When the 2012 began, the AFC North represented two extremes in terms of the salary cap. The Cincinnati Bengals had the league's best cap situation ($44 million under), and the Pittsburgh Steelers had the worst ($25 million over).
The Steelers, though, have made significant progress this month to get under the cap. Pittsburgh restructured the contracts of linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, creating $11.6 million in cap room. The Steelers also freed up $3.5 million in cap space by cutting cornerback Bryant McFadden and wide receiver Arnaz Battle. Those four moves represented a total of $15.1 million in cap room.
There's still plenty of work remaining for the Steelers, who are now a projected $10 million over the cap. Here are five players whose 2012 salaries account for $17.4 million, which makes them candidates to get restructured or released: nose tackle Casey Hampton ($4.8 million), wide receiver Hines Ward ($4 million), guard Chris Kemoeatu ($3.5 million), linebacker Larry Foote ($3 million) and defensive end Aaron Smith ($2.1 million). Some of that cap space will go to wide receiver Mike Wallace, a restricted free agent who will get a first-round tender ($2.7 million).
The Ravens started the offseason in the middle of the pack as far as the salary cap ($8.5 million under). The retirement of running back Ricky Williams gives Baltimore $1.5 million in additional room. The Ravens will get nearly $19 million under the cap when they cut cornerback Domonique Foxworth ($5.6 million salary in 2012) and wide receiver Lee Evans ($3.2 million salary in 2012).
But a chunk of that cap space is expected to go to running back Ray Rice when they put the franchise tag on him. The franchise tag for running backs is expected to be $8 million this year. Baltimore is expected to place a first-round tender ($2.7 million) on their top restricted free agent, cornerback Lardarius Webb.
Like the Bengals, the Browns are among the teams with the most cap room. Cleveland is projected to be $21 million under the cap, which gives it freedom to be active in free agency. The Browns can spend on outside talent because they only have three of their starters heading to free agency (running back Peyton Hillis, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and safety Mike Adams, in addition to kicker Phil Dawson).
For the Bengals, they once again have plenty of cap room entering free agency. Cincinnati has seven of its starters entering free agency, but the Bengals are looking to upgrade at a lot of those spots on offense: wide receiver, running back and both guard positions.