AFC North: Dashon Goldson

Free agency is set to begin in a matter of hours. Even though it won't officially kick off until 4 p.m., the AFC North blog will still be filled with posts as we count down to the start of the NFL shopping season. Here is today's wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Ed Reed, the team's soon-to-be free agent safety, decided it was time to hire an agent after not having one for the past two years. According to The Baltimore Sun, he is going with David Dunn, who also represented linebacker Ray Lewis when he last became a free agent. Reed is expected to draw interest from the Patriots, Colts and 49ers. Also, The Sun is reporting the Ravens placed second-round tenders on two restricted free agents, tight end Dennis Pitta and defensive lineman Art Jones. That essentially takes them off the free-agent market because no team is going to give up a second-round pick as compensation for signing either one.

BENGALS: Even though the Bengals rank among the top three teams in salary-cap space, they aren't expected to make a major splash in free agency. But The Cincinnati Enquirer listed five players that would make sense for the Bengals to pursue: safety Dashon Goldson, running back Reggie Bush, linebacker Daryl Smith, running back Felix Jones and quarterback Josh Johnson. The one free agent who would make the biggest impact is Goldson. Not surprisingly, he would also be the most expensive pickup in this group.

STEELERS: Running back Jonathan Dwyer signed his restricted free-agent tender Monday, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. He received the $1.3 million original tender, which means a team would have to give up a sixth-round pick to sign him to an offer sheet. By signing the tender, Dwyer is guaranteed the money but he is contractually obligated to attend all mandatory offseason activities. Also, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Cardinals and Broncos are interested in Steelers free-agent running back Rashard Mendenhall. He led the Steelers in rushing for three seasons before falling out of favor with the team last season.

BROWNS: According to The Plain Dealer, the Browns are interested in the Titans' Jared Cook, one of the top free-agent tight ends. Cook, 25, was the Titans' franchise player last season. The Browns are expected to be among a half-dozen teams who might pursue him. Cleveland is looking to upgrade the tight end position from Ben Watson, the Browns' starter the past three seasons who is now a free agent. Another possibility at tight end is the Jets' Dustin Keller, The Plain Dealer reported.
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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.
It's now less than a week away from the official start of free agency. Can't you just feel the tampering already? Actually, teams can negotiate with potential free agents beginning Saturday this year, but the deals can't be signed until Tuesday. For now, let's see what the wake-up call has in store ...

RAVENS: The Ravens are expected to address Joe Flacco's contract prior to the 2016 season, when the fourth year of his record deal has a $28.5 million salary-cap hit. "Depending on the salary cap, that's what will determine when we get to the fourth year, what they're going to have to do," Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, told The Baltimore Sun. "We really viewed this as sort of a three-year deal to make sure the first three years Joe was paid accordingly with the top guys in the league." Flacco will earn $62 million in the first three years of his six-year contract.

BENGALS: Sirius XM Radio tweeted that Dashon Goldson, the 49ers safety and soon-to-be free agent, is interested in playing for the Bengals. Before you picture the two-time Pro Bowl defender in a Bengals jersey, Goldson started out the radio interview by saying San Francisco is "home" and hopes it works out with the 49ers. Still, when told that the Bengals would be a good fit for him, Goldson said, via The Cincinnati Enquirer, "They’ve got a good football team down there. They’re on track and they’ve got a good quarterback and receivers. I will have to consider all my options and we’ll have to see whose interested in me.”

STEELERS: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he has fully recovered from a sprained right shoulder and dislocated rib that affected his play late in the season. "Not one person in this locker room ends the season 100 percent," he said. "I didn't end the season 100 percent but I felt healthier and better than I have in a long time. I'm working out earlier this year. I took one week off, one week. I have no issues." Roethlisberger did acknowledge for the first time that he didn't have the arm strength to make sideline throws -- which led to key interceptions against the Cowboys and Bengals in December -- after he came back from those injuries.
BROWNS: On the same day that Mike Lombardi received the title of general manager for the Browns, it looks like Kevin Costner will have the same role as well. According to the Buffalo News, the movie "Draft Day," which was originally set in Buffalo, will be shot in Cleveland. The reason: It's $3 million cheaper to film in Cleveland. The movie will now depict Costner as a fictitious Browns general manager trying to restore his team to past glory. That's been a familiar storyline for the Browns since the team returned to the league in 1999.

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