently the frontrunner to take Jones’ vacant starting position in Week 1.
Bené Benwikere was selected by Carolina in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft and quickly became a solid contributor. He was the Panther’s nickel cornerback in his rookie season and performed well in performed well during Carolina’s 2015 Super Bowl run before a broken leg sidelined him in the final week of the season. Benwikere was once considered one of the most promising young cornerbacks in the NFL and hopes to reignite his career with the Bengals.
The Bengals plucked KeiVarae Russell off of the waiver wire from the Kansas City Chiefs, who had drafted him high in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Russell only played one defensive snap for the Bengals all season, but it ended with an interception of Ravens quarterback Ryan Mallett to help seal a Bengals’ victory in Week 17.
2. Cleveland Browns
Haden, entering his eighth season, is the mainstay of the Browns’ defensive backfield, but struggled with injuries last season and was ranked as the 88th best cornerback by Pro Football Focus. Still, Haden was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate after the season and finished the year with three interceptions.
Haden made the Pro Bowl after the 2013 and 2014 seasons and was named second-team All-Pro in 2013. Cleveland needs Haden to return to the form he showed in those seasons if it hopes to see its defense move into the league’s upper echelons.
The Browns claimed Briean Boddy-Calhoun, an undrafted rookie last season, off waivers from Jacksonville last season, and he went on to start in six of the 14 games in which he played. He finished with three interceptions, 11 passes defensed and was the team’s second best cornerback, behind Jamar Taylor.
Cleveland acquired Taylor in a trade with the Dolphins last year, and he ended up winning the starting job opposite Haden. Taylor, who started 14 games for the Browns, finished with 57 total tackles, three interceptions and 13 passes defensed, and was rated by Pro Football Focus as the 20th best cornerback in the league.
Jason McCourty signed as a free agent this year after spending the first eight seasons of his career in Tennessee. McCourty, who finished 2016 with 59 total tackles, two interceptions and 12 passes defensed, is expected to see time at both safety and cornerback for the Browns.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Jimmy Smith is certainly the Ravens’ top option at cornerback, but health issues limited him to 11 games in 2016 and only eight games in 2014. When he is on the field, though, Smith has proven himself to among the league’s best at his position. In 2015, when Smith managed to stay healthy for the entire season, he turned in 54 total tackles, one sack, three interceptions and 10 passes defensed.
Baltimore signed Brandon Carr away from the Dallas Cowboys this offseason and he has been the front-runner for the second cornerback position. Carr, a fifth-round selection of the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2008 NFL Draft, has started every game of his NFL career. Carr is expected to be pushed by Marlon Humphrey, who the Ravens selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Maurice Canady has the inside track for the nickel cornerback spot, with Brandon Boykin and veteran Lardarius Webb, who has also spent time at free safety for the Ravens, battling it out for the slot position.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Artie Burns turned a lot of heads with how quickly he was able to adjust to the pace of the NFL in his rookie season last year. Burns, a first-round selection of the Steelers in the 2016 NFL Draft, had three interceptions and 13 passes defensed as a rookie and looks to entrench himself as the Steelers’ top cornerback of the future.
The second starting cornerback slot is up for grabs between veteran William Gay, Ross Cockrell and Cameron Sutton. Cockrell started the majority of games for the Steelers last season but has recorded only two interceptions in his four-year career.
While Gay provides versatility (he can play in the slot or at safety), and is probably the best tackler in the group, he is 32-years-old and is expected to see his role decrease. That would open the door for players like Cockrell and Sutton, who was selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Tennessee.
Sutton was an outstanding cover corner in college and excelled in man-to-man situations. If he can translate that ability to the NFL, he could prove to be the best option to start as the Steelers’ second cornerback.
Which team in the AFC North has the best cornerback unit?
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