The AFC North and Free Agency Impact

The AFC North and Free Agency Impact
S/R Staff
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Free Agency is a matter of hours upon us; as teams pull of last-minute re-signings and contract extensions, the market has witnessed key changes as we are on the brink of some major, big-money contracts around the NFL. Focusing particularly on the AFC North, we take a look at how each team stands at the eleventh hour, before chaos ensues.

Baltimore Ravens: It’s difficult envisioning that the Ravens were a play-off team last season, based on the amount of key departures that already affected this roster heading into free agency. The pinnacle of which was WR Torrey Smith, who announced that he would not return to Baltimore and will opt for a new team this offseason. The 2011 second-round pick’s mentioning of many aspects of the franchise, such as Owner Steve Bisciotti and his commitment to the city of Baltimore show his true, classy colours as he said he final farewell. Smith’s departure frees up $8 million cap space; crucial room for manoeuvre since their OLB depth is running both older and thinner. Parnel McPhee is gathering too much attention for him to return to Baltimore at a discount, and the club desperately needs youth underneath the ageing duo of Suggs and Dumervil.

The same can be said for break-out RB Justin Forsett, who is being tailed by the eager Redskins and Saints. But it comes as a blessing for the Ravens that there lies a dense sea of underrated ball-carriers. The hard-running style of Ryan Mathews or Roy Helu Jr could appeal to the Ravens; with the attention of backfield stars such as DeMarco Murray and C.J. Spiller, there is possibility of acquiring a dark horse with merely a solid price-tag.

With collegiate standouts Kevin White and Amari Cooper continuing to climb up Draft boards, the idea of acquiring a big-time 1st round pick at WR is becoming increasingly unlikely in Baltimore. And with big names such as Demaryius Thomas, and Randall Cobb being retained by their respective teams, as well as Jeremy Maclin heading to Kansas City, the high-impact signings are running thin. The Ravens require a big bodied receiver to compliment Steve Smith, so keep a look out for big redzone targets such as Hakeen Nicks or Kenny Britt.

Cincinnati Bengals: Defense was a big factor in the Bengals’ downfall at the end of the regular season and in the AFC Wild Card. Their secondary though be it with talented personnel is beginning to show signs of rust. Adam Jones (31) and Terence Newman (36) are clearly ageing too fast in an increasingly faster playing environment in the secondary. Leon Hall has hit 30 too, and the only CB with prosperous youth surrounding him is Dre Kirkpatrick. FS Reggie Nelson (31) is also peaking after his stellar run in Cincinnati. The Bengals could make a huge statement if there were to chase a dark horse CB such as rival-Browns’ Buster Skrine (25), or reach out for 49ers’ Chris Culliver (26).

The other pressing issue is the Bengals’ abysmal pass-rush. With JPP tagged by the Giants, and top rusher Justin Houston requiring a monumental contract, the likely suspects could be a lot closer to Cincinnati than expected. While Carolina’s Greg Hardy will always be a big possibility, the addition of either Jabaal Sheard (Cleveland) or Jason Worilds (Pittsburgh) from within the AFC North would clearly benefit Cincinnati in more ways than one.

With Rey Maualuga re-signing recently, as well as the key contributions of back-ups Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur to compliment leader Vontaze Burfict, you would think that the need to acquire a free-agent LB were to decrease. However, the Bengals severely lacked an athletic playmaker in the front-seven and were too overcast with run-stuffing defenders. Jacquian Williams of the Giants will provide more than enough flexibility and outside containment in order for the Bengals to restore a more balanced linebacker unit in 2015. It’s also worth noting that the Bengals were able to keep their K Mike Nugent (26/33 FG; 78.8 %) before free agency, signing him to a 2-year, $4 million deal.

Cleveland Browns: With Josh McCown inking a three-year deal, the likelihood of adding any more legitimate competition to Johnny Manziel seems very unlikely. A day 2/3 draft pick will be the closest thing to a Quarterback addition in Cleveland from now. It’s been a tumultuous time for the Browns’ organization, but one in which has been handled exceptionally well. Johnny Manziel’s rehabilitation was received very well by team-mates and peers alike, and front office has swiftly moved on from disgruntled free agents such as Brian Hoyer and Jordan Cameron, as well as being very professional regarding the second year-long suspension of Josh Gordon.

From their skill-set positions on offense, Cleveland heads into free agency requiring a Wide Receiver and a big bodied receiving option; whether they opt for a Tight End upon the latter is what makes their situation intriguing. Big names at the WR position are being signed off fast; Michael Crabtree would undoubtedly be a great possession receiver to go alongside Andre Hawkins. Cecil Shorts and Jerrel Jernigan would also be very solid receiving options that work best with the ball in space. TE Julius Thomas will be sought after by an array of contenders once free agency commences, leaving the athletic Jermaine Gresham and veteran receiving option Owen Daniels as likely targets for Cleveland.

Acquiring these two offensive weapons will make Mike Pettine’s offense more rounded and complete quicker than one would guess. The 2014 rookie duo of Isaiah Powell and Terrance West provide a very underrated 1-2-punch package in the backfield. And upon the return of the recovering Manziel, Cleveland will hold all the pieces for a dynamic, stellar offensive unit.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Free Agency for the Steelers will really test their loyalty factor against the pressing need of acquiring more salary cap. Troy Polamalu needs to retire- for Pittsburgh’s sake- in order for this team to maintain contemporary competition with their fellow AFC contenders. $8.25 million of cap space is on Troy’s shoulders; his play is beginning to take that steep decline after failing to record either a sack or interception in 2014 (first time since 2007).

With just over $10 million of cap space to utilise, the Steelers’ are severely limited with their capabilities. Restructing the contracts of OL Marcus Gilbert and S Mike Mitchell has helped slightly, but big cuts are required (looking at Polamalu and Brett Keisel).

Jason Worilds is set to hit the free agent market, which sends the Steelers’ pash-rushing department further into abyss. New DC Keith Butler will more than likely look in-house or through the draft for potential replacements. For this reason don’t be surprised if OLB James Harrison returns for another year in order to bolster depth and lead a young group of pass-rushers that will rest heavier on unproven 2013 1st round pick Jarvis Jones. Arthur Moats could also be re-signed for that reason also.

And whilst Pittsburgh will more than likely resolve their nickel-back issue (behind Cortez Allen and William Gay at CB) through their 1st day of the NFL Draft, more attention can be solely focused on the need to acquire a back-up RB. As seen in the playoffs, a Pittsburgh offense without Le’Veon Bell is a sudden downgrade in production. There lies a vast amount of overlooked veteran running backs in this year’s free agency. Bell’s power running and versatility as a receiving option calls for an equivalently capable RB with hands, but with more nimble feet. Injury-prone busts such as Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson would undoubtedly carry a lower asking price due to their lack of production in the past couple seasons, but could still provide devastating impact on an offense under limited gameplay.

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