With all the news pouring out of the AFC North you would think the season was still going on.
First it was the Cincinnati Bengals losing both offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to head coaching vacancies in Washington and Minnesota, respectively. Then it was the Baltimore Ravens dealing with the fallout from running back Ray Rice’s arrest at a casino in Atlantic City. The most bizarre may have been Cleveland and the multiple reports that alleged trade talks had been conducted with the San Francisco 49ers to acquire head coach Jim Harbaugh.
As the teams return from their trips to Indianapolis and this year’s combine, attention turns away from the rookies and back to the veterans. The league year starts on March 11, at 4 P.M. EST and with that the 2014 free agency frenzy will be underway.
Here is a glimpse at the division as they head into free agency.
1.) Cincinnati Bengals: 11-5
- Salary Cap Space: $30.3
Should NFL teams take a page out of the Cincinnati Bengals playbook? That felt weird to say. But look at the facts: they have been to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and have a whopping cap number heading into free agency.
Their lowest statistical ranking on offense or defense last season was 18th overall in rushing offense. Every other statistical ranking was top 10 in the league. This organization is primed for a strong run at the Super Bowl.
With only two full-time starters set to hit free agency (tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson), the Bengals have a golden opportunity to either address areas of need or sign the faces of their franchise, Andy Dalton and AJ Green, to long term deals, securing both their present and future as an organization.
The fates of safeties Chris Crocker and Taylor Mays will be especially worth paying attention to. Both are set to become free agents and have shared starting duties in the defensive backfield. Neither has provided eye-opening play, an upgrade could be coming here and both could be allowed to walk. Other notable veterans set to hit the market are: receiver Brandon Tate, offensive linemen Denis Roland and Mike Pollak, linebacker Michael Boley, and cornerback Brandon Ghee.
2.) Baltimore Ravens: 8-8
- Salary Cap Space: $28.1 million
The Ravens have much more cap room then they did last year but still have a lot of problems to fix from last season, chiefly their offensive woes. The Jim Caldwell coordinated group floundered to 25th in points, 29th in total yards, and 30th running the ball. The $120 million dollar man, Joe Flacco led Baltimore to 18th overall in passing offense.
Caldwell is gone and in steps former-Texans head coach Gary Kubiak.
GM Ozzie Newsome resigned tight end Dennis Pitta to a five-year deal, right off the bat. Despite only appearing in four games last season due to a hip injury, Pitta instantly upgraded the unit upon his return. Next on the list to hit free agency is left tackle Eugene Monroe, whom Baltimore acquired last season in a mid-season trade with Jacksonville.
Communication between Monroe and the Ravens has reportedly stalled according to NFL Media Insider, Ian Rapoport. This could pose a serious problem as the deep pocketed Miami Dolphins have already acknowledged a serious interest in the left tackle. Other notable free agents to hit free agency are: receiver Jacoby Jones, tight ends Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson, tackle Michael Oher, defensive linemen Arthur Jones and Terrence Cody, and cornerback Corey Graham.
3.) Pittsburgh Steelers: 8-8
- Salary Cap Space: -$5.9 million
The Steelers are once again cash strapped heading into free agency. Last year they lost starters Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks and Keenan Lewis due. This year could be worse.
The team is getting older and have 21 players set to hit the market.
To make some sort of room the team has cut tackle Levi Brown, linebacker Larry Foote, and cornerback Curtis Brown. They’ve also resigned tight end Heath Miller and safety Troy Polamalu to three-extension deals and tagged linebacker Jason Worilds.
It will be interesting to see how the Steelers choose to maneuver in free agency this year. They might be done with just three re-signings and then rely on the draft, but their are critical veterans amongst the 21 players set to hit the market. Chiefly amongst them are receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, lineman Fernando Velasco, defensive end Brett Keisel, and safety Ryan Clark.
4.) Cleveland Browns: 4-12
- Salary Cap Space: $61 million
The organization is a mess, plain and simple.
After one season as head coach Rob Chudzinksi was fired immediately following the season’s end. Then the Browns front office combo of CEO Joe Banner and GM Michael Lombardi, led a failed coaching search as target after target pulled their own name from the hat. Eventually the Browns signed Mike Pettine as head coach. Then owner Jimmy Haslam fired Banner and Lombardi. Eventful, right?
Ray Farmer, was promoted from assistant GM to take Lombardi’s position and now has a boat load of cash to hit free agency with. Owner Jimmy Haslam is determined to turn this team around and if last year was any indication, the team will surely open the wallet.
So far Farmer has released the team’s leading tackler D’Qwell Jackson and off-field problem Davone Bess. The Browns have also tagged Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. The big question is, how much of that $61 million will Farmer spend on extensions for Mack and also Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward? Both will be looking at top money for their position.
More stories you might like