Wednesday, March 7, 2012
AFC North: Free-agency primer
By Jamison Hensley
Key free agents: RB Cedric Benson, WR Andre Caldwell, WR Jerome Simpson, OL Nate Livings, OL Mike McGlynn, OG Bobbie Williams, DE Jonathan Fanene, DE Frostee Rucker, LB Manny Lawson, CB Kelly Jennings, CB Adam Jones, S Reggie Nelson, K Mike Nugent (franchise tag).
Where they stand: The Bengals have a long list of free agents, which includes seven starters from last season, but only a few of them are labeled priorities. After Cincinnati put the franchise tag on Nugent, the top free agent to retain is Nelson. The Dolphins, who hired Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle to be their defensive coordinator, are expected to make a run at Nelson. Cincinnati is interested in keeping its strong defensive line intact with Rucker and Fanene. The Bengals want more consistency and big plays at running back and will likely part ways with Benson, their leading rusher for the past four seasons. Cincinnati needs to upgrade at wide receiver, too. Simpson was a disappointment as the team's No. 2 receiver because of his poor route running and dropped passes (six of them, according to ESPN Stats & Information). He also faces a suspension from the NFL after he pleaded guilty to a drug charge as part of an agreement that could include a 60-day jail sentence.
What to expect: The Bengals' salary-cap space ranks among the top in the NFL and has been estimated as high as $60 million. Cincinnati, though, has never been known for getting into bidding wars and pursuing the big-name free agents. Don't expect them to go after wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks or cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The Bengals have to address running back, wide receiver and guard in free agency, but they want the best values. Potential targets include Oakland running back Michael Bush, New Orleans wide receiver Robert Meachem and Baltimore guard Ben Grubbs. Bush is a versatile back who can run and catch, Meachem is a red zone threat who can complement A.J. Green and Grubbs is a dependable interior blocker who has a familiarity with the Bengals.
Key free agents: RB Peyton Hillis, FS Mike Adams, CB Dimitri Patterson, P Brad Maynard and K Phil Dawson (franchise tag).
Where they stand: The Browns have already made one move, keeping D'Qwell Jackson off the free-agent market by signing the NFL's second-leading tackler to a five-year, $42.5 million contract. While Cleveland kept the foundation of a its top-10 defense, the team has a massive rebuilding job on offense. The Browns have question marks at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Cleveland will try to upgrade from Colt McCoy at quarterback and find a No. 1 wide receiver either through free agency or the draft. The running back position is more complicated. Hillis, the biggest name among Browns' free agents, said he believes the team want him to test free agency, although Cleveland officials have repeatedly expressed interest in retaining him. The Browns might not find much better in free agency, but they will be wary of giving a multiyear contract to a running back whose production dropped from 1,177 rushing yards in 2010 to 587 last season. Cleveland will look to re-sign Patterson, who has the potential to start over Sheldon Brown this season.
What to expect: The most pressing question is whether the Browns will pursue Matt Flynn, the top unrestricted free-agent quarterback. Going after Flynn wouldn't make much sense because he is so similar to McCoy in terms of quarterback style. Both lack prototypical arm strength and size. Flynn, however, makes better reads and has better pocket awareness. Signing Flynn would eliminate trading up for Robert Griffin III, but Flynn isn't a dynamic playmaker like the Heisman Trophy winner. The other positions of need are wide receiver and defensive end. The Colts' Pierre Garcon is the best fit for the Browns because he gives them much-needed speed and a proven track record. Garcon had 70 catches for 947 yards and six touchdowns in a season without Peyton Manning throwing the ball to him. As far as defensive end, it's a longshot to think the Browns can sign the likes of Mario Williams or Cliff Avril. The other free-agent defensive ends are older and riskier: John Abraham and Andre Carter. Perhaps Cleveland will wait until the draft to find someone to start opposite Jabaal Sheard.
Key free agents: RB Ray Rice (franchise tag), C Matt Birk, G Ben Grubbs, LB Jarret Johnson, LB Jameel McClain, DE Cory Redding, CB Lardarius Webb (restricted) and CB Cary Williams (restricted).
Where they stand: The Ravens took care of their most important free agent when they put the franchise tag on Rice. He would've been the top free-agent running back -- and one of the top overall free agents. Baltimore's biggest areas of concern are the interior offensive line and linebacker. The Ravens are trying hard to re-sign Grubbs because their offensive line struggled mightily when he was sidelined with a toe injury. But Grubbs appears intent on entering free agency and he'll probably get a more lucrative deal from a guard-needy team like the Bears, Cowboys, Falcons, Chiefs or Bengals. It's going to be much easier for Baltimore to keep Birk, who has decided to play after contemplating retirement. This will be a one-year stopgap, especially if the Ravens draft a center in the early rounds. Baltimore wants to retain two starting linebackers in Johnson and McClain, but both could get bigger deals elsewhere like Grubbs. Former Ravens defensive coordinators-turned-head coaches Rex Ryan (Jets) and Chuck Pagano (Colts) could have their eyes on those linebackers. The Ravens are expected to protect Webb with a first-round tender.
What to expect: Baltimore needs to find a productive No. 3 wide receiver for Joe Flacco after failing to do so in 2010 (T.J. Houshmandzadeh) and 2011 (Lee Evans). A logical target is Broncos wide receiver Eddie Royal, who can fill the void as the third target on offense and the top returner on special teams. His numbers have drastically plummeted since his 91-catch rookie season in 2008 (Jay Cutler's final season in Denver) but the Broncos have struggled to find consistency at quarterback during that time, too. The Ravens would make a bigger splash with the Colts' Reggie Wayne, a former roommate of safety Ed Reed while the two were at the University of Miami. But coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens don't have the cap room to sign a high-priced wide receiver. The Ravens don't have to be aggressive in free agency because they can promote from within (Paul Kruger can replace Johnson, Dannell Ellerbe can take over for McClain and Pernell McPhee can step up for Redding) and fill other holes through the draft.
Key free agents: WR Mike Wallace (restricted), WR Hines Ward (released), LB James Farrior (released), QB Charlie Batch, QB Dennis Dixon, QB Byron Leftwich, RB Mewelde Moore, WR Jerricho Cotchery, OT Max Starks, NT Chris Hoke (retired), CB William Gay, CB Bryant McFadden (released), P Daniel Sepulveda, G-C Doug Legursky (restricted) and G Ramon Foster (restricted).
Where they stand: The Steelers have been the NFL's most active team this offseason out of necessity. Pittsburgh had to chop $25 million to get under the salary cap, and it surprisingly did so while losing only one starter (Farrior). The Steelers created room by cutting six players (Farrior, Ward, McFadden, defensive end Aaron Smith, guard Chris Kemoeatu and wide receiver Arnaz Battle) and restructuring the contracts of five players (Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ike Taylor and Willie Colon). It wasn't enough cap space for the Steelers to use the franchise tag on Wallace. A first-round tender on Wallace leaves the Steelers vulnerable to losing the deep threat, although the Steelers intend to match any offer sheet.
What to expect: The Steelers won't be active in free agency because of their cap situation. But, really, when have the Steelers ever been aggressive in free agency? Pittsburgh has remained one of the top organizations by drafting the right players and rewarding them with long-term contracts to keep them away from free agency. The top free-agent signing might be the re-signing of Cotchery, who would compete with Emmanuel Sanders for the No. 3 wide receiver job. The Steelers want to keep Gay, who played well after regaining his starting job, and have to make a decision at backup quarterback (most likely Leftwich over Batch). On the offensive line, the Steelers will move Marcus Gilbert from right to left tackle and put Colon back at right tackle. With the uncertain future of nose tackle Casey Hampton (ACL surgery in January), drafting his eventual replacement is a priority.