Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, AFC North
It is March 17th, the day in which every American suddenly becomes Irish to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. Not to worry, however. This loss of skin pigmentation is generally brief as those folks usually turn Mexican on Cinco De Mayo (I think it occurs sometime in May), then back to American (whatever that looks like) on the 4th of July. Its like the binge drinker’s circle of life.
Speaking of “whatever that looks like”, lets talk about the AFC North and the great purge of March 2015. The teams have lost at least a dozen players to free agency, trades, and retirement, and this is just after the first week of activity. There is some glimmer of hope, however. The recent trend has actually been to sign players. Either way, it’s going to be a long off-season for general managers of the North.
Here’s today’s buzz regarding players signings and losses of note. Enjoy.
WR Brian Hartline (2 years $6M, good deal)- Had 2 solid seasons before dropping off significantly last year with Mike Wallace, Charles Clay, and a bad Dolphins offense. Its an inexpensive chance to take.
Edit: CB Tramon Williams (3 years $21M, good deal) The Browns had to make a move after letting Skrine slip through the free agent cracks. This leaves them with a formidable 1-2 punch in the defensive backfield and they didn’t break the bank to do it.
QB Thad Lewis – (1 year, if he makes the team) Backup, I suppose. And yes, any Browns QB is a player of note.
TE Jordan Cameron (2 years $15M Dolphins, overpaid) – Great talent but often injured and inconsistent. His stats can be misleading as he sprinkles in a few monster games with mostly below average efforts.
QB Brian Hoyer (2 years $10.5M Texans, matchable) – His .625 winning percentage makes him the winningest Browns QB with 10 or more starts since Bill Nelson (1968-1972). Only time will tell. If the Browns do not end up with a serviceable quarterback in 2015, and Hoyer would have taken $10.5 for 2 years to stay in Cleveland, its a questionable move.
OLB/DE Jabbal Sheared – (2 years $11M Patriots, fine for both sides) he had a solid first 2 years, but got lost in the Browns DE/LB shuffle from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense. Its better for Sheard, the Browns, and the Patriots.
CB Buster Skrine – (4 years $25M Jets, matchable) A very good player and currently has roughly a top 25 salary at his position. The Browns could have easily matched the offer, and should have. Reports have it that he wanted to stay with the team (see edit above. This move doesn’t seem so bad now. See how things change day-to-day in the eyes of the emotional NFL fan?).
My Take: The Browns are taking a similar approach to the Ravens and Steelers by not signing high-end free agents and making tough decisions by letting good players go. Now they actually have to take advantage of some post-draft veteran cuts or inexpensive trades as other teams try to navigate through their roster and salary cap. The difference and issue with the Browns is that they actually have cap space to pay at or near market value, keep players, and stabilize key positions on the team.
FS Kendrick Lewis (3 years $TBD) – solid player and an upgrade to Darian Stewart. More to follow once the salary terms are detailed, but a much needed safety of note to play along side Will Hill.
RB Justin Forcett (3 years $9M, although not technically an addition) Decent deal without a big cap hit, but TBD how he will fit in the new scheme.
Haloti Ngata (traded with a 7th round pick to the Lions for a 4th and 5th round pick, saved $8.5M in cap space) – Was it a good move on a declining player who was recently suspended, or a bad move not renegotiating Ngata’s contract on a player who perhaps turned the corner after 2 sub-par seasons in 2012 and 2013? The only way to know is to watch him play in a Lions uniform in 2015.
Torrey Smith (5 years $40M 49ers, overpaid) – His new contract puts him in top 15 salary territory with the likes of DeSean Jackson, Victor Cruz, Antonio Brown. He hasn’t proven he can be consistent, which is needed for #1 WR money. Regardless, he is a play-maker who had 11 TDs last year, and it’s a hard hit to the Ravens young and thin receiving corps.
LB/DE Pernell McPhee (5 years $38.75M, good for both sides) – The Ravens couldn’t afford his market value after a stellar 2014 season. The Bears are getting a much needed jolt to a horrible defense, as long as Pernell performs like he did in 2014 and not 2012 or 2013.
TE Owen Daniels (3 years $12.25M, good for both sides) Daniels apparently is attached to Gary Kubiak’s hip, while the 2015 Ravens will likely go the cheap route and once again gamble on another 1-year TE rental, as they continue to do damage control on the contract of oft-injured Dennis Pitta.
FS Darian Stewart (2 years $TBD) – This normally would not be a big loss, but any loss to a paper-thin defensive backfield should initially give concern. He gets to start in Denver, which wasn’t guaranteed in Baltimore.
My take: The Ravens had no choice but to purge prior to the 2015 season considering their salary cap issues. More of a concern is trading Ngata because a contract extension could have reduced his cap his just the same. Ngata’s next deal will likely be his last big payday, which no doubt factored into his decision. This trade does make a nervous off-season for the likes of Lardarius Webb, Sam Koch, and others as its likely the Ravens will alter their contracts one way or another. The Ravens are still just $4M under the cap when subtracting their projected draft pool, and still need a few solid pieces to make a playoff run.
DE/LB Michael Johnson (4 years $24M, good but risky) Johnson had a bad 2014. So bad in Tampa’s eyes, they paid him $16M or two years worth of guaranteed money for one year of service before showing him the door. He returns to his old team where he had some success both in rushing the passer and defending the pass.
ILB AJ Hawk (2 years $3.25M, good deal) According to reports, Hawk is an aging vet who has been slowing recently. According to stats, he had an off year in 2014. The Bengals are making this move because of so many question marks with their linebacking corps, namely the health of Vontaze Burfict. Hawk is only 31 and is coming off a decent 2 year run before last season.
My Take: No surprise here. The Bengals usually sign their own and don’t normally make a big splash in the free agent market. Knowing this, winning the Michael Johnson sweepstakes makes it a bigger deal, and important to the makeup of there front seven. The bigger question is whether or not the same group can mentally get over the hump. They have the physical tools.
RB DeAngelo Williams (2 years $4M, good deal) Williams will be a good stop gap during Le’Veon Bell’s 2-4 game suspension to start the 2015 season, as well as a very good backup. There may be better RBs available in terms of receiving ability and health, but he is a solid player on and off the field.
LB Arthur Moats (3 years $7.5M, not technically an addition, but a needed signing. Good deal) This turned out to be an even better deal for LB depth with the retirement of Jason Worilds. Losing both would have been a major challenge.
LB Jason Worilds (retirement, shocking) Jason was on track to receive a multi-year $15M+ guaranteed contract. In my opinion this retirement will be short lived, but it puts a jolt in the Steelers plans and in their front seven.
DE Brett Kiesel (cut) After missing the end of 2014 with injury, this move was speculated. He brought toughness and grit to the defensive line, which the Steelers will need to find elsewhere.
CB Brice McCain (2 years $5.5M Dolphins, could have matched) One of the few highlights of the Steelers 2014 defensive backfield was picking up McCain at essentially the league minimum and watching him play himself into a decent payday. Unfortunately the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement.
My Take: The Steelers are just getting started, so expect some unexpected moves coming up in the near future, and it will be interesting to see what they do with Troy Polamalu’s contract, and perhaps Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers only have $4M in cap space post-draft pool despite reworking Ben Roethlisberger’s contract, which has a 2015 cap hit of over $17M.