AFC North: 2011 safeties breakdown

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson breaks down the safeties of each AFC North team. Today: Cincinnati Bengals.

This area of the Bengals' defense really worries me. There are a lot of players in the mix, but none excites me. Cincinnati would be wise to look at one of the many good free agents likely to be available.

Reggie Nelson played much better for the Bengals after coming over in a trade from the Jaguars, and the former first-round pick does have natural ability to patrol the deep portions of the field. Nelson should remain as the starting free safety given the status of the current roster, but he was such a liability in Jacksonville that it will take time to convince me he can be counted on.

Chinedum Ndukwe and Marvin White will be free agents in some form. Ndukwe is an average starting strong safety who is decent near the line of scrimmage but can be exposed in coverage. He does blitz well, though. White didn’t play a snap last season and was added to the roster only after Tom Nelson, who also made little impact, went on injured reserve.

Roy Williams and Gibril Wilson will also be free agents. They have some similarities -- both are much better near the line of scrimmage than in coverage. Williams didn’t play poorly for the Bengals, but he remains pretty much a one-dimensional run stuffer. Wilson never saw the field after blowing out his knee during the preseason.

Cincinnati drafted Robert Sands, an extremely tall safety prospect, to add depth and special teams help. Depending on how free agency goes, Sands could see the field sooner rather than later, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson breaks down the safeties of each AFC North team. Today: Cleveland Browns.

T.J. Ward had a successful first season in the league. Like most rookie safeties, Ward needs to work on his coverage recognition. He will never be a fluid coverage player who can hang with slot receivers, and he might be only a marginal deep-half zone player. He is a killer in the run game, though. Ward is a big hitter, and although he will overrun plays at times because of it, he can really set the tone for the Browns' defense. He also proved to be a factor on special teams.

Abram Elam could become a free agent and would have several suitors. Elam isn't special in any one area, but he is a solid all-around player who improved in 2010 and made some big plays along the way. His departure would create a big hole next to Ward. If Elam does leave, the Browns need to bring in a rangy playmaker to fill the void.

Eric Hagg was drafted in the seventh round to be Ward’s backup and a quality special teams contributor, and he has the perfect makeup to handle both responsibilities.

Nick Sorensen will be a free agent, and Sabby Piscitelli could also leave. Sorensen was excellent on special teams, so bringing him back makes sense, but neither he nor Piscitelli played meaningful snaps with the defense. Piscitelli was a big liability in coverage.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson breaks down the safeties of each AFC North team. Today: Baltimore Ravens.

In my opinion, Ed Reed is the second-best safety in the league. Reed is a sure Hall of Famer, and his overall playmaking ability is off the charts. After spending the first six games of last season on the PUP list, Reed stormed back to lead the league with eight interceptions. There isn't a more dangerous defender in the league with the ball in his hands. He is a student of the game who baits quarterbacks and breaks on the ball extremely well. Reed’s body might not hold up the way it once did, and he isn’t quite as inclined to throw himself into the action as he once was, but he is still a fantastic player.

Dawan Landry is the starter at strong safety, but he could hit the open market in free agency. More teams are in the market for free safeties, but Landry is improving in coverage and had a heck of a season for the Ravens. He should command a large contract.

Tom Zbikowski might be ready to step in if Landry departs. Zbikowski is a smart and physical player who can hold up against the run and in coverage, and he continues to improve. If Landry does move on, though, the Ravens would be wise to add a free agent to the mix, preferably a younger player just coming off his first contract.

Haruki Nakamura is a core special teams player for Baltimore, but on defense he is a liability in coverage and takes more penalties than he should. Still, for a fourth safety, you could do a lot worse.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson breaks down the safeties of each AFC North team. Today: Pittsburgh Steelers.

Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu is obviously a remarkable player, but he wouldn’t have received my vote last season for that prestigious award. When comparing him to other elite defenders I just can’t get over how much time he misses with injuries. I also contend that there was no way that Polamalu was anywhere close to healthy late in the 2010 regular season and during the Steelers' run to the Super Bowl. However, he is remarkable and when right, there really isn’t anyone like him in the NFL.

Ryan Clark is not the biggest, fastest or most athletic safety in the league, but he is smart and very aggressive. His presence often allows Polamalu to freelance, which is valuable to the entire defense. Clark is also a heavy hitter and takes very good angles to ball carriers and passes in the air. He is a very solid all-around player.

Ryan Mundy saw a fair amount of action when Polamalu was out of the lineup, but Mundy is has nothing near Polamalu's ability, and Pittsburgh's defensive playbook is severely restricted with Mundy in the game. He is also just a marginal special teams contributor. But Mundy is solid at times with a great supporting cast, so his roster spot appears safe for at least another season.

Will Allen was added last year to provide depth and to be a core special teams player, but he had a tough time getting on the field and was beaten out for a spot in sub packages. A free agent upgrade here isn’t out of the question.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL

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