Posted February 11, 2014

Free Agency Primer: AFC North

AFC North, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, NFL Free Agency, NFL Free Agency Primer, Pittsburgh Steelers

Michael Johnson, Dennis Pitta, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders represent four of the AFC North's top free agents. (AP [4])

Michael Johnson, Dennis Pitta, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders represent four of the AFC North’s top free agents. (AP [4])

The 2013 season was disappointing for this division, with Cincinnati serving as its lone playoff representative and bowing out in the wild-card round. The Steelers lost their first four games and never really recovered, the Ravens dropped their final two to cough away a postseason spot and the Browns wound up changing coaches again.

There could be significant changes in the offing for every team here before Week 1 of 2014 arrives. Here’s a look at what free agency may hold for the AFC North:

Baltimore Ravens

• Key free agents: TE Dallas Clark, TE Ed Dickson, CB Corey Graham, S James Ihedigbo, DT Arthur Jones, WR Jacoby Jones, OT Eugene Monroe, OT Michael Oher, TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith; WR Tandon Doss (RFA)

• Players Baltimore needs back: Ihedigbo, Monroe, Pitta, Smith.

Count Graham as an on-the-fence possibility, too, though the Ravens’ nickel back and 2013 leader in interceptions might be more replaceable than the others listed here.

Monroe and Pitta may be priorities No. 1 and 1a for the Ravens. They swung a trade with Jacksonville for Monroe midseason, and he essentially made Oher expendable. The 26-year-old stepped into the starting lineup on Joe Flacco’s blindside, likely earning himself a substantial deal with his play over the final three months of the season. Should he reach full-fledged free agency, he would be the top offensive tackle available.

Eugene Monroe was a surprising bedrock for the Ravens' offensive line. (Paul Spinelli/AP)

Eugene Monroe was a surprising bedrock for the Ravens’ offensive line. (Paul Spinelli/AP)

The Ravens had a glimpse of life without Pitta last season — and it was ugly. Without their top tight end for 12 games, the Ravens struggled mightily on offense, as Flacco had no real luck replicating the rapport he has with Pitta. The franchise tag could be an option here, but a long-term deal certainly is not out of the question.

Smith, soon to be 32, was a classic Ozzie Newsome find. Baltimore signed him on the cheap, then sat back and enjoyed while he led the team with 123 combined tackles. Another of the team’s inside linebackers, Albert McClellan, is a restricted free agent; 2013 draft pick Arthur Brown could be ready to inherit a starting spot.

• Players Baltimore should let walk: Arthur Jones, Jacoby Jones, Oher.

Potentially losing Arthur Jones could be the toughest hit to swallow for Baltimore this offseason. He delivered a very strong season in the team’s three-man defensive front … perhaps strong enough to make it impossible for the Ravens to re-sign him. Given their tight salary cap situation, they might have to give 2013 third-rounder Brandon Williams or a new face a shot at Jones’ DT spot.

The other Jones, Jacoby, would cause fewer sleepless nights. The Ravens would have a harder time replacing him as a return man — remember Super Bowl XLVII? — than as a receiver, where he caught just 37 passes in 12 games this season. That WR spot is one Baltimore has to address heartily in the coming months anyway.

Oher, as mentioned above, likely will be pushed out by Monroe. Should the Ravens fail to keep the latter, they may turn their attention back to the former first-rounder.

• Outlook: Baltimore has some work to do, what with $70 million of the projected $126 million 2014 cap committed to six players (Haloti Ngata, Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice, Marshal Yanda and Lardarius Webb). Suggs could be out if the Ravens cannot talk him into a pay cut or extension. There also are expected to be four compensatory draft picks headed Newsome’s way.

Keeping Monroe and Pitta — and thus helping stabilize an offense that went through the motions in 2013 — will be critical.

BURKE: Potential salary cap casualties

Cincinnati Bengals

• Key free agents: OT Anthony Collins, S Chris Crocker, DE Michael Johnson, S Taylor Mays, G Mike Pollak, WR/KR Brandon Tate; WR Andrew Hawkins (RFA). LB Vincent Rey (RFA)

• Players Cincinnati needs back: Collins, Tate, Rey.

The Bengals’ offensive line was at its best in 2013 with Collins starting at LT and Andrew Whitworth next to him at guard. They may have to pony up a decent amount of dough to keep Collins in the fold for 2014, but with upwards of $22 million in projected cap space, the Bengals ought to do so.

Tate should not deliver too much of a financial hit. He played this past season for a little less than $1 million and made just one catch. It is as a return man where his value lies for Cincinnati: 26.1 yards per kick return and more than nine yards per punt return.

As a restricted free agent who showed the ability to step in and start, Rey will be back. Will Mays join him? The underachieving ex-USC star started 2013 strong, even sliding up to play a little linebacker, but suffered yet another injury.

• Players Cincinnati should let walk: Johnson.

There are not any other major decisions to be made — guys like Crocker (who was signed midseason) and Pollak could contribute some depth, but they fall shy of the “make or break” category.

Johnson will receive a lot of attention as a free-agent pass rusher, one the Bengals would keep if the money fit. However, it probably doesn’t. Cincinnati franchise tagged him for 2013, plus committed long-term to Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.

• Outlook: This is not a franchise that often kicks right up against the cap, but there will be money to burn this offseason. That’s promising news considering how close the Bengals feel they are to a real playoff breakthrough. Solidifying the offensive line and making sure A.J. Green has a worthy complement will be high on the list. Attention may then turn to the linebacking corps or replacing Johnson at DE.

Jeff West
Jeff West

The Stillers are screwed.  Big Ben should've stuck to the story about him wanting to get out.  He should drive north and suit up for Cleveland.  


@Jeff West  People keep saying that every year and yet they tread water (or better).  The browns,  on the other hand,  just keep on sinking.

AF Whigs
AF Whigs

@MadDoser:  I would argue that the Browns aren't sinking because they never rose in the first place - since 1999, anyway.   Sure, they've had a couple of decent seasons, but I'd put those as anomalies rather than progress, which clearly they weren't. 

The Steelers and Ravens are dealing with rejiggering declining teams while the Browns continue to flounder and try to find their footing in any sort of meaningful way.  

Frankly, I don't even care how Pettine does as a coach, I just want management to let him work out his entire contract.  Allow the organization to have some consistency for once.  If they're bad they're bad, and so what?  They're bad already.

I also hope they trade down and stock up more picks.  They haven't proven that they can do anything other than ruin first round QBs by getting them hammered on the field week after week.