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AFC North: A Quick Glance at Division Rivals Part 2

The off-season is heating up as we march towards the start of free agency and the draft. By now, most Baltimore Ravens fans have been made aware of the changes taking place within the Ravens’ franchise, but so far, there haven’t been any major surprises.

Between this week and last week, the Ravens announced the releasing of three players, including: Lee Evans, Chris Carr, and Domonique Foxworth. These roster moves were considered by most to be inevitable and now that the Ravens have cut ties they can look ahead to bigger concerns.

Chief among those bigger concerns would be the lack of progress made on a new contract for running back Ray Rice. Rice, who was franchise tagged just days ago, will now have to await the July 15th deadline wherein he’ll either have a new contract or will be obligated to play under the tag for the 2012-2013 season. A couple of additional tidbits of Ravens contract news is that Joe Flacco and his agent, Joe Linta, will be entering the next stage of contract talks with the Ravens’ brass sometime this week as will veteran center, Matt Birk. Flacco and Birk both share Linta as their agent(s). Seemingly in a move to solidify their offensive line and preserve continuity, the Ravens appear committed to retaining Birk for at least one more season. But, that shouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Ravens targeting interior offensive lineman in this year’s draft, such as: Peter Konz (Wisconsin), David Molk (Michigan), and others.

With less than a week until the start of free agency (March 13th), the Ravens’ window to retain some key players before they hit the open market is dwindling. Over the coming days the Ravens will be working tirelessly to try and figure out who to keep and who to let walk into free agency. Notable Ravens unrestricted free agents include: Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson, Jameel McClain, Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura, Cory Redding, Matt Birk, and Andre Gurode.

So, with the Ravens’ news out of the way, let’s take a look at what their division rivals are cooking-up heading into the draft and free agency.

(Follow along after the "Jump" to see what the rest of the AFC North has been up to.)

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers have been releasing veteran dead-weight and the contracts that come along with those players in the hopes of creating additional salary cap space. Before the mass scrubbing of their roster began, the Steelers were a reported $20 million over the 2012 salary cap, so the move to release several players was an absolute necessity. So far, the Steelers have released: wide receiver Hines Ward, offensive guard Chris Kemoeatu, linebacker James Farrior, and defensive end Aaron Smith. Along with the mass releasing of players, several Steelers have also re-structured their contracts to help the front office make additional cap room, such as: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons.

Seemingly, the onslaught of releases and re-structures were mostly in a strong effort for the Steelers to either be able to extend or place the franchise tag on wide receiver Mike Wallace, neither of which were achieved. As one of the NFL’s premier deep-threats, the speedy Wallace will become a restricted free agent in a few days time. Due to the tight cap situation the Steelers are currently dealing with, they weren’t able to utilize their franchise tag at all this year. The Steelers’ general manager Kevin Colbert summed it up best:

"We don’t have the cap room of having the luxury of using the franchise tag this season."

The 2012 franchise tag for wide receivers carries a price of $9.4 million.

Because the Steelers were unable to use the franchise tag on Wallace, they will put a 1st round tender on him in the hopes that any teams interested won’t be willing to give up a high draft choice for the receiver. Even still, teams with two 1st round picks such as the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals will have enough cap space and might be willing to pay the price for a proven, productive NFL receiver.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have had a relatively quiet off-season thus far, and that’s a good thing. In fact, the only big move the Bengals made as the free agency deadline draws near was to place their franchise tag on kicker Mike Nugent. Once known as a franchise that made questionable roster moves, the Bengals seem to have had enough of their own ways and are making changes for the better, or worse depending on which AFC North team you root for…Getting back on track though, the Bengals have a tremendous amount of cap space this off-season which they’d surely love to start spending. At a reported $60 million under the salary cap, that’ll be enough money for the Bengals to fill their roster holes and then some.

In free agency, the Bengals should look to find some quality offensive linemen to protect their 2nd-year franchise quarterback Andy Dalton. Surely, one player on the Bengals’ wish list will be the Ravens’ guard Ben Grubbs. With uncertainty surrounding the health of running back Cedric Benson, the Bengals will have a tall task this off-season finding a franchise running back to pair with Dalton in the hopes that the two will be working together for the long-haul, much like the Ravens have done with Joe Flacco and Ray Rice. The Bengals would also love to get a good, complimentary wide receiver to pair alongside A.J. Green. With a bevy of options to choose from and cash out the wazoo, look for the Bengals to make a big splash in the free agency wide receiver pool.

Cleveland Browns: To pick RGIII or not to pick RGIII? That is the question. Without a doubt, the quarterback from Baylor looks to be a special talent, but for teams that want him it’s going to cost a pretty penny. In this case the conversion rate for this particular penny, in NFL terms, will equal about most of this year’s draft picks and most of next year’s as well. Will the Browns maybe mortgage their future a bit in the hopes that Griffin is the real deal, or do they use their picks to fill some of their other, perhaps more pressing needs?

At about $21 million under the cap, the Browns will have enough cash to make some good moves in free agency. With a very large and talented pool of free agent receivers to choose from, the Browns should look to add a true #1 regardless of who is under-center at quarterback next season. The Browns also need to sort out their running back position because Peyton Hillis is due to become an unrestricted free agent. If the Browns decide to let Hillis walk, they will have several options in free agency and the draft. Trent Richardson should be available at their 4th overall pick in the draft (if they don’t try to trade up for Griffin), and free-agency bears the likes of: Mike Tolbert, Michael Bush, and others that seem to fit their need for a big running back.

In a division that’s so tightly competitive like the AFC North is, it’s important to keep an eye on your division rivals. Over the coming weeks, each team will navigate through the draft and free agency hoping to come out of these off-season phases for the better. Time will tell which direction each franchise is headed, but one thing’s for sure: this is the best damn division in football and I’m looking forward to every minute of it.