Free Agency Primer: AFC North
• Key free agents: OL Oniel Cousins, G Shawn Lauvao, C Alex Mack, RB Willis McGahee, S T.J. Ward
• Players Cleveland needs back: Mack and Ward.
Pretty straightforward situation here for Cleveland, which has just six unrestricted free agents (K Billy Cundiff the only one not mentioned above) and two critical ones. The Browns could use the franchise tag on either Mack or Ward — early indications point toward Mack — but it’s also possible the new coaching staff may choose to move on from both guys.
Would that be a mistake? Few centers in the league have been as reliable as Mack over recent seasons, while teams are searching high and low to find safeties with Ward’s abilities.
• Players Cleveland should let walk: McGahee.
Cousins, a swing lineman (i.e. able to play guard or tackle) might be worthwhile to retain, assuming he stays cheap, as he should. Lauvao, meanwhile, has started 43 games for Cleveland over the past three seasons, so he’s a candidate to stay as well.
The only obvious pass for Cleveland comes in McGahee, who was signed after the Browns traded Trent Richardson. He did lead the team with 377 yards rushing and two touchdowns, but that 2.7 yards-per-carry average hardly screams “new contract.” The Browns figure to be active searching for a RB in the draft and free agency (Ben Tate?), so McGahee’s services are extraneous.
• Outlook: Another offseason, another turnover in the staff. But new head coach Mike Pettine arrives with a projected $46 million of available cash in his back pocket — $24 million-plus a carryover from what the Browns saved in 2013. Just about every spot on offense needs to be addressed, as well as the secondary. There’s a lot of work to do here, but plenty of money to spend.
• Key free agents: CB Will Allen, S Ryan Clark, WR Jerricho Cotchery, RB Jonathan Dwyer, DE Ziggy Hood, DE Brett Keisel, WR Emmanuel Sanders, C Fernando Velasco, DE Al Woods, LB Jason Worilds
• Players Pittsburgh needs back: Cotchery, Keisel, Velasco, Worilds.
As it has the past couple of offseasons, Pittsburgh finds itself likely needing to boot out some of the old guard to make way for new talent. Re-signing Worilds at the expense of Lamarr Woodley would fall under that umbrella. Worilds, 25, led the team with 8.0 sacks this season despite not being a full-time starter. Plenty of teams searching for outside help would give him a call should he get to free agency, but the Steelers ought to be working to prevent that from happening.
The other three names here — Cotchery, Keisel and Velasco — are more players that Pittsburgh should attempt to keep than guys it could not live without. Cotchery, who hauled in a team-best 10 touchdown receptions in 2013, would be a much cheaper option than Sanders, and he’s developed a strong connection with Ben Roethlisberger.
Velasco finished the year on injured reserve, but he stepped in and played well at center for a banged-up unit. His versatility on the interior line would be welcome for an offense that seems to find itself scraping for reliable pieces on an annual basis.
Keisel, 35, might be ready to move on. If he’s not, the Steelers’ shaky situation up front could push them to retain their longtime lineman for a little bit longer.
• Players Pittsburgh should let walk: Clark, Dwyer, Sanders.
The Steelers kept Sanders as a restricted free agent last offseason. He should find something more than that situation this spring after a 67-catch performance. Unless he finds the market extremely cold due to the loaded WR draft class, Sanders likely will land more money outside of Pittsburgh.
Both Clark and Troy Polamalu may be packing their bags, though Polamalu could help his case by restructuring his contract. Clark does not have that luxury. He will turn 35 in the middle of next season, second-year man Shamarko Thomas is waiting in the wings, and Allen would be a cheaper option to retain.
Dwyer doesn’t bring much to the table, especially with the No. 1 RB spot clearly in Le’Veon Bell’s grasp.
• Outlook: The Steelers’ roster is in better shape than that of the Browns (though it’s debatable by how much). Their financial situation is about the exact opposite. Pittsburgh has 21 players on the verge of unrestricted free agency, yet is projected to be at least $10 million over the cap for 2014.
Moves like cutting Levi Brown ($6.25 million) or Woodley (approximately $8 million, post-June 1) would help, though other contracts will have to be restructured. Ike Taylor, with a cap number of nearly $12 million for 2014, also could be at the end of the line in Pittsburgh.
Even with a few tricky decisions, the Steelers may be relegated to fixing their roster issues via the draft and some under-the-radar signings. There’s certainly not much extra money here to keep the majority of their impending free agents.