AFC North: Antrel Rolle

It seems like there is a lot of talking going on in the division. Steelers rookie Alameda Ta'amu is apologizing. Bengals receiver A.J. Green is doing some mild trash-talking. And new Browns CEO Joe Banner is acknowledging publicly that the team has to decide whether quarterback Brandon Weeden is "the man" in Cleveland going forward.

I don't have much to say outside of my travel plans. I will cover the Ravens-Raiders game Sunday before heading to Pittsburgh to watch the Steelers-Chiefs game Monday night. With that out of the way, here's your wake-up call:

RAVENS: The injuries to Haloti Ngata's right shoulder and right knee are affecting the Pro Bowl defensive tackle, who failed to record a tackle last Sunday. That's only the second time this has happened in Ngata's 102-game career. "Now, it's limiting me," Ngata told The Baltimore Sun. "I just can't do what I want to do most of the time." Ngata plans to play with the injuries, saying taking a week off wouldn't allow him to get back to full strength. He has yet to practice this week.

STEELERS: Rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu apologized after waiving his right to a preliminary hearing on charges stemming from an alleged drunken-driving rampage, according to the Associated Press. He was arrested last month after police said he crashed into several other cars, then ran away from officers. Ta'amu, who was suspended two games by the Steelers, told reporters Thursday, "If there was any other word I would say it, but 'sorry' is the only word I can say right now." This isn't Ta'amu's first run-in with the police. He was arrested for a December 2009 driving-under-the-influence incident while attending the University of Washington, but pleaded guilty to negligent driving.

BENGALS: Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green riled up the Giants on Thursday when he said he saw "a lot of holes" in the defense. "I'll talk with my pads come Sunday. That's how I approach the game. That's how we always approach the game," safety Antrel Rolle said, via ESPNNewYork.com. "If he sees me, he better duck. That's it." Green's comment is really nothing when you compare it to Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who described the defensive effort as "soft" after the loss to the Steelers. Green also isn't alone in thinking that the NFL's 25th-ranked defense has a lot of holes.

BROWNS: New CEO Joe Banner told The Plain Dealer that he and owner Jimmy Haslam have to decide whether rookie Brandon Weeden is a franchise quarterback over the next seven games. "The only reason I'm leaving the door open is, you could think he's the right answer and a year from now go, "Oh, gee, I thought he was but he isn't,'" Banner said. "So it's not like you're etching it in stone, but you certainly have to at least for your next off-season plan, make a determination as to whether in two years from now, when we're trying to be a championship-caliber team, is he good enough to lead us there?" If the Browns are drafting in the top five in April, they would have an opportunity to take a quarterback like USC's Matt Barkley or West Virginia's Geno Smith.
SafetiesESPN.com IllustrationPittsburgh's Troy Polamalu (43) and Baltimore's Ed Reed (20) were the consensus top picks in the ESPN.com safety Power Rankings.
ESPN.com's NFL writers rank the top 10 safeties in the league today. Next week: top 10 owners.

When it comes to rating NFL safeties, there's Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed followed by a huge gap before everyone else.

As expected, the star safeties for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens dominated ESPN.com's positional Power Rankings this week. No other safety received a vote higher than third place.

But what is surprising is that Polamalu -- the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year -- became the first player in this year's series to sweep all eight first-place votes. Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots did the same among head coaches.

This should finally put to rest the "Troy Reed" debate that has been raging for years between these two great safeties. According to our panel, there is a clear separation between the two. Reed received all second-place votes to finish with 72 points.

"Polamalu and Reed are the secondary's version of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. They are the gold standard of safety play," AFC West blogger Bill Williamson said. "While Reed is great, Polamalu is stunning. I've never seen him play and not make a jaw-dropping play."

Both safeties have different styles. But our panel preferred Polamalu's versatility to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau uses Polamalu all over the field to help defend both the run and the pass.

Reed is more of a ballhawking safety who defends the deep portion of the field. He led the NFL with eight interceptions last season despite missing six games because of offseason hip surgery.

"Taking nothing away from Ed Reed, who is a great player in his own right, but Troy Polamalu is the first guy I think of when I think of safeties," NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas said. "He's been a huge force in Pittsburgh's recent championships. He's just a great all-around player and still in the prime of a career that's going to land him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot."

Don't fret, Reed supporters. Someone is in your corner.

Earlier this year I interviewed former five-time Pro Bowl safety and current ESPN analyst Darren Woodson, who said he would choose Reed over Polamalu.

"As far as changing the game, I would probably start my defense with Ed Reed, to be honest with you," Woodson explained. "I know I can put him in any situation. I know I can put him on any team, and he will be the free safety in the middle of the field who makes plays on the ball. Now, Troy, it will be a little different. If you put him in a conventional defense, he's probably not going to be the same guy."

The best of the rest: There wasn't much of a consensus after Polamalu and Reed.

Fresh off a big interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLV, Nick Collins of the Green Bay Packers finished third with 56 points. But Collins received votes as high as third and as low as seventh. He was a distant 24 points behind Polamalu and 16 points behind Reed.

Adrian Wilson of the Arizona Cardinals finished fourth, but he drew the widest range of votes among safeties in the top 10. ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and Bill Williamson ranked Wilson No. 3, and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert ranked Wilson No. 10.

In the final tally, Kansas City Chiefs upstart Eric Berry was fifth, Michael Griffin of the Tennessee Titans placed sixth and Donte Whitner of the Buffalo Bills finished seventh. New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather was eighth, Antrel Rolle of the New York Giants was ninth and the Indianapolis Colts' Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry of the Washington Redskins tied for 10th.

"There is a pretty wide gap for sure after the top two," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "Nick Collins would be my third safety, but the gap is pretty large. I think it is because Troy and Reed are just so good."

Seventeen safeties received votes, which was the second-highest total to date in our Power Rankings. Last month, 23 cornerbacks received votes for our top 10.

In addition, every voter had at least one player on his ballot who failed to make the cut. For example, NFC West blogger Mike Sando and I both voted for longtime St. Louis Rams safety and current Redskin Oshiomogho Atogwe, who finished 14th.

"I really struggled putting together the list after Polamalu and Reed," Sando said. "I kept shuffling around names and eliminating various guys, only to revive them out of necessity. This wasn't a list to feel good about."

What about Bob? It was not long ago when Bob Sanders was mentioned in the same sentence as Reed and Polamalu. When healthy, Sanders was a game-changing safety and helped lead the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title after the 2006 season.

But for the past three seasons, Sanders has been injured and spent more time off the field than on it. The Colts cut Sanders, and he was picked up this offseason by the San Diego Chargers.

It's dramatic how fast and how far Sanders has fallen out of the conversation. He didn't receive a single vote from our panel.

"Sanders just hasn't played," AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky explained. "In his prime and healthy, he's fantastic. But who knows if we will see that again. He's played nine games in the last three years. There is no reason to even consider him for a list like this at this point."

The next generation: Polamalu (30) and Reed (32) will not play forever. Therefore, someone needs to step up as the next great safety to carry the torch Polamalu and Reed will leave behind.

Berry, 22, is the most likely candidate. The 2010 first-round pick was voted in the top five after helping lead the Chiefs to the postseason. Berry recorded 92 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions his rookie season.

"I think it's safe to project that Berry will be the premier safety in the NFL in the second half of this decade," Bill Williamson said. "He became the signature player on a surprise playoff team as a rookie. Soon, he will be the face of a rising organization."

Other up-and-coming candidates include Whitner (25), Bethea (26) and Landry (26). Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, 21, also garnered votes from two panelists.

"Eric Berry and Earl Thomas should lead the next wave of top safeties," Sando said. "Berry's peers voted him among the top 100 players in the game for 2011, but I think it's premature to say Berry or any other second-year player is going to become the next Polamalu or Reed. Those guys have set such a high standard."

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