The Cleveland Browns face a free agency decision with ascending 24-year-old safety Tashaun Gipson, one they haven’t yet make public.

Gipson
Giving the restricted free agent a high tender is the easy part.

Whether that’s a first- or second-round tender seems to be the hard part.

They must decide this by Monday. Many teams across the league already have tendered their players. The Browns must decide to designate one of three tenders -- first round, second round or low (no compensation) on Gipson, linebacker Craig Robertson and defensive tackle Ishmaa'ily Kitchen. The team on Friday announced it's keeping exclusive rights free agent Shaun Draughn.

Gipson's deal shouldn't be overly difficult. After nine interceptions in his last 14 games dating back to late 2013, the most in the NFL during that span, a first-round tender of $3.347 million makes sense.

But issuing a second-round tender -- which would pay Gipson roughly $2.356 million -- wouldn't surprise, either. The Browns must know teams don't often give up that high a pick for the rights to make a deal with a safety. Gipson's a good player, so perhaps he can change that precedent. And Gipson won't exactly be thrilled with a second-round designation, considering his rise from undrafted player out of Wyoming to Pro Bowler. He'd likely shop around.

Generally, the Browns would feel protected with the second-round pick.

The second-level tender would send the message the Browns are trying to save small-change money while dealing with an accomplished player. NFL teams are known to do the minimum required in these cases, as long as all interests are protected.

Now, the Browns could always try to cut a deal with Gipson outright. That's still on the table.

Either way, Gipson's free agency should be one of the team's easiest decisions. He's got range and good blitzing ability to accompany his ability to create turnovers. He consistently gets good breaks on intermediate-to-deep balls. Pro Football Focus ranked Gipson its fourth-best coverage safety of 2014.
At least one top-shelf offensive line prospect has the attention of the only NFL team with two first-round picks.

The Cleveland Browns are one of five teams scheduled to privately work out Florida offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, whose stock skyrocketed with a stellar NFL combine performance. Humphries told me the Browns are expected to visit him. He's currently working out in Gainesville, Florida.

The Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals also are scheduled to visit with the 6-foot-5 Humphries, who played at around 285 pounds for the Gators but showed up at the combine at a sturdier 307.

Humphries displayed impressive footwork in combine drills. He also recorded 26 reps on the bench press and timed a 5.12-second 40-yard dash.

The offensive line theme for Cleveland is growing. In his Mock Draft 3.0, ESPN's Mel Kiper has the Browns taking Miami OT Ereck Flowers at No. 19 overall. The Browns also have the No. 12 pick.

Kiper has Humphries going No. 25 overall to the Panthers.

Humphries' rise is impressive. The NFL draft advisory board told Humphries he should stay in school, projecting a third-round grade or worse. Now, some respected NFL analysts have pegged Humphries as high as No. 9 overall.

My take: The Browns will visit with several prospects they don't end up drafting. But the Humphries visit reminds us that the Browns will seriously consider all positions atop the draft, regardless of depth. Offensive line is not exactly a 'need', but it is a large part of the team's identity. Creating more competition, particularly on the right side, wouldn't hurt. Picking an offensive tackle wouldn't ignite fan draft parties but would follow the team's blueprint.
The Baltimore Ravens will make a concerted effort to keep running back Justin Forsett, based on what team officials said recently.

Forsett
With the legal tampering period beginning Saturday, other teams could join the Ravens in their pursuit of the soon-to-be free-agent running back.

According to the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins are ready to "make a play for him." The Saints are facing a void at running back with Pierre Thomas getting cut and Mark Ingram heading into free agency. The Redskins have leading rusher Alfred Morris coming back, but his rushing yards have decreased each season, and backup Roy Helu is a free agent.

Last month, ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure said Atlanta will have interest in Forsett, too.

Forsett finished last season as the NFL's No. 5 rusher with 1,266 yards. He was the only player in the league to gain more than 1,200 yards and average more than five yards per carry.
CINCINNATI -- Count Rey Maualuga among the believers.

While some around the Cincinnati Bengals are concerned about how well linebacker Vontaze Burfict will respond this offseason to microfracture surgery on his left knee, his teammate and fellow linebacker expects the recovery to go well.

Burfict
"I know Tez. He's a fighter. He'll come back," Maualuga said Friday following a news conference regarding the three-year contract extension he signed Thursday.

Maualuga was asked about Burfict because the Bengals' interest in re-signing him appears to have stemmed, in part, from the fact nobody knows yet what to expect.

Microfracture surgery is regarded as one of the most career-threatening procedures athletes can endure, with patience and persistence a necessary virtue.

"He's a tough guy," Maualuga said. "With the healing process, that's going to take some time. But with the spring and OTAs (organized team activities) and all of that, it's a chance for guys to get better. It's a chance for coaches to see what guys can be put in that role and look comfortable in it. We don't have to worry. We have time to find the right guys to take on that role if he doesn't come back in time."

Maualuga said he was optimistic the same old Burfict would be running around when training camp begins in July and August.

For now, that's the timeline the Bengals are hoping for. Head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther were told Burfict's slow recovery process ought to have him back in time for the start of camp. They likely will take it easy with him when he first gets on the field, but the hope is that when he's 100 percent, he will not have lost the explosiveness and burst that made him a virtual wrecking ball in the middle of the defense during the first two of his three seasons in stripes.

His 2014 season was almost completely derailed because of injuries, but Burfict, led the Bengals in tackles in 2012 and 2013. A former undrafted free agent, Burfict made the Pro Bowl following his second season before signing a contract extension that is scheduled to pay him about $20 million through 2017. He's still just 24 years old.

"Vontaze is a big reason for this linebacker group to be what we need it to be," Maualuga said. "With his presence and his understanding of the game, we're a lot more comfortable. If he's not out there, it's like we're playing not so much a catch-up game, but it's like that overall mindset is off for us. It changes a little bit."

Part of the reason Maualuga anticipates Burfict to make an adequate return is because he knows what drives him.

"Doctors are going to say what they want to say: 'This guy will come back in six months' or whatever," Maualuga said. "No, it's on the player. Just like my hamstring the first time [last season]. They said, 'Oh, it's going to be 6-9 weeks.' Well, I came back in four. It's all about how bad you want it and how fast you can come back."

Anyone who has spent time around Burfict knows there really is no questioning how much he wants to play at a high level again.
The Pittsburgh Steelers added an intriguing quarterback to their roster Friday when they signed Tajh Boyd to a one-year contract.

Boyd is the ACC’s all-time leading in passing yards (11,904) and passing touchdowns (107) and the former Clemson star was a sixth-round draft pick by the New York Jets last year.

The Jets cut Boyd at the end of preseason practice and he played for two FXFL teams before signing with the Steelers, where the 6-foot-1, 225-pound quarterback will be reunited with former Clemson wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

The addition of Boyd all but rules out the Steelers' drafting a quarterback or signing an undrafted free agent.

And there could be an opportunity for Boyd to make the roster.

Landry Jones, the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback, has yet to dress for a game in two NFL seasons or seriously push Bruce Gradkowski for the No. 2 job behind Ben Roethlisberger.

General manager Kevin Colbert said recently that Jones made significant improvement in his second season, so the signing of Boyd is not necessarily an indictment of Jones, a 2013 fourth-round pick.

But Boyd’s pedigree also suggests that he will be more than just an extra arm for training camp and will have a legitimate shot of making the 53-man roster if he performs well.

The effect of Brandon Marshall's trade to the New York Jets ripples to Cleveland.

Because it takes one team off the list of "teams that need a receiver in the draft."

Provided he passes a physical, Marshall will pair with Eric Decker to upgrade the Jets' group (or "room," as they say in the most recent NFL vernacular ... the "room"). Marshall is a five-time Pro Bowler whose numbers dropped significantly in 2014 in Chicago.

Prior to the trade, the draft seemed a logical spot for the Jets to add a receiver. Now the Jets have interesting options come draft time, all of which affect the Cleveland Browns:
  • They can turn to the best available player, which increases the chances that one of the top three wideouts in the draft -- Kevin White, Amari Cooper, and DeVante Parker -- will be available when the Browns select 12th. The most likely, clearly, would be Parker. The flip side: If another team needs a receiver, they now know they might have to trade up to get him, which could hurt the Browns if they decide Parker is their guy.
  • The Jets might decide to draft quarterback Marcus Mariota after all. If the Jets are at all interested in Mariota, this trade might make it less likely the Browns can get him. Unless ...
  • The Jets become more open to trading the sixth pick to further fortify their roster with extra picks. They could demand three first-round picks from the Browns -- which is about the going rate -- for the sixth pick, which the Browns then can use on Mariota.

This will all be the subject of endless chatter and debate as the draft approaches, but it’s clear the ripple effect of the trade does reach Cleveland.

One other reality that was good to hear was when ESPN’s Adam Schefter revealed that the Bears had discussions with the Browns about Marshall.

The seriousness of the discussions and the Browns' offer (if there was a concrete offer) aren’t known, but the fact that they at least called is encouraging. Because it shows the team does realize receiver is a need that must be addressed, and because it shows the Browns were at least willing to investigate.

New quarterback Josh McCown knows Marshall from the 2013 season in Chicago, so it’s safe to assume that if he was consulted he gave a positive review. The Browns at least reached out.

They didn’t win on the trade, but no team wins them all.

It’s at least good to know they looked into the possibility.
Before the start of the new league year (March 10), the Baltimore Ravens have to decide whether they want to tender their restricted free agents, and at what level.

A restricted free agent, who has three accrued seasons in the NFL, can receive one of three tenders: first round ($3.347 million), second round ($2.356 million) or the low tender ($1.542 million).

If a team signs a restricted free agent to an offer sheet, the Ravens have the right to match the deal or receive the designated draft pick from that team as compensation. The low tender awards a draft pick corresponding to the round in which the player was originally drafted. If the player originally went undrafted, the team receives no compensation if that low-tender RFA signs elsewhere and the team decides not to match it.

Here are my predictions for the Ravens' three RFAs ...

Tucker
K Justin Tucker: Second-round tender ($2.356 million). This is a no-brainer. The Ravens can't give him a low tender, because another team would jump at the chance to sign the most accurate kicker in NFL history to an offer sheet. Tucker went undrafted, so the Ravens would get no compensation if another team signed him to a deal that the Ravens couldn't match because of their limited amount of cap space. A second-round tender is steep enough to discourage teams from going after Tucker. This tender is a bargain for the Ravens. Tucker will rank No. 9 among kickers in salary in 2015.

SS Will Hill: Low tender ($1.542 million). Some might argue the Ravens need put a second-round tender on Hill to stop another team from signing away the team's starting safety. Like Tucker, Hill went undrafted and there is no compensation at the low tender. I'm guessing it's a risk worth taking because of the Ravens' cap situation and Hill's track record. The Ravens have to create cap room before March 10, and they can't afford the additional $814,000 for a second-round tender. In addition, Hill has been suspended twice, and that will likely scare a team away from signing him to an offer sheet. Even at the low tender, Hill would get nearly a $1 million boost in salary from last season.

DB Anthony Levine: No tender. The Ravens really like Levine as a core special teams player and versatile defensive back. But giving him $1.542 million for one season is a luxury the Ravens can't afford with their current cap situation. Levine falls in the same category as linebacker Albert McClellan, a standout special teams player who was scheduled to be a restricted free agent last offseason. Instead of giving McClellan a $1.3 million tender in 2014, the Ravens signed him to a two-year, $2.2 million deal that included a $400,000 signing bonus. McClellan's cap hits in two seasons ($1 million last year and $1.2 million this year) were lower than his one-year RFA tender. It could play out the same way with Levine.
The day after the 2014 season ended Brian Hoyer took the nameplate from his Cleveland Browns locker.

You never know what will happen, he reasoned, so he took the nameplate with the Browns helmet on it as a memento of the one season he started in his hometown.

Hoyer
Now Hoyer knows he will be playing elsewhere in 2015.

“Obviously them signing Josh [McCown] made it clear that I wasn’t going to be back, so it’s best to go our separate ways,” Hoyer said Thursday. “Being from here and getting a chance to play here, it will always have a special place in my heart.

“I feel good about what we did and look back with pride at what we accomplished.”

Hoyer did not want to go into details about his next NFL home, but he said he is not bitter at how things ended in Cleveland.

“It’s a business,” Hoyer said. “It is what it is. In the past, I’ve been cut, claimed off waivers. When it comes down to it it’s a business. I loved my coaches and teammates. To be part of the organization you grew up watching will always be special.”

Hoyer won the starting job in a training camp competition with Johnny Manziel. He guided the Browns to a 7-4 record after a last-play win over Atlanta.

But the unending weight of speculation about Manziel finally caught up to him, as Hoyer was replaced the following week in the fourth quarter in Buffalo and then struggled with the offense against Indianapolis. Manziel started and struggled the following week against Cincinnati in a 30-0 loss.

The Browns' promising start disintegrated into a 7-9 season.

In the offseason it became public that general manager Ray Farmer had been texting assistant coaches and a team employee on the sidelines about quarterback play during the season. Hoyer admitted in February he was interested to learn the nature of the texts.

Last week, the Browns signed McCown -- who will be 36 in July -- to a three-year deal and let Hoyer know he would not be back.

He described himself as “anxious and excited about free agency.”

“It’s the first time I really get a chance to pick where I’m going to play,” he said. “I’ve never gone through this before.”

He had one last point he wanted to get across.

“The fans were amazing,” he said. “I had so much support, even when there was the proverbial quarterback competition. Johnny too. We both had support. There’s a special connection here with the fans.

"It was one of my favorite things about playing here.”
Among the potential wide receivers available before true free agency begins March 10;

" An explosive 6-foot-4, 229-pound playmaker who’s a lock for 90-plus catches and 1,100-plus yards most years.

" A potential Hall of Famer who, in his day, might have been the league’s premier receiver.

" A former Pro Bowl receiver who’s eclipsed 1,000 yards in three of his first eight seasons.

Bowe
Johnson
Johnson
Marshall
So maybe Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson and Dwayne Bowe are at least 30 years old with declining numbers.

But all are talented and established enough to make a receiver-needy team such as the Browns at least entertain their presence at a sensible price.

Cleveland would be silly not to make a phone call if these three wideouts are cut by their respective teams.

Key word: cut. Not trade.

All three are reportedly on the trading block, which really means they are likely to be cut unless a team is desperate enough to give up a mid-round pick for their services.

It’s highly unlikely a draft-first team such as the Browns would give up a third-round pick for the right to pay Marshall a salary of $7.5 million, $7.9 million and $8.3 million during the next three seasons. Marshall has essentially outstayed his welcome at three different stops. He might not be worth the headache for a young team trying to get right unless his free-agent market dwindles to an absolute must-snag bargain.

Any team that signs Marshall should give him a contract they can get out of in a year. That way, they get his numbers but aren’t tied to him if he starts decaying a locker room.

Andre Johnson is a receiver worth getting behind. Doesn’t have the same first step, but he’s too crafty not to be a factor, even at age 33. But here’s the thing – he’ll probably gravitate toward a good quarterback for a team that’s one or two pieces away. The Browns don’t have that luxury, which means they’d be shopping from the full-price section.

Still, there’s a growing list of stars that could be available even before Green Bay’s Randall Cobb and Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin get to test the market. Even if these names were more attractive in, say, 2011, they are still worth vetting.

First, the Browns must decide what they want to do about Brian Hartline, who has visited Cleveland, Houston and Chicago.

At the least, pick up a veteran receiver who can help stretch the field on the outside and can complement a high draft pick at the position.
HOUSTON -- The cry from many, upon learning the Houston Texans no longer consider Andre Johnson a starter, was -- "Who then?"

The answer, clearly, was someone who wasn't on the roster. A receiver signed in free agency or the draft.

Hartline
Though players set to hit the market don't become free agents until March 10, players who have been released by their teams become free agents immediately. Enter Brian Hartline, who is visiting the Texans today.

The Miami Dolphins released Hartline last week.

In his career Hartline, 28, has 298 catches for 4,243 yards. He had 1,000-yard seasons in 2012 and 2013, and has a career average of 14.2 yards per catch. Hartline, who was due $5.95 million in 2015, had been phased out of the offense through no fault of his own according to our Dolphins reporter James Walker.

Hartline has also visited the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns this week.
The Browns can print their own "play like a Brown" money, toting $53.77 million in InstaBrown salary-cap bucks.

They have to spend at least some of that pile. As explained last week, to get above the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s 89-percent rule, the Browns must spend roughly $71 million during the next two offseasons. Rookie contracts and in-house signings will cover some of those expenses.

All this cap space doesn’t mean the Browns must make an Ndamukong Suh-sized play. That seems unlikely. Don’t expect the Browns to be huge players in the market of top-10 players. That doesn’t seem to fit Ray Farmer’s draft-first philosophy. Look around the league at some of the top franchises – Packers, Patriots, Ravens. They won’t be overly active when the market booms on March 10.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Karlos Dansby
AP Photo/David RichardThe Browns' free-agent strategy last spring, with players such as Karlos Dansby, worked.
But the Browns’ plan from last year could be a good blueprint for Farmer’s second year. In fact, Cleveland’s strategy worked (repeat: Cleveland's strategy worked!). Don’t be surprised if they roll out a similar plan – sign a few quality players that command rich, but not outrageous, contracts, then fill in the gaps with other veterans.

At the start of free agency, the Browns poured about $25 million in guaranteed money to linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner. These are good signings, for the money. Whitner’s $13 million in guarantees was behind Denver’s T.J. Ward and New Orleans’ Jairus Byrd in the 2014 safety market.

Dansby’s $12 million guaranteed put him 22nd overall among linebackers (3-4 OLBs occupy some of those spots).

Both players were productive on the field and in the locker room as influential veterans.

Andrew Hawkins looks like a steal for Cleveland at four years for $13.6 million and $6.8 million in guarantees. The Browns aided the receiver position with a one-year deal for Miles Austin. Perhaps they could have done more at this position, but Austin was the Browns’ best third-down receiver for most of the year.

Despite Farmer’s blunders, including two first-round picks who struggled mightily as rookies and a text message investigation that hurts the Browns’ image, it should be noted that Farmer essentially went 4-for-4 in top free agent signings last year. That should sway his plan for this year.

“Active? Not active? It’s really about being judicious and making smart decisions,” Farmer told ClevelandBrowns.com last month. “That’s the one thing we’ve tried to articulate to [owner Jimmy Haslam] and the rest of our staff. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to go. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to play. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to allocate cap dollars in that regard.”

This is typical Farmer – incredibly vague, by design.

But I believe he’s already tipped his hand by the way the team handled last year. The plan worked and is worth repeating.

If the Browns do decide on a big-money play, however, my guess is they target a talented pass-rusher such as Jerry Hughes.
The Baltimore Ravens have a need at safety, wide receiver and cornerback. Still, the Ravens aren't going to line up and throw money at Devin McCourty, Randall Cobb and Byron Maxwell.

The Ravens don't have the salary-cap room to be big spenders in free agency, and it's simply not the way this franchise has done business, especially over the past five years. This is a team that prefers to focus on signing its own free agents instead of ones from other teams because it's a sounder investment to give millions of guaranteed money to players you've known for four years. This is also a team that targets salary-cap casualties over unrestricted free agents (players who have finished out their contracts) because players who've been cut don't reduce the number of compensatory picks for the next year's draft.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Suggs
Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY SportsThe Ravens have focused on signing their own players (such as Terrell Suggs) vs. going after other teams' free agents. It's a formula that has worked well.
 Since 2010, the Ravens have signed 16 players from other teams in the first wave of free agency (first three months) and 12 of them have been cap casualties. During that same time, only one free agent (linebacker Elvis Dumervil) from another team has received more than $4 million in guaranteed money from the Ravens. Consider this: The Ravens have given a total of $29 million in guaranteed money to other teams' free agents over the past five offseasons, but they've invested a combined $93 million in guaranteed money to keep quarterback Joe Flacco, guard Marshal Yanda, tight end Dennis Pitta and linebacker Terrell Suggs over that same span.

When the Ravens bring in a free agent, it's typically someone who has been pushed into free agency because of a high cap number. The Ravens have found good value in signing cap casualties such as wide receiver Steve Smith, wide receiver-returner Jacoby Jones, tight end Owen Daniels, running back Justin Forsett and fullback Vonta Leach.

The four unrestricted free agents signed by the Ravens the past five offseasons are: running back Ricky Williams, cornerback Corey Graham, safety Sean Considine and safety Darian Stewart. Only Graham received more than $1 million in guaranteed money.

The fact that the Ravens have allowed a good number of their unrestricted free agents to sign elsewhere (such as Michael Oher, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Arthur Jones and Cary Williams) and they don't sign many UFAs has resulted in the most compensatory picks in the NFL. Since the league started awarding compensatory picks in 1994, the Ravens have received 41, which is eight more than any other team in the league. The Ravens have added the maximum number of comp picks in 2013 and 2014, and they're expected to receive three for the 2015 draft.

Compensatory picks have been just as big of a factor in the Ravens replenishing the talent that they've lost as free agency has been. The Ravens have had seven comp picks turn into starters or significant contributors: running back Chester Taylor, offensive tackles Tony Pashos and Rick Wagner, fullbacks Ovie Mughelli, Le'Ron McClain and Kyle Juszczyk and linebacker Pernell McPhee. When McPhee -- who is considered a top-15 free agent this offseason -- signs elsewhere, the Ravens could gain a third- or fourth-round compensatory pick in 2016.

The Ravens are so fixated on collecting the maximum number of comp picks that they will wait on signing unrestricted free agents until after June 1, when they don't count against the comp pick formula. They did this when they added quarterback Marc Bulger, kicker Shayne Graham and linebacker Daryl Smith.

With the Ravens expected to among the teams with the least amount of cap room, they are not expected to be very active in free agency. But being methodical and selective has become the Ravens' way. The Ravens signed only two players from other teams in March in 2012 and 2014, two seasons that resulted in playoff berths.

 This has been a successful approach, although not always a popular one.

"We take some stress -- a lot of stress -- during free agency," general manager Ozzie Newsome said last year. "There are a lot of good players that sign with other teams, and we lose a lot of good players, but we maintain the patience. And we'll try to sort through other areas to get players."

Newsome's way of assembling talent has helped the Ravens to reach the postseason in six of the past seven seasons. Only the New England Patriots have won more games than the Ravens since 2008.

The Ravens have become a classic example of how teams that don't generate many headlines in March are often the ones who are playing in January.

Here is a look at the players from other teams signed by the Ravens in the first wave of free agency since 2010 (* -- unrestricted):

2010: WR Donte Stallworth, DE Cory Redding

2011: SS Bernard Pollard, RB Ricky Williams*, FB Vonta Leach

2012: WR-KR Jacoby Jones, CB Corey Graham*, S Sean Considine*

2013: DE Chris Canty, LB Elvis Dumervil, SS Michael Huff, DL Marcus Spears

2014: TE Owen Daniels, RB Justin Forsett, WR Steve Smith, SS Darian Stewart*
CINCINNATI -- Let's say this one last time, and with feeling: the Cincinnati Bengals will not be signing Ndamukong Suh.

Randall Cobb, for as much as he's reportedly seeking ($12 million per year), also will not be placing his name on a Bengals contract this year.

Neither would DeMarco Murray nor Adrian Peterson, if the Bengals had a serious need for a running back.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceDon't expect Ndamukong Suh, or any of the NFL's high-end free agents, to be signing with the Bengals next week.
Why? Because Cincinnati simply doesn't have enough in its coffers this year to ink what are sure to be massive deals for each of the aforementioned free agents. They believe they have just enough to make moves with their current free agents who need extensions, and to sign a couple of other second- and third-tier players from outside.

While it is true the Bengals, at nearly $40 million, have some of the league's largest salary-cap space based on records from the NFL Players Association and ESPN Stats & Information, the team expects to actually operate this year at a significantly lower figure.

That's because of other costs that factor into the salary cap that occasionally get overlooked both here and elsewhere.

Money for draft picks, undrafted college free agents, injury protections and the practice squad roster are among other budgetary items that get included into the cap-space figure. Also included is the $8.7 million rollover the team likes to use during the summer months when it tries to re-sign players who are going into the final year of their current deals (a la Andy Dalton last August). That money could go fast this year with 17 players, including receiver A.J. Green, currently due to hit free agency next March.

All of that explains why, when it's all said and done, the $40 million looks a lot more like about $15-18 million to the Bengals.

Suh won't be signing for $15 million. And he certainly won't be signing for half that.

Maybe Greg Hardy -- a defensive end who had a $13.1 million franchise tag last year with Carolina, but who also hits free agency with off-field baggage that could force him into signing a discounted contract wherever he lands -- will. Hardy had domestic violence charges dismissed last month, and was in New York on Wednesday meeting with league officials as they investigate the off-field incident further. Their investigation is expected to determine whether or not he'll be punished for any games next season, after spending all but one in 2014 on the exempt list while the charges were pending.

Maybe the Bengals don't go with one $9 million-per-year splash free agent. Perhaps they'll stick to their normal routine when free agency starts next week and wait for the Day 1 and Day 2 smoke to clear before moving on multiple free agents who would be worth closer to $4 million or $5 million a year. Whichever of the methods they choose for adding external free agents, they also have to account for re-signing their own free agents like Clint Boling, Rey Maualuga and Mike Nugent, too. That $15-18 million also covers them. Expect all three to have new deals in the coming days.

Having Suh on their defensive line would be a dream for the Bengals. But the reality is, the dollars and cents just don't make sense.
The Cleveland Browns have plenty of needs to fill on the offensive side of the ball at the start of free agency. The list of gaps is eyebrow-raising, even to a team that doesn’t have to line up and play for six months.

The plus is the Browns have $53 million in salary cap space heading into free agency. The CBA requires NFL teams to spend 89 percent of their cumulative salary caps from 2013-16, which means the Browns must spend $71 million in cash over the next two seasons.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Cliff McBride/Getty ImagesJosh McCown will be paid like a starter for the Browns, who have plenty of money to spend this offseason.
That sounds like a lot. But Josh McCown’s guaranteed $6.25 million chips away, as will the rookie contracts. If the Browns re-sign Tashaun Gipson, that will take up more room with signing bonus and first-year salary. If they retain any of their free agents, it will use more.

So the Browns can be judicious in free agency and not spend a ton while still chipping away at the money they have to spend.

Among the areas of concern:
  • Wide receiver: The Browns need at least one, and probably two receivers. One can come through the draft — if Ray Farmer gives a little on his reluctance to draft a receiver with a high pick. The other would have to come via free agency. Cecil Shorts III is on record that he would like to play in his hometown. Brian Hartline could choose soon between the Bears (whom he’s visiting Wednesday) and the Browns (whom he visited Tuesday), or returning to the Dolphins.
  • Tight end: Jordan Cameron is on a humanitarian trip for American Football Without Borders, the group run by tight end Gary Barnidge. But the strong feeling around the league is that Cameron is ready for a change after years of upheaval in Cleveland. Look for Cameron to favor a West Coast team. He has a young son to whom he is devoted, and he would love to be closer to him. The Browns could turn to a guy like the Minnesota Golden Gophers' Maxx Williams in the draft, though it might be a stretch to think he’ll be available in the second round when the Browns pick at No. 43. Denver’s Julius Thomas is the most talented option other than Cameron on the free agent market, but he will probably demand more money than the Browns want to spend. The market drops after those the top two.
  • Quarterback: The Browns give every indication that they will not add another veteran quarterback following the signing of Josh McCown. They certainly paid McCown like he’s going to start, guaranteeing him $6.25 million. With Brian Hoyer no longer in the plans, it would seem that adding Jake Locker would strengthen the position. The negative is that he has been much injured. But the tea leaves say the Browns will not do anything more at the position until the draft. Whether that’s via a major trade up for Marcus Mariota or whether it’s for a second-round or third-round development guy provides the intrigue.
  • Running back: The Browns will live with the two rookies they played last year, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. But their inconsistency was troubling. Crowell clearly is more explosive, but neither of the two seized the spot. Ben Tate didn’t work out last season, but a veteran might add something to the mix. The position is not considered a major question mark, but it could easily become one.

As for their own free agents, the Browns might also need to add a corner to replace Buster Skrine and a linebacker to replace Jabaal Sheard, if both sign elsewhere.
Not only did Pro Football Focus rank the top 75 free agents in 2015, seven of their analysts offered predictions on where they all will sign. For our purposes, let's take a look at the predicted landing spots for the Baltimore Ravens' free agents:

LB Pernell McPhee (Ranked No. 19 overall): Indianapolis Colts. Other teams mentioned: Tennessee and Detroit. The Colts are the popular choice here because of Chuck Pagano's history with the Ravens. My pick is the Oakland Raiders, who have $56 million in cap space and tied for the second-fewest sacks in the NFL last season. New Raiders coach Jack Del Rio will want to upgrade his defense, and what better way than to pair McPhee with Khalil Mack.

WR Torrey Smith (No. 30): No consensus. Teams mentioned: Cleveland, Carolina, New England, Miami, New York Jets and Ravens. My pick is the Jets. New York will only have one starting-caliber receiver after it parts ways with Percy Harvin, and Eric Decker is a possession receiver. Smith can complement Decker and stretch the field for a Jets passing attack that managed just 15 completions on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air last season (tied for third worst in the NFL). I wouldn't rule out the Jaguars, who have a lot of money to spend.

RB Justin Forsett (No. 42): Ravens. Other team mentioned: Dallas. The prevailing feeling is that the Ravens will make Forsett a priority. The Ravens know he fits in their offense, and they're probably not impressed with the other options in Forsett's price range. Even though the Ravens are likely picking a running back early in the draft, Forsett will be the team's top running back until the rookie gets up to speed (look at how the Bengals brought along Jeremy Hill) and he can share snaps after that. The Ravens also value Forsett as a mentor.

TE Owen Daniels (No. 71): Ravens. Other teams mentioned: Denver, Miami and New York Giants. While many quickly earmarked Daniels to reunite with Gary Kubiak in Denver, my bet is Daniels remains with the Ravens. With Dennis Pitta's uncertain status, the only healthy and experienced tight end on the Ravens roster is Crockett Gillmore. Daniels quickly built a rapport with Joe Flacco, and he stayed fresh throughout because coach John Harbaugh gave him one day off a week.

A few of the Pro Football Focus analysts also predicted the Ravens would sign free agents from other teams, but general manager Ozzie Newsome prefers to sign salary-cap casualties over unrestricted free agents because they don't count against the team's compensatory picks. Here are the UFAs linked to the Ravens:

CB Tramon Williams (No. 25): Allowing the winning touchdown pass in the NFC Championship Game overshadowed Williams' productive season. He was a tough and durable member of the NFL's 10th-ranked pass defense last season. Williams also has 27 interceptions over the past seven seasons. The Ravens probably don't have the cap space for Williams. Even if they did, I'm not sure they could pry him out of Green Bay.

WR Michael Crabtree (No. 62): He never lived up to expectations with the 49ers, but he's a talented receiver who can flourish in the right system. It just won't be in Baltimore. Crabtree is another pipe dream for the Ravens. They don't have the cap space to splurge on a receiver like Crabtree, Randall Cobb or Jeremy Maclin.

CB Walter Thurmond (No. 72): He's a corner who'll have a reduced price after a season-ending torn pectoral muscle limited him to two games last season. Thurmond is considered a top-level nickelback, which makes him an intriguing option. But he would be a risk considering the Ravens' starting cornerbacks, Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, both have extensive injury histories.

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