CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 01: Jermaine Gresham #84 of the Cincinnati Bengals fumbles the ball and is hit by Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens during the NFL game at Paul Brown Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Unsurprisingly, the Baltimore Ravens have had a quiet off-season thus far only signing back their own free agent veteran center, Matt Birk. Rather surprisingly though, the rest of the AFC North has been quiet as well, seemingly joining the Ravens in their off-season lull.
The Ravens, as we have all grown accustomed to, never rush into the free agency frenzy throwing their money around on the most highly touted free agents. As has always been the case, this off-season is proving no different as the Ravens are sticking to their formula and have been sorting through the free agency bargain bin trying to pick up the players that offer the most value and can fill an immediate need.
Though the Ravens were spurned by free-agent-guard Evan Mathis, who seemed like a natural fit in Baltimore before accepting a higher bid from the Philadelphia Eagles, the Ravens have also been linked to other free agents that present an area of need that the Ravens could upgrade this off-season, most notably: WR/KR Ted Ginn Jr.
After waving good-bye to several players this off-season, the Ravens will look to start reloading through the draft and promoting some younger players to fill the vacancies left by Jarret Johnson, Cory Redding, and others. Also, over the coming days keep your eyes peeled on linebacker Jameel McClain’s free agent status as he has already visited the Denver Broncos. If McClain should walk in free agency, the 26-year-old linebacker could perhaps be the biggest loss for the Ravens this off-season as he is the prime candidate to take over once Ray Lewis decides to retire.
Having said all of that, it’s time to take a look at the Ravens’ AFC North rivals that we all love to hate.
(After the "Jump", see a quick breakdown of what’s going on around the AFC North)
The AFC North, typically known for their hard hits and smack talk that echo across the league, has barely made a peep during this year’s free agency period. Even still, it’s good to keep a close eye on your divisional opponents even when it’s been quiet out there…maybe too quiet.
Pittsburgh Steelers: After exhaustively working to get under the salary cap this off-season by releasing several veteran players, the Steelers have remained relatively quiet since the start of free agency. The Steelers’ biggest off-season move thus far has been a risk that hasn’t yet backfired: placing a 1st round tender on receiver Mike Wallace. As a restricted free agent, Wallace was given a 1st round tender instead of being signed to a long-term deal, or even being franchise tagged due to the strangle hold on the Steelers’ salary cap room. Though he wasn’t an unrestricted free agent, many thought it would be a gamble to let Wallace dangle on the market with a 1st round tender because of how enticing he could be teams in dire need of a proven deep-threat, such as the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers. With the Patriots recently signing Brandon Lloyd and the 49ers snatching up Mario Manningham, it seems as though the Steelers can heave a sigh of relief.
With limited cap space, the Steelers will have to rely on the upcoming draft to reload talent and get younger in positions such as: offensive line and linebacker.
Cincinnati Bengals: Perhaps the biggest surprise in the AFC North this off-season is the lack of movement from the Bengals. With roughly $60 million in cap space, the Bengals chose not to wade into the expensive waters to upgrade at some of their positions-of-need. Somewhat surprisingly, the Bengals chose not to work on finding a true #2 wide receiver to plug in opposite A.J. Green. With a huge run being made at receivers throughout the league during the first few days of free agency, it seems rather clear that the Bengals will look to upgrade their receivers through the draft instead. Finding someone who can take some of the heat off of Green could help their offense take the next step and make Green all the more dangerous. Even though there will be a ton of great prospects to choose from in the draft, it’s a bit head-scratching that the Bengals didn’t go after anyone like: Pierre Garçon, Mario Manningham, or Brandon Lloyd to be the #2 receiver that could draw coverage away from Green and at the same time give quarterback Andy Dalton a proven NFL veteran to help him grow.
Though they have chosen not to sign any free agent receivers thus far, the Bengals did make a strong move to upgrade their offensive line which was a huge need for them. The Bengals signed 30-year-old free agent guard Travelle Wharton who is an 8-year veteran after spending each season with the Carolina Panthers since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2004. Wharton should prove to be a major upgrade along their offensive line, particularly in the run-blocking department.
With more than enough cash still left, the Bengals could still look to add a free agent running back or cornerback, both positions that the Bengals should most likely want to upgrade before the start of the season.
Cleveland Browns: The RGIII train has left the station and the Browns, seemingly, didn’t pony up enough dough to book their tickets to hop aboard. In this case of course, the "dough" is draft picks. The Browns were outbid by the Washington Redskins for the rights to the #2 overall pick in the upcoming draft, and unless something crazy happens, the rights to select the talented dual-threat quarterback from Baylor: RGIII. A little shrouded in mystery, the Browns’ move to acquire the #2 pick doesn’t come without at least a little drama. During a conference call with season ticket holders (who knew?) last week, Browns GM Mike Holmgren insisted that the reason they weren’t awarded the #2 overall pick wasn’t because they were outbid by the Redskins, but because both the head coach of the St. Louis Rams, Jeff Fisher, and the head coach of the Redskins, Mike Shanahan, are long-standing friends and thus Fisher favored doing business with the Redskins regardless of what the Browns may or may not have offered to acquire the coveted pick. Even if Holmgren’s accusations are true, there is no NFL rule that prohibits teams from making deals or trades based on "friendship".
Even though the Browns lost out on the RGIII sweepstakes, there are maybe even more pressing needs to complete their roster. Running back Peyton Hillis departed for the Kansas City Chiefs and they will most likely look to add one of several free agents still available, or they could set their sights on the top running back in the draft this year, Alabama’s Trent Richardson. With Colt McCoy most likely the starting quarterback next year, the Browns need to also find as many capable receivers for the young quarterback if they hope to watch him grow and hopefully win games.
Something tells me that this division won’t stay quiet for long. Over the coming weeks, keep watch for these teams, including the Ravens, to make a few additional free agency moves to bolster their rosters. With the draft rapidly approaching, we are still very much at the beginning of the off-season with lots more to come.