Four Downs: AFC North


Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. We’ll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team’s biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market.

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Need: Linebacker

The Ravens have a walloping five free agents in the linebacker corps: Pernell McPhee, Jihad Ward, Josh Bynes, Patrick Onwuasor, and Matt Judon. Of their linebackers under contract for next season, only Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser played more than 300 snaps. Bynes in particular solidified a unit that had some problems in the run game against Cleveland and Kansas City early last season. It’s worth noting that L.J. Fort started eight games down the stretch on his own up the middle, but Bynes handily outsnapped him and added a pair of interceptions and four passes defensed.

Coming into this offseason, Baltimore is in an enviable position. They have a franchise quarterback, they have a running game that teams will be trying to emulate left and right, and Marquise Brown may still only be scratching the surface of what he can do. But in the absence of Terrell Suggs, they had to blitz more than any other team in the NFL to create the pressure that they did come up with, and their leading sackmaster, Judon, is an unrestricted free agent. Perhaps Bowser and Ferguson, highly drafted as they were, have a chance to take a step up with more playing time next year.

Both inside and outside, the Ravens could deal with reinforcements. They could probably target a big wide receiver if they wanted the offense to be sexier, but a return to meat-and-potatoes drafting in the front seven may be the healthier thing for the overall good of the franchise as they try to create a defense that leaves a mark as big as the offense did last year.

Major Free Agents: Jimmy Smith, CB; Michael Pierce, DT; Matt Judon, OLB; Patrick Onwuasor, ILB; Matt Skura, C (RFA)

There have already been sourced reports from ESPN about the Ravens franchise-tagging Matt Judon, and it’s hard to disagree with the idea that he’s worthy of a major investment. As of Friday morning, the Ravens have roughly $30 million in cap space per Over The Cap, and the tag will hit roughly $16 million to $19 million depending on whether they count Judon as a defensive end or linebacker. So, if the Ravens do tag Judon, that’s a wrap for anything truly major without other moves coming down the line. Jimmy Smith is a good corner who has been hard to keep in the lineup, as he hasn’t played 90% of Baltimore’s defensive snaps in a season since 2015. Michael Pierce, an alumnus of FO’s top 25 prospects list, seems likely to build a market with a lot of teams looking for beef up front that can shed a tackle.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Need: Offensive line

The Bengals drafted Jonah Williams last year, and he will likely slide into the starting lineup in 2020 after missing his entire rookie campaign to a labrum injury suffered before the preseason. Center Trey Hopkins provided some solid play at center in relief of Billy Price, who now looks like a bust. Those are the only positions in which you can project anything above competence on the entire offensive line at this point. Bobby Hart’s contract was a boondoggle the moment it was signed. John Miller was adequate, but rookie Michael Jordan looked unready. Cordy Glenn and the team disagreed about the impact of his concussions to the point where Glenn essentially went AWOL. Glenn is a likely release, and the depth last year was already poor enough for both Andre Smith and John Jerry to get major cameos. Apparently Kevin Sargent was unavailable.

Each of Hart, Hopkins, Price, Jordan, and Jerry blew at least 20 blocks for the Bengals last season per Sports Info Solutions. Smith, Jerry, and Price were both members of the club that blew a block on at least 4% of their snaps. Among players with at least 100 snaps, Smith was third-worst in the NFL.

We all know that the team’s real biggest need is quarterback, and the Bengals have already lucked into securing the rights to (likely) Joe Burrow or, if they’re feeling contrarian, another of the best quarterbacks in the draft to replace Andy Dalton. A big factor in how Burrow’s big season in 2019 for the Bayou Bengals played out was how often he was able to win with five men blocking. These current Bengals, if they want to emulate what happened for Burrow in 2019, are going to have to do a better job of putting guys in front of their quarterback who can hold up one-on-one against NFL rushers.

Major Free Agents: A.J. Green, WR; Nick Vigil, OLB; Andrew Billings, DT; Darqueze Dennard, CB; Tyler Eifert, TE

A.J. Green is an interesting conundrum for an organization that loves to employ its family members for years and years. Prime Green was too good to let walk, but Green didn’t play at all last season and has played fewer than 51% of Cincinnati’s offensive snaps in all but one season since 2015. A smart organization would probably let him walk, but the Bengals … well, Green is part of the Bengals family, and they might just be happy to franchise him and let it play out. Andrew Billings is probably the other player in this class with a chance to catch on somewhere and be good next year — but being good at nose tackle isn’t the most important thing in the NFL, and the Bengals probably shouldn’t pay him like it is.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Needs: Tackle and safety

So to recap where Cleveland is at with these two spots: At left tackle, Greg Robinson just got arrested and charged with intent to distribute marijuana. He may not be on an NFL roster next season. Chris Hubbard had a dreadful year at right tackle, blowing 3.9% of his blocks per SIS and getting called for eight penalties. Backup tackle Justin McCray blew 4.7% of his blocks in just 298 snaps. There is no meaningful depth outside of former Texans tackle Kendall Lamm.

At safety, Damarious Randall was deactivated due to coach’s decision in Week 13 and is a free agent, and Jermaine Whitehead was released after starting eight games because he threatened Browns fans on Twitter. Morgan Burnett started eight games before getting hurt. Juston Burris and Eric Murray are both unrestricted free agents. Former first-rounder Jabrill Peppers was sent to the Giants in the Odell Beckham trade.

The Browns have already been linked in free agency to Vikings safety Anthony Harris and Titans right tackle Jack Conklin. We’re not entirely sure how the new Analytics Again power structure of Andrew Berry, Paul DePodesta, and Kevin Stefanski will approach filling these holes, but my guess is that they’ll aim high and buy in bulk if they can’t get the best players. It’s a recipe for a splashy offseason given Cleveland’s $68 million in cap space … if the right players are on the market.

Major Free Agents: Joe Schobert, ILB; Greg Robinson, LT; Damarious Randall, S; Juston Burris, S; Rashard Higgins, WR

Cleveland seems hell-bent on letting Joe Schobert test the market — he is coming off a down season, but has been one of the better young cover linebackers in the NFL and may draw widespread interest. Nothing that new Browns leadership said at the combine seemed especially focused on the idea that they had to keep Schobert. Rashard Higgins has good chemistry with Baker Mayfield, but was leaped in the pecking order last year and buried behind Antonio Callaway. He might be a nice value add for someone looking for a possession receiver.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Need: Quarterback

When the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger last season, they got a first-hand look at the future of the franchise. Mason Rudolph wasn’t even good enough to keep Devlin Hodges from replacing him at starter, and the two backup quarterbacks musical chairsed their way through the rest of the year in remedial quick-pass offenses that showed the Steelers didn’t much trust either of them. Going on the third year of his rookie contract with only 283 passing attempts, it might seem quick to label Rudolph a total bust. But given how poor he looked almost any time he needed to reset the pocket, the speed of the NFL might be too much for him to use his arm like he did at Oklahoma State.

Before Roethlisberger went down, he played 1½ crummy games. Granted, the Patriots in September were lights out and one of the best pass defenses in the NFL; it still wasn’t an awe-inspiring performance. Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing yards in 2018, but he also led in attempts and interceptions. He’ll turn 38 before this season starts and has missed time in four of the last five seasons. Roethlisberger has been a terrific quarterback over the course of his career, but he is old and dinged up, and he spent last season making cameos on the sideline where he was puffed up like he’d eaten a Super Mario World power balloon. The Steelers again need to plan for him to miss time at best. At worst … well, even superstar quarterbacks eventually have to be replaced.

Barring something drastic, the Steelers probably don’t have the means to go out and get a real replacement rookie after trading their first-round pick in this year’s draft for Minkah Fitzpatrick. But they should be heavily involved in the market for a keep-you-afloat starter in the likely event of Roethlisberger again being sidelined.

Major Free Agents: Bud Dupree, OLB; Javon Hargrave, DT; Mike Hilton, CB (RFA); Nick Vannett, TE; B.J. Finney, C

The Steelers have an extremely low amount of cap space as of this writing, with less than $2 million available. Obviously they can cut a guy if someone comes after an RFA or something, but it would be rather surprising if they kept Bud Dupree or Javon Hargrave. Dupree had a career year last season and might be a nice fit as a Derrick Morgan-esque second rusher, and Hargrave is a difference-maker at nose tackle. Both should command premium money that the Steelers simply don’t have.


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