AFC North free-agency primer

March, 11, 2013
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Baltimore Ravens
HEAD COACH: John Harbaugh

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.

Cincinnati Bengals
HEAD COACH: Marvin Lewis

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.

Cleveland Browns
HEAD COACH: Rob Chudzinski

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.

Pittsburgh Steelers
HEAD COACH: Mike Tomlin

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.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter



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