AFC North: Cliff Avril
Cap Status: The Ravens are a projected $3 million to $4 million under the cap, which is why they're asking wide receiver Anquan Boldin to take a pay cut.
Strategy: The Ravens' focus early in free agency has always been retaining their key players. This year is no different. The priority is re-signing Dannell Ellerbe because inside linebacker is the team's biggest need. If the Ravens are able to do that, they'll turn their attention to safety Ed Reed. When it comes to signing other teams' free agents, the Ravens' strategy is patience. Baltimore has rarely been declared the winner in March, but it always finds a way to win in the playoffs. Last offseason, no one was applauding the Ravens for signing receiver-returner Jacoby Jones and cornerback Corey Graham. But they were both key members of the Super Bowl team. Outside of inside linebacker, look for the Ravens to bring in a young defensive tackle. The Ravens were disappointed with nose tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody.
Cap Status: The Bengals are among the top three teams in terms of cap space.
Strategy: The Bengals' reputation is not making a big splash in free agency, and that shouldn't change this year. Cincinnati has been active already, re-signing three special-teams players (kicker Mike Nugent, punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris) and backup defensive end Wallace Gilberry. The Bengals' priority has to be finding a right tackle, outside linebackers and a strong safety. They will look to re-sign Andre Smith, but they have plenty of options at right tackle (Detroit's Gosder Cherilus and Minnesota's Phil Loadholt) if they fail to do so. The Bengals also need to address outside linebacker because starters Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson are free agents. With Vontaze Burfict expected to move to the middle, there's a possibility that Cincinnati could bring back Rey Maualuga and shift him to the outside. The Bengals could address the situation in free agency, but they may not be willing to overspend on someone like Dashon Goldson, even though he would be a great fit. It's a position they can fill in the draft as well.
Cap Status: Like the Bengals, the Browns rank among the top three teams in cap room.
Strategy: Based on reports, the Browns have been very active during the three-day negotiating period, and they should be. Cleveland has a lot of holes on its team and has a lot of money to spend. Finding a pass-rusher ranks very high on the Browns' list. Cleveland has been linked to Detroit's Cliff Avril and could get in a bidding war with the Colts over Baltimore's Paul Kruger. It's also possible the Browns could pursue Steelers linebacker James Harrison. The Browns aren't expected to bring back Sheldon Brown and need to find another starting cornerback. Three potential targets are: Pittsburgh's Keenan Lewis, San Diego's Antoine Cason and Arizona's Greg Toler. On offense, the Browns are looking to replace Ben Watson, another free agent who isn't expected to return. Tennessee's Jared Cook is reportedly high on the Browns' list.
Cap Status: The Steelers were approximately $3.4 million under before re-signing guard Ramon Foster.
Strategy: The Steelers are entering free agency with very little cap room, especially after re-signing Foster. So, don't expect the Steelers to be active in free agency. That isn't a newsflash because the Steelers have never been major players in March. Remember last year, when it took Pittsburgh 28 days to sign a free agent, and it was only backup tight end Leonard Pope? If the Steelers had more cap room, this would be the year when they would have been more of a factor in free agency. The Steelers have holes at running back and outside linebacker. Pittsburgh can't have confidence in Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman to carry the ground game. The same goes for Jason Worilds and Chris Carter, who will be hard-pressed to fill the void left by the release of Harrison. The Steelers will have to wait for the draft to address these needs.
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.
Avril's production, though, came as a defensive end in the Lions' 4-3 defense. The Browns would be making a big investment in Avril while asking him to shift to an outside linebacker in Ray Horton's new 3-4 defense.
There's no question that Avril would make an impact on a defense that finished 11th in sacks last season. The bigger question is whether the Browns would be overpaying for a defender who struggles against the run and who played only 66 percent of Detroit's defensive snaps last season.
The Browns have to be careful because this is the same situation involving another potential target, the Ravens' Paul Kruger. He's a very effective pass-rusher but doesn't fare well against the run.
According to the Detroit News, the Lions aren't having ongoing negotiations with Avril, who received the franchise tag last year. The paper reported that the Lions may not offer Avril anything more than $8 million per season.
As The Plain Dealer pointed out, the Browns could have the inside track on Avril in free agency. Joe Cullen, the Browns' new defensive line coach, helped draft Avril in 2008 and coached him in his rookie season.
The Browns wouldn't be the only team going after Avril. The Colts could also target Avril after parting ways with Dwight Freeney.