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AFC North Free Agency Review

Different ideologies and strategies persisted among all four AFC North teams during free agency

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

As one of the most tightly contested divisions in the NFL, with three teams making it to the postseason last year, the AFC North looks to be even stronger this year.

All four AFC North teams used free agency as a way of bolstering their roster and filling important needs.

Certain teams opened up their wallets and spent for big-name free agents while others patiently waited and brought in immediate contributors.

Let’s take a look at what each team has done so far in free agency.

Cincinnati Bengals

Key Additions:

CB Chidobe Awuzie: 3 years, $21 million, $7.5 million guaranteed

DE Trey Hendrickson: 4 years, $60 million, $10 million at signing, $16 million guaranteed

CB Mike Hilton: 4 years, $24 million, $4 million at singing, $6 million guaranteed

DT Larry Ogunjobi: 1 year, $6.2 million, $4.6 million at signing

Key Losses: WR A.J. Green, DE Carl Lawson, CB William Jackson III

The Bengals took an aggressive approach towards free agency and spent their way to adding talent to their last placed team in the division. Heading into free agency with over $43 million in cap space, the Bengals clearly intended to spend and did exactly that by signing big-named free agents to sizable contracts. During free agency, Cincinnati placed most of their focus on adding talent to an average defense.

Bringing in players such as Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie offset the loss of William Jackson III. Very intelligently did the Bengals find a way of replacing Jackson, whom Washington rewarded with $26 million guaranteed ($16 million at signing), as a combined $13.5 million worth of guarantees were awarded to Hilton and Awuzie. Both cornerbacks will make an immediate impact and be leaders in the secondary just as they were in Pittsburgh and Dallas, respectively.

To offset the loss of Carl Lawson, the Bengals quickly went ahead and signed Trey Hendrickson to a large contract. Hendrickson had his most productive season in 2020 as he put up 13.5 sacks. Before the 2020 season, he had 6.5 sacks combined over three years. Hendrickson earned himself a very nice payday by showing his dominance on the Saints during his contract season.

The Bengals did a fine job of replacing those that signed with other teams. What appears to be the most pressing issue for the Bengals is putting five capable starting offensive linemen in front of Joe Burrow, who will enter the 2021 season coming off of a torn ACL.

Cleveland Browns

Key Additions:

WR Rashard Higgins: 1 year, $2.4 million

DE Takkarist McKinley: 1 year, $4.25 million

S John Johnson: 3 years, $33 million

CB Troy Hill: 2 years, $9 million

Key Losses: CB Kevin Johnson

The Browns have the pieces in place to win the AFC North in 2021. With a young roster filled with many talented players, the Browns appeared to be less active in free agency, knowing that their precious cap space will be saved to extend players such as Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, and Denzel Ward.

Instead, the Browns took a very prudent route by signing multiple players to short-term and cheap contracts.

Bringing back Rashard Higgins may be Cleveland’s most underrated move during free agency. Mayfield and Higgins clearly had a solid rapport with one another as Higgins amassed nearly 600 yards receiving during the 2020 season - a career high.

With well-established targets such as Austin Hooper, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, Higgins, and a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. returning to the Browns, Mayfield will have a plethora of targets at his disposal, which is completely necessary when competing in a division touted for strong secondaries.

Cleveland’s biggest pickup in free agency was John Johnson, who will pair with Jabrill Peppers to form a very solid backend of the secondary. Troy Hill, who played well during his time on the Rams, assumes the starting slot cornerback position for 2021. Overall, Cleveland looks strong as they head into the draft. Look for the Browns to target positions such as defensive end and cornerback as both positions were not addressed during free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Additions:

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster: 1 year, $8 million, $7 million guaranteed

CB Cameron Sutton: 2 years, $9 million, $3.5 million guaranteed

OT Joe Haeg: 2 years, $4.6 million

DE Chris Wormley: 2 years, $4.5 million

LB Robert Spillane: 1 year, $850,000

Key Losses: Edge Bud Dupree, CB Mike Hilton

The Steelers prioritized bringing back their own players in free agency. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return came as a surprise for some; however, plenty of love exists between Smith-Schuster, his teammates, the Steelers organization, and the city of Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger and the Steelers are undoubtedly a better offense with Smith-Schuster on the field.

Three defensive pieces in Cameron Sutton, Robert Spillane, and Chris Wormley will return to Pittsburgh. Sutton is poised to take another leap forward in his career as he assumes to replace Hilton. Spillane played with tremendous energy before a season-ending injury and could make an impact again. Wormley took advantage of more playing time in Pittsburgh after being a rotational defensive end while on the Ravens.

Despite re-signing a few starters, Pittsburgh did lose a number of star players. In addition to the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh’s most notable loss would be that of Bud Dupree. Dupree, despite a season-ending ACL injury, still signed a massive contract with the Tennessee Titans, leaving no viable second pass-rushing option to T.J. Watt.

The Steelers will have to nail their 2021 rookie draft class in order to remain competitive in the AFC North. With little cap space and many needs still remaining to be filled, targeting immediate contributors and players that produced in college could be Pittsburgh’s draft strategy.

Baltimore Ravens

Key Additions:

OG Kevin Zietler: 3 years, $22.5 million, $16 million guaranteed

OLB Tyus Bowser: 4 years, $22 million, $12 million guaranteed

DE Derek Wolfe: 3 years, $12 million, $8.5 million guaranteed

OLB Pernell McPhee: 1 year, $1.2 million

Key Losses: Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Jihad Ward

With the exception of Kevin Zietler, the Ravens, much like the Steelers, prioritized re-singing their own players by bringing back Tyus Bowser and Derek Wolfe on multi-year deals. The return of Pernell McPhee will also be greatly appreciated; McPhee can still play at a very high level as demonstrated in the Wild Card game against the Tennessee Titans where he consistently set the edge and shutdown Derrick Henry. Bowser proved his worth as a versatile linebacker with strong coverage skills as seen from his two sacks and three interceptions in 2020. Derek Wolfe, when healthy, was an absolute force along the defensive line and played a key role in Baltimore’s 8th-ranked rush defense.

The timing of the Zietler deal played into Baltimore’s favor as his release from the Giants came just before the commencement of free agency, which allowed Baltimore to pursue Zietler, a cap casualty, to fill an immediate need without having to consider the compensatory pick formula. With the Orlando Brown Jr. trade situation currently unresolved, the Ravens made a smart decision by addressing a crucial spot along their offensive line by signing Zietler.

The losses of Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue will be costly; however, their departure from Baltimore seemed probable during this free agency period. It’s safe to assume that the edge rusher position will be addressed early in this year’s draft.

The one position yet to be addressed has been the wide receiver position. Despite Baltimore’s best efforts at acquiring Smith-Schuster, T.Y. Hilton, and Sammy Watkins (who may still sign with Baltimore), the Ravens may be forced to address the position through the draft once more.

Baltimore avoided negotiating large contracts with high-profile free agents most likely to save cap space for impending Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews extensions. Although the Ravens may have prioritized cap flexibility over paying top dollar for their own unrestricted free agents, such a strategy makes sense for the future of the franchise.


Which AFCN team improved the most in free agency?

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