Tuesday, March 13, 2012
AFC North free-agency questions
By Jamison Hensley
A look at some major questions facing the AFC North teams as free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET:
Will the Bengals make a splash with all of that salary-cap space?
I think it will be more like a ripple than a splash. A team like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have about the same amount of cap room, will be far more active than the Bengals because they are undergoing a makeover with a new coach. The Bengals will concentrate on their own free agents (like safety Reggie Nelson and defensive end Frostee Rucker) and fill some holes at running back, guard and cornerback. Like I've said for a month, I see Oakland's Michael Bush, Baltimore's Ben Grubbs and New Orleans' Robert Meachem as good fits for Cincinnati. This isn't like signing Mario Williams or Carl Nicks, but these are moves that will improve a young, developing team.
What are the chances that the Browns keep running back Peyton Hillis?
I say less than 50 percent that Cleveland keeps Hillis. The Browns sent a strong message to Hillis when they told him to test the free-agent market. This means that Cleveland would be interested in retaining the running back at a bargain price. The only way that can occur is if Hillis finds there's little interest in him in free agency. The Browns have some pieces at running back with Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya, but they need a featured back they can depend on. I think the Browns will find one in the draft.
Will free agents Ben Grubbs and Jarret Johnson be gone from the Ravens by this time tomorrow?
It wouldn't surprise me if Grubbs signed quickly elsewhere and Johnson weighed his decision. Grubbs is one of the top three guards available in free agency, and there will be a couple of teams that will come after him aggressively. The Ravens won't be able to match it with their cap space, which is why they were trying to keep him from becoming a free agent. Johnson will get calls early in free agency, too (perhaps from the Colts or the Jets). But I get the sense that Johnson would stay with the Ravens if the money was close. Baltimore can try to replace Johnson with Paul Kruger, but that weakens the defense. It's in the Ravens' best interest to keep a tough and durable linebacker like Johnson for a couple more years.
Does another team make a run at restricted free agent Mike Wallace?
I think the Steelers are going to be able to keep Wallace without a fight. The one team that I would be concerned about is the New England Patriots. They really do need a deep threat and could be willing to give up the 31st overall pick for him. The Bengals have the cap room and multiple first-round picks to make this move, but this isn't really their style. If a team does pursue Wallace, Pittsburgh will do everything it can to keep him. The Steelers are tight against the cap right now, but I think there are still a few moves (restructuring James Harrison and Troy Polamalu) they can make to free up room to match an offer. One potential suitor to scratch off the list is the San Francisco 49ers, who signed Randy Moss on Monday night.