The truth about the AFC North is that there may not be much of a free-agency frenzy at all.
The Cincinnati Bengals are a team comprised almost entirely of players drafted by the team, with Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis rarely making a splash in free agency. And, despite being in need of some important additions, both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have very little wiggle room (and I mean very little) when it comes to the salary cap.
The one team that could make some headlines is the Cleveland Browns, who have some key players it needs to re-sign, some big holes to fill, and the cap space to do it.
With all that in mind, here’s a look at some key needs in the division that could be addressed through free agency, which kicks off March 9.
Needs: Secondary, wide receiver, offensive tackle, defensive line
Possible targets: Eric Weddle, Janoris Jenkins, Travis Benjamin
As mentioned above, the majority of the Bengals roster is made up of homegrown talent, so Cincinnati making a splash in free agency would be a surprise. They do, however, have the cap space to do it with just under $39 million available (via Spotrac).
The Bengals most extensive off-season rebuild will have to come in the secondary as both starting safeties (Reggie Nelson and George Iloka) and two cornerbacks (Leon Hall and Adam Jones) are all set to hit the free-agent market. You can bet a couple of those players will re-sign in Cincinnati, but the Bengals will no doubt have to fill some empty roster spots. Signing veteran safety and former San Diego Chargers star Eric Weddle is a move that makes a lot of sense for both the team and the player.
Cincinnati also has some decisions to make at wide receiver. With Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu becoming unrestricted free agents, the Bengals will be mighty thin at the position should they let the pair walk. A play-maker like Benjamin could be a dynamic option for Andy Dalton opposite of A.J. Green.
The team drafted a pair of offensive tackles last April, so it makes little sense to use free agency to fill that hole even if they decide not to re-sign Andre Smith.
Needs: Secondary, offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle, tight end, general roster depth
Targets: Prince Amukamara, Tashaun Gipson, Jahri Evans, Dwayne Allen
The Steelers are in a whole heap of salary-cap trouble.
Pittsburgh has just over $11 million in cap space and 22 players who are UFAs, six of which are key starters including the entire left side of the offensive line. Sure, the Steelers can cut some players and restructure some deals—Lawrence Timmons is owed $15.1 million this season, for example—but that is just a temporary solution even if GM Kevin Colbert can manage to bring back left tackle Kelvin Beachum, the team’s most important free agent.
The Steelers still need to think about the future, as both Le’Veon Bell and David DeCastro are free agents in 2017. Meanwhile, Antonio Brown is up for a new deal in 2018, and you can bet it'll be a big one.
If Pittsburgh needs to fill starting roles, only one or two of the targets listed above will be able to be brought in as the team will need to add depth for the rest of the players hitting the market.
Don’t get me wrong: The Steelers are still a playoff team with a dangerous offence and an up-and-coming defence, but mismanaging the salary cap will continue to haunt the team for seasons to come.
Needs: Secondary, wide receiver, offensive line, inside/outside linebacker
Targets: Sean Smith, Marvin Jones, Russell Okung, Jerrell Freeman
The Ravens are in a tight spot. After a terrible, injury-plagued 5-11 season, Baltimore is in need of rejigging if they hope to turn it around in 2016.
The problem is that even after extending Joe Flacco to make some room, the Ravens are without much room to maneuver money-wise—they have just over $12 million to work with. So rather than spending in free agency, Baltimore may benefit more from re-signing key free agents such as left guard Kelechi Osemele and linebacker Courtney Upshaw. With plenty of options to add a key player with the sixth-overall pick in the upcoming draft, bringing back reliable players will be one key to improving on a disappointing 2015.
But that doesn’t mean Baltimore can’t still make some quality additions. Expect the Ravens to release some players with inflated salaries in order to bring in some players in big-need positions like cornerback and wide receiver. Sean Smith would be a welcome addition to a secondary that struggled mightily in 2015, while rival Marvin Jones could be an instant upgrade to a receiving corps led by 36-year-old Steve Smith, Sr.
Needs: Quarterback, wide receiver, centre, safety, offensive tackle
Targets: Brock Osweiler, Mohamed Sanu, Alex Mack
There’s no question Cleveland’s biggest need is the same it’s been for decades: a quarterback of the future. Johnny Manziel is all but done with the Browns, while Josh McCown could fill in temporarily should Hue Jackson and the new Cleveland brass decide to draft a pivot with the No. 2–overall pick.
But given the $47.6 million the team has in cap space, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Browns take a shot at Osweiler, who showed flashes this past season with Denver and could thrive under the Browns' offensively-gifted head coach.
Speaking of the former Cincinnati offensive coordinator, former Bengals wideout Mohamed Sanu—who Cincinnati is reportedly unlikely to re-sign—would be a logical target for Jackson’s offence if Cleveland fails to come to terms with Travis Benjamin.
Centre Alex Mack voided the final three years of his contract with the Browns, but Cleveland should make every effort to bring back the three-time Pro Bowler, who is likely to become the league’s highest-paid player at the position. If that doesn’t come to fruition, re-signing right tackle Mitchell Schwartz should become a priority.