AFC North: Kevin Smith

If there is an AFC North-wide trend heading into free agency, it's the need for a running back. Everyone in the division has to address this position whether it's re-signing someone, finding a new starter or adding a backup.

BENGALS: Cincinnati should be in the market for a new starter. Cedric Benson is a free agent, and this looks like a mutual parting of the ways. The Bengals need to find a running back that can generate big runs. Bernard Scott will return, but the Bengals have never trusted him with a starter's workload.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Rice is the only AFC North starter guaranteed to return to his team for the 2012 season.
BROWNS: Count the Browns among those looking for a starter. That's assuming Cleveland isn't going to pursue Peyton Hillis, who produced more drama than touchdowns last year. The Browns still have Montario Hardesty, but he can't stay healthy. Brandon Jackson, who missed all of last season with a toe injury, is expected to be the team's third-down back.

RAVENS: This is the only AFC North team that knows its Week 1 starter at running back. Ray Rice is an unrestricted free agent, but the Ravens will put the franchise tag on him before he can reach the open market. The Ravens' need is at backup running back after Ricky Williams announced his retirement. Baltimore is looking for an experienced power back to compliment Rice.

STEELERS: Pittsburgh will need a new starting running back to open the season after Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. He likely will start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. While Isaac Redman has shown promise, it wouldn't be smart for the Steelers to put the weight of the running game on his shoulders. Pittsburgh needs a more reliable alternate plan.

While there will be others released for salary-cap reasons, here are the top-10 running backs who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March (listed in alphabetical order):

Cedric Benson, Bengals (1,067 yards rushing, six TDs in 2011)

Michael Bush, Raiders (977 yards rushing, seven TDs)

Matt Forte, Bears (997 yards rushing, three TDs)

Ryan Grant, Packers (559 yards rushing, two TDs)

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots (667 yards rushing, 11 TDs)

Peyton Hillis, Browns (587 yards rushing, three TDs)

Steven Jackson, Rams* (1,145 yards rushing, five TDs)

Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks* (1,204 yards rushing, 12 TDs)

Ray Rice, Ravens (1,364 yards rushing, 12 TDs)

Kevin Smith, Lions (356 yards rushing, four TDs)

* -- Could void contract at the end of the 2011 league year

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