- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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The AFC North blog is wrapping up its rankings for the positions on defense. This is a projection on how the group will fare this season. It's not an evaluation based on last year. For Wednesday, let's look at the secondary.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers: This defensive backfield is old, but it's still got one good year left as a group. Pittsburgh has the best safety tandem in the division with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. The key, as always, is the health of Polamalu. He's a playmaker when he's in the lineup. Ike Taylor is streaky because he goes through stretches where he lacks confidence. He's still one of the top four corners in the AFC North. There's a level of uncertainty with Cortez Allen, who is replacing Keenan Lewis in the starting lineup, and nickel back William Gay.
2. Baltimore Ravens: If Lardarius Webb can return from a season-ending knee injury, this will be a significant boost to the secondary. He's the best cornerback on the team. There's a chance that Jimmy Smith will beat out Corey Graham for the other starting job. If that happens, Baltimore will have four different starters from the secondary that started the Super Bowl. At safety, Michael Huff and Matt Elam will replace Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. What the Ravens lost in experience, they made up for in speed and athleticism.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have a proven cornerback in Leon Hall, who finished last season strong, and a top free safety in Reggie Nelson. The other cornerback spot will go to either veteran Terence Newman or Dre Kirkpatrick, a first-round pick from a year ago. Adam Jones provides quality depth at corner. The question mark is at strong safety, which has been the weak spot on the defense for two years. Rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams will have a shot to start but he'll have to beat out Taylor Mays, Jeromy Miles and George Iloka.
4. Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden will be the top cornerback in the AFC North, and T.J. Ward could end up being the best strong safety in the division. So why are the Browns last? There's too many questions surrounding them. Rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden is the favorite to start opposite Haden, but he may split time with Chris Owens. Buster Skrine, who committed nine penalties last year, is expected to be the nickel back. The Browns have to decide whether Tashaun Gipson or Eric Hagg will start at free safety. Neither are great options.