Ranking AFC North free agents
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Coaches and general managers around the division have a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason, and it starts in house with their own free agents.
Here is my ranking of the top 10 unrestricted free agents who could be available by the end of this month:
Why: Suggs is a must-have for the Ravens and one of the top free agents on the market overall. His versatility and dynamic pass-rushing ability allows Baltimore's defense to do a lot of things most teams couldn't. The Ravens tried to lock him up long term last year. They came very close but couldn't. Baltimore needs to close the deal with Suggs this year.
Why: After catching 204 passes the last two seasons, Houshmandzadeh is the top free-agent available at his position. He is a Pro Bowl caliber talent that should cash in this season unless Cincinnati chooses to use the franchise tag. Houshmandzadeh is a crafty and tough receiver who is not afraid to go over the middle. He also has the quickness to get open and great hands to make tough catches in traffic.
3. Ray Lewis, MLB, Baltimore Ravens
Why: After playing in his 10th Pro Bowl, it's apparent that Lewis can still bring it. Even at the age of 33, Lewis' leadership and ability was key in bringing the Baltimore Ravens back to prominence and within one quarter of the Super Bowl during an AFC title game loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although a franchise tag is a possibility for Lewis, our guess is that it will only be used to provide an extension to negotiate a long-term deal.
4. Jason Brown, C, Baltimore Ravens
Why: Brown, 25, has quietly developed into one of the top, young centers in the NFL. He started all 16 games the past two years to become Baltimore's most consistent offensive lineman. Center is rarely a huge priority in free agency, but rest assured Baltimore knows how important Brown is to the offensive line. Expect him to be a target for the Ravens once they address players such as Suggs and Lewis.
5. Bart Scott, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
Why: It's scary to think that three of the top five players on this list are Ravens linebackers, but this unit is that good. Scott was the most underrated of the group. He is a fearless, hard-nosed player that can bang heads with the best of them. Scott is strong at the point of attack and arguably the team's hardest hitter. He is perfect for Baltimore's system. But due to the aforementioned Ravens on this list, he could be the odd man out.
6. Bryant McFadden, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Why: McFadden is the only free-agent starter from the NFL's top-rated defense and the team's biggest priority in terms of players currently not under contract. At 27, he blossomed into a starter this year and is just entering the prime of his career. McFadden is athletic, a solid tackler, and a good No. 2 corner opposite Ike Taylor. McFadden has stated that he would love to be back, and the Steelers likely want him back.
Why: Despite one of the worst years of his career, Jones should get some interest on the market because starting safeties are making a lot of money of late. Jones was inconsistent all year following in-season knee surgery but should be a better player once he is completely healed in the offseason. Jones' best years were in 2006 and 2007 when he combined for 207 tackles and 10 interceptions. If he can return to form, he could be a good free-agent signing for someone. It doesn't appear the Browns are interested.
8. Jim Leonhard, S, Baltimore Ravens
Why: Leonhard is an interesting case. Mostly a career backup, Leonhard filled in well for the injured Dawan Landry and could receive some interest on the open market. Now Baltimore has to decide if Leonhard or Landry, a restricted free agent, is the starter. Conceivably, the Ravens could bring back both but it will cost them. Leonhard's representation likely will ask for starter-type money or something close to it after his solid performance this season and in the playoffs.
9. Cedric Benson, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Why: There's still a lot of questions surrounding Benson, but he deserves to be on this list. The former first-round pick signed with the Bengals during the season and finished with 747 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the year with back-to-back 100-yard games, including a 171-yard performance against the Browns. Benson played hard, but was he playing hard just to earn a bigger contract? Could he stay focus once he gets a long-term extension? The Bengals will have to ponder these questions before they throw a lot of money his way.
10. Nate Washington, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Why: Despite being the only non-starter on this list, Washington has developed into an important cog in Pittsburgh's offense. The No. 3 receiver has a penchant for making big plays and is a great compliment to Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. If rookie Limas Sweed isn't ready, the Steelers should work to keep Washington.