AFC North: Carl Nicks

Matt Williamson, of Scouts Inc., handed out grades to the AFC teams after the first wave of free agency. It's an Insider piece, but I will share a small portion for each of the AFC North teams:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Williamson's grade: B-minus. While I am a proponent of not overspending on other teams' castoffs, and bearing in mind that the Bengals have a great opportunity to add quality talent in the draft with two first-round picks, I can't help but feel that the Bengals let a great opportunity slip through their hands this offseason. I would have attacked a high-end free agent or two such as Carl Nicks or Cortland Finnegan.

Hensley's grade: B. The Bengals upgraded at running back and left guard while bringing back their top free-agent priority in safety Reggie Nelson. The biggest knock against the Bengals is they didn't make a splash by signing a high-profile free agent like guard Ben Grubbs or wide receiver Robert Meachem.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Williamson's grade: D. The biggest crime of the offseason was the Browns allowing the Redskins to outbid them for the second overall pick in the upcoming draft, but even after losing out on the right to draft Robert Griffin III, the Browns didn't add nearly enough to consider them as anything but a bottom feeder for yet another year.

Hensley's grade: C. The Browns desperately needed to improve at quarterback, wide receiver and right tackle. But Cleveland's offense came out of the initial wave of free agency empty-handed. The Browns did improve their run defense by signing Frostee Rucker and their pass rush by adding Juqua Parker.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Williamson's grade: C. The Ravens lost several starters to other clubs over the past few weeks and will need younger players to step up in their place, but this remains a very strong roster.

Hensley's grade: D. The Ravens lost three starters (Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding) from last season's AFC North champion team and have yet to add anyone to replace them. The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Evan Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Williamson's grade: C. Pittsburgh was greatly handcuffed by its salary-cap situation. But even though the Steelers released quite a few older brand name players, they sit in good shape for the 2012 season.

Hensley's grade: D. The Steelers avoided a failing grade because they've lost only two starters from last season's playoff team. James Farrior was cut in the team's salary-cap purge, and William Gay left as an unrestricted free agent. What Pittsburgh really lost in trimming $25 million to get under the cap was veteran depth and leadership.
The Ravens lost free-agent guard Ben Grubbs, who signed a five-year, $36 million deal with the New Orleans Saints that included a $10 million signing bonus (according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter).

Mathis
Mathis
That means Baltimore can't allow Eagles guard Evan Mathis to leave its team facility without a signed contract today. There are other guards available like Steve Hutchinson and Robert Gallery, but Mathis is the best immediate answer to losing Grubbs.

If the Ravens can't sign Mathis, there would be a major drop-off on the interior of the offensive line. Baltimore has other options, such as drafting Wisconsin center Peter Konz in the first round and playing him at guard for a season, or moving offensive tackle Jah Reid to left guard. But Mathis represents the best choice in terms of experience and powerful run-blocking.

As far as Grubbs, it looks like his move to the Saints is a no-brainer. He signs a deal that is slightly better than the one signed last summer by the Ravens' Marshal Yanda (five years, $32.5 million with a $10 million signing bonus) and joins another Super Bowl contender. It does make you wonder whether the Ravens, who attempted to keep Grubbs from becoming a free agent, offered him the same deal as Yanda. And, if the Ravens did make that offer, why didn't Grubbs take it?

The free-agent market for guards could set up like dominoes this year. The Saints lose the best free-agent guard (Carl Nicks) and signed the second-best one (Grubbs). The Ravens lose the second-best one and now have the third-best inside their building.

AFC North mailbag

March, 11, 2012
3/11/12
3:00
PM ET
Not getting a lot of fan mail from Browns followers these days after my latest blog about Cleveland losing out on Robert Griffin III. But I did find some others in our AFC North mailbag ...

Michael from Marabella, Spain, writes: Ease up on the whole "Browns not getting RG3 is devastating thing." Not trading three first-round picks to move up two places to get a quarterback that might be successful in the NFL versus potentially getting three starters for a team with many needs doesn't sound devastating to me. Even with a franchise quarterback, the Browns would still be a couple of years away from challenging the rest of the AFC North, and I'd like to see them approach bringing in talent via the draft and give Colt McCoy another chance. If he doesn't work out, they can solve the issues at the quarterback position over the next couple of years when the talent level of the team is higher and better quarterbacking can push them to the top.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: How can you not think it's devastating? All you have to do is assess the situation. What are the Browns left with at quarterback? Overpaying Matt Flynn in free agency or drafting Ryan Tannehill too high. Those choices are more flawed than aggressively pursuing a playmaker in Griffin. You would be wasting away money in free agency or a top-10 pick on a quarterback who doesn't have the upside of RG3. The Browns can stand pat with McCoy, but that's wasting another year with a backup-level quarterback.

I agree that the price was extremely high for RG3, and I understand that the Browns need more than one player in this rebuilding effort on offense. But if you give up draft picks, fill the spots in free agency. The Browns have the money to add skill players. And, in most situations, I would say keep your draft picks because your odds of hitting on four picks are better than one. But the quarterback position is the most important in this game, and you have to go for a guy when he has the "potential" to be a game-changer. That's what the Giants did with Eli Manning. The Browns needed to take a similar risk.

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Ruskin from Grand Forks, N.D., writes: Is there any way the Ravens reconsider Jared Gaither if he hits free agency? He proved that he could be a stalwart left tackle and could definitely progress more, under the tutelage of Bryant McKinnie. Plus, it would save Baltimore from having to use a high-round draft pick on an offensive tackle, allowing them to rebuild at guard, linebacker and wide receiver.

Jamison Hensley: Gaither is a free agent and will be at the top of that offensive tackle class along with Marcus McNeill and Demetrius Bell. I don't see a reunion with the Ravens. He doesn't want to come back to Baltimore as a backup, and the Ravens don't want to deal with his work ethic again. What Gaither did in his five starts in San Diego at the end of the season will entice a team -- perhaps the Chargers again -- to sign him to a nice-sized contract. Gaither will be a starter in 2012, but it won't be with the Ravens.

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Matthew from Washington writes: Considering the Bengals have a lot of cap space, is there any chance they could pull the trigger on both Carl Nicks and Ben Grubbs and solve their line problems in one shot?

Jamison Hensley: There's no question that the Bengals need to upgrade at both guard positions, and they have the cap space to do something about it. But don't expect to see both Nicks and Grubbs in Cincinnati next season. The Bengals don't go after the high-priced free agents, so that takes them out of the running for Nicks. I could see the Bengals pursuing Grubbs because they have a familiarity with him after playing him twice a year. So, what would Cincinnati do at the other guard spot? The Bengals will likely use one of their two first-round picks on a guard. Stanford's David DeCastro has a great shot to be Cincinnati's first selection in the draft.

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Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: Do you think the Steelers are honestly set on Marcus Gilbert and Willie Colon as the bookend tackles? Or is there a possibility of the team looking for a left tackle in the draft? Colon is a huge risk as he's basically been on IR the past two seasons and frankly should have been the first person on the chopping block. Nothing against the guy, but it's a complete waste of money paying him to be injured. Gilbert is a boom-or-bust prospect at best shifting to LT and, after the massive failures of Marvel Smith and Michael Oher moving from right to left tackle the past decade, the track record isn't on his side (Max Starks made the move to great effect, but he was also a pretty lousy right tackle; Gilbert, Oher and Smith were good at right tackle). I'd personally feel a whole lot better if the Steelers grabbed a left tackle in the draft, even if it meant paying a bit of a hefty price to move up for someone like Jonathan Martin or Riley Reiff.

Jamison Hensley: You make a solid argument for the Steelers to use a high draft pick on an offensive tackle. I think Gilbert has a good shot a being the left tackle for the future, but I am not sold on Colon lasting a full season considering his injury history. And, as everyone who watched a Steelers game knows, there's a major dropoff with backup tackle Jonathan Scott. But, like the Steelers did last season, they can always go back to Starks once he recovers from knee surgery. I'm not discounting an offensive tackle in the first round, but I think the Steelers will look at taking a defensive lineman or inside linebacker first.

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