Friday, March 8, 2013
Eight in the Box: Top offseason targets
By Jamison Hensley
Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?
Baltimore Ravens: Jermon Bushrod, OT, Saints. To answer the question, the Ravens will target their own players when free agency begins. The focus will be on inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and safety Ed Reed, and it's likely that order. But a primary target for the Ravens should be Bushrod. He's not a top-tier left tackle but he went to two Pro Bowls, owns a Super Bowl ring and knows what it takes to play in a fast-paced offense. Bushrod, who played college locally at Towson, is also more dependable than Bryant McKinnie. Adding Bushrod would allow Michael Oher to play right tackle, his more natural position. There's two problems with this working out: the Ravens may not have the salary-cap room to sign a free-agent offensive tackle and the Saints have made Bushrod a priority to re-sign.
Cincinnati Bengals: Dashon Goldson, SS, 49ers. He was going to be my targeted player for the Bengals even before an overblown radio interview linked him to Cincinnati. The Bengals ignored the strong safety position last season, and it resulted in the team shuffling through Taylor Mays, Nate Clements and Jeromy Miles in the first seven games. Cincinnati eventually had to bring back Chris Crocker to stabilize the spot. Goldson is a tough, physical player who is in the prime of his career. The Bengals have the cap room to meet Goldson's high price tag (likely about $8 million per season), but they might not want to invest so much in the safety position after signing Reggie Nelson to a four-year, $18 million contract last year.
Cleveland Browns: Cliff Avril, DE-LB, Lions. It would be a big statement by the new regime to land a top-five free agent like Avril. He upgrades the pass rush in a major way (29 sacks in his past three seasons) and can bring leadership to a young defense. There are concerns about giving a big contract to a player who has to switch positions. Avril would move from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker, but it's not a major shift because he played linebacker in college. If the Browns are unable to get Avril, they can turn their attention to Ravens free agent Paul Kruger, or the draft. Oregon's Dion Jordan and Georgia's Jarvis Jones have been linked to Cleveland.
Pittsburgh Steelers: LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB, Cardinals. Sure, this isn't a big name like Goldson or Avril. But the Steelers don't have the salary-cap room to pursue top free agents. And, let's be honest, the Steelers don't step into the free-agent waters very much, and it would be accurate to list "none" as the targeted player. Still, if I had to pick a free agent who fits a need and can come at a reasonable price, it would be Stephens-Howling, a former star at Pitt. With Chris Rainey gone, Stephens-Howling is an elusive back who can provide a big-play spark, whether it's as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. His low per-carry average is more a reflection of the Cardinals' offense than his speed. This doesn't change the fact that Pittsburgh needs to find a young featured back in the draft. It's a bonus that Stephens-Howling can make an impact on special teams and has experience as a returner.