AFC North: 2014 Free Agency Week 1 Recap AFC

Free-agency review: Ravens

March, 18, 2014
3/18/14
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Monroe
Most significant signing: OT Eugene Monroe. If the Ravens didn't re-sign Monroe, they would have taken a major step backward at left tackle. The Ravens would have had to either bring back Michael Oher, who is a below-average left tackle; move Kelechi Osemele to left tackle, where he has never played in the NFL; or sign a lower-tier free agent like Anthony Collins, who has 25 career starts in six seasons. Monroe isn't a Pro Bowl blocker, but he is the best option available. He's consistent, athletic, hard-working and young. At 26, he can be the long-term answer to Joe Flacco's blind side.

Most significant loss: CB Corey Graham. The more popular answer is defensive tackle Arthur Jones, but I can see the Ravens filling his role with increased snaps from Brandon Williams and DeAngelo Tyson. The loss of Graham, who signed with the Buffalo Bills, creates more of a hole. Graham was a starter on the Ravens' Super Bowl team and led the team with four interceptions last season as the nickelback. His toughness and experience is going to be hard to replace. The Ravens haven't seen enough of Chykie Brown or Asa Jackson to have any confidence that either one can fill that void. There's a major drop-off from starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.

Smith
Biggest surprise: WR Steve Smith. Two months ago, general manager Ozzie Newsome said the Ravens needed to add a receiver who could make clutch receptions and produce yards after the catch. The obvious candidates were Eric Decker, Julian Edelman and Hakeem Nicks. Did anyone expect the Ravens to end up with a proven veteran like Smith? Once it looked like Smith was going to get released by the Carolina Panthers, the Ravens were immediately labeled the favorites and for good reason. He is a great fit for the Ravens in terms of making critical plays and leadership. The Ravens continue their strong history of adding quality veterans cut by teams.

What's next: The Ravens still have a long list of needs, even after being active in the first week of free agency. The priority has to be finding a free safety. The Ravens want someone whose strength is coverage, which would complement strong safety Matt Elam. But the Ravens were spectators as many of the best safeties were signed early in free agency. Their remaining options are Miami's Chris Clemons, Atlanta's Thomas DeCoud and Denver's Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback who is open to switching to safety. The Ravens could wait to address free safety in the draft, but that would be risky. Teams usually don't want two young safeties because a mistake at that position can easily result in a touchdown.

Free-agency review: Browns

March, 18, 2014
3/18/14
9:00
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A look at the first week of free agency for the Cleveland Browns:

Tate
Tate
Most significant signing: Ben Tate brings desire and ability to running back, a position of importance no matter what folks say about the NFL now being a passing league. Teams have to run the ball to win. If Tate can stay healthy, the Browns will have something they lacked throughout 2013, something they need: the ability to run when they need to.

Most significant loss: Safety T.J. Ward played well for the Browns in 2013, and Denver did not hesitate to sign him. But the Browns moved faster to minimize the loss, signing Donte Whitner to a contract as soon as free agency started. This is called filling an immediate need immediately.

Biggest surprise: The Browns and their fans would have included guard Shawn Lauvao in yesterday’s trash heap. That’s how they viewed him. Washington disagreed, signing Lauvao to a four-year, $17 million deal. It would seem that something has to give here.

What’s next? The Browns had five major needs when free agency started. Only one glaring need remains: guard. The team could address this position in the draft or via free agency, but some help is needed -- even if it’s only to provide competition. The other need was created after free agency started when Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell were released. The team needs to add a veteran backup at quarterback.

Free-agency review: Bengals

March, 18, 2014
3/18/14
9:00
AM ET
Most significant signing: To this point, Cincinnati's most significant free-agent signing has been a re-signing. By inking restricted free-agent linebacker Vincent Rey to a two-year deal, the Bengals maintained their depth at outside linebacker and kept a vital special-teams piece. The Bengals aren't known to make major free-agency splashes with players from the outside, so it was even more significant that they retained a well-regarded player who not only provides depth but also can start regularly.

Collins
Johnson
Most significant loss: Anthony Collins' decision to sign with Tampa Bay wasn't a big surprise, but it was the biggest loss the Bengals have had so far this free-agency period. Defensive end Michael Johnson's departure was long expected because of the higher price tag he was likely to command. The team still felt it had a chance late with Collins, even an outside chance. The cuts of linebacker James Harrison and center Kyle Cook were big moves, too, but ones the Bengals should more easily move on from.

Biggest surprise: Cincinnati's biggest free-agency surprise actually came two weeks ago, when the Bengals extended low-round tenders to restricted free agents Andrew Hawkins, Dane Sanzenbacher and Rey. The decision to give a low-round tender to Hawkins was perhaps the most curious decision, as it gave the rest of the league free reign to bid as high as they wanted on the player who was the Bengals' third-leading receiver in 2012 (an injury limited him to just half the season in 2013). Cleveland jumped at the chance to give Hawkins an offer that is expected to go unmatched. Since he was an undrafted player, the Bengals won't receive any draft-pick compensation from Cleveland if they fail to match its offer. Lesson learned: The Bengals should have given Hawkins a second-round tender in order to keep him from being poached so easily.

What's next? Although the Bengals lost a couple of big pieces in Johnson and Collins -- not to mention their starting center and "Sam" linebacker -- they will return in the fall with a roster that has very few glaring holes. The good news is that their biggest contributors are already in place, and other backups, like recently re-signed guard/center Mike Pollak, could end up taking over starting jobs. Still, expect the Bengals to keep trying to build their defensive-line and offensive-line depth via free agency and the draft. Linebackers also could be draft targets, as could any number of defensive backs.

Free-agency review: Steelers

March, 18, 2014
3/18/14
9:00
AM ET
Mitchell
Most significant signing: The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t wait long to get younger and faster in the secondary as they lured Mike Mitchell away from the Carolina Panthers with a five-year, $25 million contract. Mitchell, who turns 27 in June, will replace Ryan Clark at free safety, and the Steelers are hoping they added a playmaker to a defense that intercepted 10 passes last season, tied for the third-fewest in the league. Mitchell, who picked off four passes in 2013, has the speed to cover ground in the secondary and is also a good blitzer. Did everything come together for him last season because he played on a defense that led the NFL with 60 sacks or was the jump he made a natural progression for a player with an impressive skill set? The Steelers are banking on the latter.

Most significant loss: Steelers fans grumbled about Emmanuel Sanders and his lack of consistency, but his signing with the Broncos cost them a starter and left them Kleenex thin at wide receiver. Second-year man Markus Wheaton is the most experienced wide receiver on the roster after Pro Bowler Antonio Brown but he played just 157 snaps last season. Jerricho Cotchery, who led the Steelers with 10 touchdown receptions last season, is no lock to return. The 10-year veteran is visiting Carolina and it could be a good fit for both sides. The Panthers needs wide receivers in the worst way and Cotchery badly wants the chance to play in a Super Bowl.

Biggest surprise: The Steelers probably anticipated losing Ziggy Hood but they couldn’t have predicted that Hood and Al Woods would sign with other teams so early in free agency. The losses of those defensive ends left the Steelers in need of sheet bodies at the position, and yet it didn’t seem like they were any more inclined to bring back 12-year veteran Brett Keisel for one more season. Maybe that changes if they don’t land Alex Carrington, who visited the Steelers last Friday but is also meeting with other teams before signing somewhere.

What’s next: The Steelers are less than $3 million under the salary cap, which means they have to free up more cash since the $8.58 million they saved this year by releasing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley doesn’t become available to them until after June 1. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons could be on deck as far as a contract restructure. His base salary in 2014 is $6.75 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the Steelers can lower his cap number ($11.82 million) by converting a big chunk of that into a signing bonus. The Steelers could also reduce Jason Worilds’ cap hit of $9.754 million by signing the outside linebacker to a long-term contract.

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