NFL Update: News and Club Needs for the AFC North

Here is a look at the AFC North, approaching free agency and the draft. Cap figures are per our friend Jason Fitzgerald at Over The Cap.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 Record: 11-5; AFC North champions
Playoffs: three straight years and 4 of last 5 (lost in wildcard round each time)
Estimated current cap space: $29,428,957

 

Key Free Agents

DE Michael Johnson was franchised a year ago and although he was not as productive in 2013 as he was the prior year, he is still one of the top free agents available this spring – and the number one defensive end now that Carolina franchised Greg Hardy. Although Johnson had only 3.5 sacks last year, he is still one of the premier edge rushers in the NFL, a disruptive force that opponents specifically game plan to limit his productivity. Johnson does everything well; he excels in the run game, deflected 10 passes in 2013 and had 11.5 sacks in 2012. Cincinnati signed Carlos Dunlap to a big contract last year when they were unable to extend the 27-year old Johnson to a long-term deal (he was offered five years and $40 million, which was in essence a 4-year $28.8 million extension of the $11.2 million he was receiving in 2013) and it appears that he will be in a new uniform next fall.

LT Anthony Collins moved in to the starting lineup due to injury in week 13, and played very well. He is above average in pass protection, which is the most important attribute you want from a left tackle, though just average at best in the run game. The 28-year old Collins is a career backup (25 career starts in six seasons) that made the best of his opportunity, and somebody elsewhere will give him starting money that Cincy will not match.

S Taylor Mays was labeled a bust early in his career – he lasted just one season with the 49ers – but began to show some promise last season at both safety and linebacker before going on IR after week 8. He is not expected to re-sign with the Bengals, and will probably be limited to an incentive-rich, short term deal wherever he lands.

Other unrestricted free agents, all backups or role players: LB Michael Boley, CB Brandon Ghee, S Chris Crocker, G Mike Pollak, T Dennis Roland, KR/PR Brandon Tate, TE Alex Smith, DT Ogemdi Nwagbo and P Zoltan Mesko; LB Vincent Rey, WR Andrew Hawkins and WR Dan Sanzenbacher are restricted free agents that have been tendered.

 

Team Needs – C, CB, DE, WR, LT, DT

Although the Bengals have cap space available, don’t expect them to big players in free agency. First of all being big spenders in March has never been in the club’s DNA, and more importantly they need to keep an eye on 2015. Next year WR A.J. Green, TE Jermaine Gresham, LB Vontaze Burfict, LB Rey Maualuga and NT Domata Peko are all scheduled to become free agents. QB Andy Dalton will also hit free agency at the same time – though whether or not the team is sold on him as the long term answer is probably dependent on his performance this season.

Center Kyle Cook will turn 31 before the season kicks off, and is nothing more than average; don’t be surprised if the Bengals look to draft a center early to replace him.

The Bengals also need to add a cornerback early in the draft. Leon Hall has torn his Achilles twice in the last three years, Pacman Jones will turn 31 in September, Terence Newman will be 36, and Brandon Ghee is a free agent.

The team will also need to make a decision with Margus Hunt: are they satisfied that he can replace Johnson at defensive end, or do they want to take another defensive end early? Cincy could also use an upgrade over Mohamed Sanu at wide receiver to compliment Green and Marvin Jones.

Andrew Whitworth will probably move back to left tackle with Clint Boling coming back from injury to start at left guard, but Collins’ imminent departure does require the team sign a new swing tackle to back up Whitworth and Andre Smith; another possibility is to leave Whitworth at guard and draft a tackle.

With Geno Atkins coming off an ACL injury and Domata Peko a free agent in 2015, the Bengals could also be looking to add a defensive tackle for depth and insurance.

 

Draft Picks

Round 1, Pick 24
Round 2, Pick 23 (55)
Round 3, Pick 24 (88)
Round 4, Pick 23 (119)
Round 5, Pick 24 (152)
Round 6, Pick 23 (183)
Round 7, Pick 24 (216)

Potential first round picks: CB Jason Verrett, TCU; LaMarcus Joyner, Florida State; OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan; DE Vic Beasley, Clemson

 

News

The Bengals enter 2014 with a pair of new coordinators. Hue Jackson replaces Jay Gruden as the offensive coordinator, and has plenty of experience calling plays. Jackson was the OC with Washington in 2003, Atlanta in 2007, Oakland in 2010, and continued to call plays as the Raider head coach in 2011. he served as the Bengals’ running backs coach last year. Prior to working in the NFL Jackson had a 14-year coaching career in the NCAA – all of it on the offensive side of the ball – including five years as on OC (one at Cal and four at USC).

Paul Guenther takes over from Mike Zimmer as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator. This will be Guenther’s tenth season with the Bengals; he was their linebacker coach the last few years. Both of the former Bengal coordinators wanted to bring Guenther along to serve as their DC – Gruden in Washington and Zimmer in Minnesota – but Cincinnati was fortunate to retain his services. Guenther has been credited with development of one of the league’s best linebacking corps, and inherits a defense that ranked third in yardage and fifth in points allowed.

 

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 Record: 8-8
Playoffs: last appearance was an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos two years ago; missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1998-2000.
Estimated current cap space: ($372,066)

 

Key Free Agents

DE Ziggy Hood, DE Brett Keisel, S Ryan Clark, WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Jerricho Cotchery, C Fernando Velasco, C/G Cody Wallace, NT/DE Al Woods

The Steelers need to re-sign one of either Hood or Woods; most likely it will be Woods. Hood is a better fit in a 4-3, and will probably be offered something in the $3 million range – which is much more than he is worth to the Steelers. Keisel will turn 36 in September and should be able to be retained for much less than the $4.9 million cap figure he represented last season. Similarly Sanders will most likely depart for more money elsewhere, which makes re-signing the lower-priced Cotchery an important move. With Maurkice Pouncey coming back from IR to reclaim the center position, the retention of Velasco, who tore his Achilles late last season, is highly unlikely.

 

Team Needs – CB, WR, S, OT, DE, ILB, OLB, TE

I thought CB Ike Taylor looked no better than average at best last year - at age 34 he may have hit the wall and be done. Taylor has a cap figure of nearly $12 million, and releasing him will save Pittsburgh $7 million in cap space that they need badly. It would make sense to draft a corner with their first round pick to replace him, as there is nobody else on the roster that should be starting opposite William Gay.

A couple years ago the Steelers were in great shape at wide receiver, but that is no longer the case. Mike Wallace left last year and Emmanuel Sanders (740 yards, 6 TD) will presumably do the same this month, leaving the club with Antonio Brown (1,499 yards, 8 TD) and last year’s third round pick, Markus Wheaton. As long as Cotchery – who had 602 yards receiving and 10 touchdown receptions last year – can be re-signed, then this position can become less of a priority.

Ryan Clark has been incredibly durable, missing just one game in the last four years. However, he will turn 35 this season, making safety another position that needs to get younger. Clark wants to return for another season and it may be a stretch to pencil in Shamarko Thomas as a starter. Troy Polamalu (who turns 33 next month) signed a two-year extension which converted a large chunk of his salary to bonus, which for the short term does give the club some much needed cap relief. Will Allen – another safety on the wrong side of 30 – did sign a one-year, $955,000 contract this week. Still, at the minimum there is a need for some infusion of youth and depth at safety.

Cameron Heyward is locked in as one defensive end, but with Hood about to depart the Steelers could use another DE. Keisel would be a short term solution and Woods is a better fit inside.

Lawrence Timmons is an excellent inside linebacker but with Larry Foote released in a cap-saving move, the Steelers could use another player here; that leaves just Vince Williams, a 6th round pick last year at ILB. At outside linebacker the team is set with starters Lamarr Woodley and Jason Worilds, who was given the transition tag. The club could use some depth though; first round pick from 2013 Jarvis Jones didn’t show much last year. Jones needs to get stronger and add better pass rushing moves if he is going to live up to his draft status and start in the NFL.

Heath Miller will turn 32 this year and didn’t look like his old self while coming back from an ACL last year; a mid or late round tight end selection wouldn’t be a bad idea. And with Maurkice Pouncey returning from a torn ACL and MCL, it would be wise to add a decent backup center for depth and insurance as well.

 

Draft Picks

Round 1, Pick 15
Round 2, Pick 14 (46)
Round 4, Pick 18 (114)
Round 5, Pick 17 (145)
Round 6, Pick 16 (176)
Round 7, Pick 15 (207)
* Round 3 pick traded away last year to Cleveland; Pittsburgh received the Browns’ 2013 4th round pick, which was used to select safety Shamarko Thomas.

Potential first round picks: CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State; OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan; OT Zack Martin, Notre Dame; CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State; DT Louis Nix, Notre Dame

 

News

The Steelers have released OT Levi Brown, ILB Larry Foote and CB Curtis Brown, while re-signing S Will Allen to a vet minimum deal; they also placed the transition tag on OLB Jason Worilds. The club has also extended TE Heath Miller and S Troy Polamalu, converting sizeable amounts of base salary to bonus to save much needed cap space. Those moves saved about $16 million in cap space, but they still need some more room. Releasing Ike Taylor would save $7 million, and the team will probably approach Lamarr Woodley too. Woodley’s cap number is over $13.5 million, so it would make sense to try and restructure his contract.

 

 

Baltimore Ravens

2013 Record: 8-8
Playoffs: The defending Super Bowl champs saw their streak of five consecutive playoff appearances end with losses to the Patriots and Bengals in weeks 16 and 17.
Estimated current cap space: $24,929,100

 

Key Free Agents

OT Eugene Monroe, DE Arthur Jones, ILB Daryl Smith, CB Corey Graham, OT Michael Oher, WR/KR Jacoby Jones, S James Ihedigbo

Other unrestricted free agents: NT Terrence Cody, ILB Jameel McClain, TE Ed Dickson, FB Vonta Leach, RB Bernard Scott, TE Dallas Clark, S Jeromy Miles. Restricted free agents: ILB Albert McClellan, S Anthony Levine, WR/PR Tandon Doss, S Omar Brown

Monroe is the second highest rated tackle in free agency and the team should push hard to keep him in Baltimore. The club has yet to begin negotiations with Oher and will likely let him walk; he’s inconsistent and really isn’t NFL starting caliber.

Arthur Jones had a very good season and should draw a lot of interest around the league as well; it would be a huge blow to the organization if they lost both Monroe and Jones.

Smith, Graham, Jacoby Jones and Ihedigbo all started last year, as did Dickson due to Dennis Pitta‘s injury. Smith in particular played very well but is 32; Graham was solid but not spectacular. Jacoby Jones will turn 30 before the season kicks off and will have to take a substantial pay cut to stay; he made $4 million last year. Former Patriot and UMass safety Ihedigbo is a good player to have on your team, excelling on special teams and playing well against the run – he performed well enough to beat out first round pick Jason Elam – but as Pats fans know it can be tough to watch him in coverage.

McClain has been a solid role player but will likely depart for a better payday and more playing time; he has visited the Giants, Bills and Vikings. Cody has been injury prone and a bit of a disappointment; it is unlikely that he will return.

 

Team Needs – OT, C, WR, ILB, S, DE

With both starting offensive tackles free agents, this has to be the top off-season priority for Baltimore. The Ravens also want to get bigger and more physical on the interior of the offensive line; center Gino Gradkowski should be replaced. Once the offensive line is set the next order of business is to get Joe Flacco more weapons; if opponents can take Torrey Smith out of the game he has little to depend on at receiver. Rookie UDFA Marlon Brown was counted on too heavily last year; he’s more suited to be a WR3 or WR4.

The other big hole that will need to be filled is at defensive end if Arthur Jones signs elsewhere, and a decision will need to be made at running back too. Ray Rice had an abysmal year on the field (3.1 yards per carry), and has followed that up with an off the field incident he would prefer to forget. Was the poor performance due to ineffectiveness of the offensive line – or has Rice hit the wall after four years of heavy use? At inside linebacker Daryl Smith is a free agent and Jameel McClain was released, so that is yet another position that needs attention.

 

Draft Picks

Round 1, Pick 17
Round 2, Pick 16 (48)
Round 3, Pick 15 (79)
Round 6, Pick 18 (178)
* Round 4, pick 14 (110) and round 5, pick 19 (147) traded to Jaguars for OT Eugene Monroe last October. Round 7, pick 17 (209) traded to Colts last May for center A.Q. Shipley.

Potential first round picks: OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan; OT Zack Martin, Notre Dame; WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M; WR Marqise Lee, USC; DE Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame; TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina

 

News

Whether they like it or not, the Ravens are stuck with Ray Rice for a while. Baltimore signed him to a five year deal in 2012 worth $35 million, with $15 million guaranteed; they would lose $5.5 million of cap space if he was to be cut, and that would create $14.25 million of dead cap money.

By cutting FB Vonta Leach and ILB Jameel McClain, the Ravens created about $5 million of cap space. It was a tough move – both players were hard working and very popular – but a sound decision that had to be done. With so many starters hitting free agency, the club really had no choice.

The contract given to TE Dennis Pitta (5 years, $32 million) was a bit of a surprise. The transaction opens up cap space this year (only $3.2 million), but jumps up to $6.2 million in 2015 and $7.2 million for each of the final three years. That’s a lot of cap space for two skill players (Pitta and Joe Flacco) on a team that has historically been tilted so heavily on defense. Flacco has cap numbers of $14+ million for each of the next two years, and then those figures double into the $28+ range in 2016 and 2017.

 

 

Cleveland Browns

2013 Record: 8-8
Playoffs: This rendition of the Browns has only been to the playoffs once, in 2002.
Estimated current cap space: $49,848,350

 

Key Free Agents

C Alex Mack would have looked nice in a Patriots uniform, but he’s most likely staying put. Cleveland placed the transition tag on Mack, which means that the Browns can match any offer he receives from another team.

S T.J. Ward is loathed in New England for putting Rob Gronkowski on IR, but is known throughout the rest of the NFL as being a very good safety. The team has been in negotiations with Ward’s agent for several weeks, but with no deal in place it is looking like there is a very good chance that he will depart for another club.

RG Shaun Lauvao and RB Willis McGahee are the only other free agents of note. Lauvao was a starter but was subpar, and McGahee is well past his expiration date.

 

Team Needs – QB, WR, ILB, RB, RG, S, CB

Brian Hoyer looked good when he finally got an opportunity last year, but his season was cut short after blowing out his knee after just three games. Going into the season with Hoyer as the starter might be a public relations disaster, but isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Cleveland could go with Hoyer, add a vet like Matt Schaub for competition and depth, and still draft someone like A.J. McCarron or Zach Mettenberger later.

Josh Gordon had an incredible season but there is nobody to compliment him at wide receiver. If the team is going to invest an early pick on a QB then it stands to reason that they will also add someone for him to throw the ball to – whether it is through the draft (Sammy Watkins in the 1st? Kelvin Benjamin in the 2nd?), free agency, or both.

Running back is wide open with Trent Richardson having been traded away and McGahee a free agent. The club could be a major player for Knowshon Moreno or the soon to be released Darren Sproles, as well as at least one other veteran such as Ben Tate or Donald Brown – and still need to add another back in the draft.

The Browns also need an overhaul at inside linebacker: D’Qwell Jackson was released for financial reasons, and nobody else on the roster should be starting. Cleveland tendered ILB Craig Robertson, but that was due more to their lack of bodies at the position than anything else; Robertson was a disappointment, struggling in pass coverage and regressing overall from the previous year. The club should sign a vet free agent and then add someone like FSU’s Christian Jones with a mid-round draft pick. The problem with ILB this year is that there is something lacking with every option. The best of the lot are over 30 (Karlos Dansby will be 33 and Daryl Smith will be 32) while Erin Henderson has off-field issues (two DUIs this past year); others can’t seem to stay healthy (Pat Angerer, Desmond Bishop, Jon Beason) and the best of the rest (Brandon Spikes, Akeem Jordan, Daryl Sharpton) are strong against the run but a liability in coverage.

Neither Shawn Lauvao nor Oniel Cousins impressed last year, so right guard is yet another position in need of attention; neither should be counted on to start and both are unlikely to be re-signed. Zane Beadles (Broncos), Chad Rinehart (Chargers) or Geoff Schwartz (Chiefs) are all possible free agents that could be had at a reasonable price. There are plenty of openings in the secondary as well with the lone exception of corner Joe Haden. The defense needs an upgrade over two starters, free safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Buster Skrine, and Pro Bowl strong safety T.J. Ward is a free agent who will be high on the radar of many other NFL teams.

 

Draft Picks

Round 1, Pick 4
Round 1, Pick 26 (From Colts in trade for RB Trent Richardson)
Round 2, Pick 3 (35)
Round 3, Pick 7 (71)
Round 3, Pick 19 (83) (From Steelers in trade for 2013 4th round pick)
Round 4, Pick 6 (102)
Round 4, Pick 27 (123) (From Colts in trade for 2013 5th round pick)
Round 5, Pick 5 (133)
Round 6, Pick 4 (164)
Round 7, Pick 3 (195)

Potential first round picks: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville; QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida; WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson; OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M

 

News

While the team has a boatload of room to spend and still stay under the cap, that doesn’t automatically equate to them making a big splash in free agency. With so many starting positions that need to be filled and upgraded and so little quality depth, they may be better off spreading that money around on as many as a dozen or more veteran free agents. From there they have the ability to maneuver on draft day; the Browns have three of the top 35 picks, and ten picks overall.

The Browns did receive some good news with the announcement this week that DE Desmond Bryant has been cleared to play. Bryant finished last season on the non-football illness list and missed the final four games of the year due to an irregular heartbeat that flared up twice last season and once in 2012.

 

 

 

Follow on Twitter @AllThingsPats

2014 NFL Calendar and Key Dates for the New England Patriots