Tyler Dragon

Cincinnati Enquirer

Published 10:01 PM EDT Jul 17, 2019

Who are the best players in the AFC North? As the 2019 NFL season approaches, we have prognosticated the standout players at each position for our All-AFC North team. 

This preseason all-division team is a projection on which players will excel this year. The selections are based on previous stats, circumstance and trajectory.

The picks will be revealed by position in a nine-part series. In the eighth installment, we name the All-AFC North defensive backs:

Browns cornerback Denzel Ward

Ward had a breakout rookie season in Cleveland. There were naysayers when the Browns selected him No. 4 overall in the 2018 draft, but he quieted those critics with his play on the field.

The 5-foot-11 cornerback’s three interceptions were tied for second among all NFL rookies. He also contributed with 41 tackles and one forced fumbled. Pro Football Focus gave him the seventh best cornerback coverage grade last year.

Ward missed three of the last four games of his rookie campaign due to concussions. However, his performance in 13 games didn’t go unnoticed. He became the sixth Browns rookie in franchise history to be elected to the Pro Bowl.

Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith

Despite missing the first four games of the 2018 season for violating the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, Smith’s two interceptions were tied for the team lead on Baltimore’s No. 1-ranked defense.

Smith is the most talented cornerback in the Ravens’ deep secondary. He’s often asked to matchup on the opposing team’s best wideout. At 6-2 and 210 pounds he has the size to go up against the taller receivers in the league and his ball skills make him a consistent threat to take the football away.

Ravens safety Earl Thomas

Thomas was the most coveted safety in free agency this offseason. The free safety is a ballhawk and a premier safety valve at the backend of the defense.

The six-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro is on the heels of coming off his second consecutive lower left leg fracture. Yet that didn’t avert Baltimore’s interest. The reigning AFC North champs gave Thomas a four-year, $55 million deal to help bolster their defense.

When on the field, Thomas is the best free safety in the game. On paper, Baltimore harbors the best secondary in the division and Thomas is the most adept defensive back among the group.  

Bengals safety Shawn Williams

Williams is one of the least heralded safeties in the league, but his productivity has been fruitful for the Bengals.

At strong safety, Williams’ five interceptions led Cincinnati and was good enough for second in the AFC. The 6-foot safety is rarely out of position and reliable. He played in 88 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last year. His 110 tackles ranked second on the Bengals, just one behind his counterpart at safety, Jessie Bates. The two represent the foundation of Cincinnati’s secondary.

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