A little over one week into the new league year, and most of the top free agents are already off the market. As teams start to turn their attention to the draft, we can take a step back and check in on how each squad stacks up following the initial wave of free agency.
In the third part of this this eight-article series we check in the AFC North. This is a division that boasted three playoff teams from a season go.
It’s also a division that includes teams that didn’t have much turnover during the first wave of free agency.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Key Additions: A.J. Hawk (LB) and Michael Johnson (DE)
Key Losses: None
Cincinnati isn’t known for making over its roster too much, especially during stretches when the organization is having success. Coming off four consecutive playoff appearances (and first round exits), there wasn’t much of a reason for the Bengals to overspend on the open market. So instead of targeting upper-echelon talent, Cincinnati nabbed a linebacker in A.J. Hawk on a value deal. Hawk, a nine-year starter for the Green Bay Packers, will backup Rey Maualuga at middle linebacker and potentially compete at other linebacker spots. Coming off a year that saw the team record a league-low 20 sacks, Cincinnati also signed defensive end Michael Johnson.
However, it’s the return to health of some of the team’s top players that’s going to be huge for the Bengals in 2015. By far the most-talented team in the AFC North last year, Cincinnati was plagued with injuries. A.J. Green missed three games and was hampered by a toe injury throughout the year. Giovani Bernard sat out three games, Tyler Eifert played just one game, Marvin Jones missed the entire year and Andre Smith missed seven games. If Cincinnati can get that core group back on offense, it will be the odds-on favorites to win the AFC North next season.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Key Additions: DeAngelo Williams (RB)
Key Losses: Jason Worilds (LB) and Brett Keisel (DE)
Much like the Bengals, you won’t see much roster turnover in Pittsburgh. The team lost Jason Worilds to an unexpected retirement, and doesn’t currently have a replacement of his caliber on the roster. Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones will now take over as the team’s two starters at the all-important outside linebacker position. As it relates to the secondary, Pittsburgh also has question marks. Ike Taylor is unlikely to be back, while the team is preparing for the imminent departure of Troy Polamalu. That could leave Shamarko Thomas and Mike Mitchell as Pittsburgh’s two safeties with B.W. Webb and Cortez Allen starting at corner. Not necessarily an ideal scenario.
Offensively, Pittsburgh is in great shape. The signing of DeAngelo Williams to spell Le’Veon Bell should work out great at running back. In addition to this, Pittsburgh has a number of dynamic receiving threats for the recently extended Ben Roethlisberger. The progression of young receivers Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant will be huge behind Antonio Brown. It’s this talent on offense that should keep Pittsburgh afloat moving forward.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Key Additions: Kendrick Lewis (S)
Key Losses: Bernard Pierce (RB), Torrey Smith (WR), Pernell McPhee (LB), Owen Daniels (TE) and Jacoby Jones (WR)
Outside of the three players Baltimore has released due to off-field issues in the past two months, it has also lost a ton of solid contributors on both sides of the ball. Say what you want about Torrey Smith’s consistency, but he was able to spread the defense thin down the field. Baltimore simply doesn’t have a replacement for that. Losing Jacoby Jones’ return prowess is also going to be huge, as is the release of Bernard Pierce. Without talent at the skill positions, Baltimore will now be relying on recently re-signed Justin Forsett to provide balance for Joe Flacco. If Forsett is unable to repeat his career performance from 2014, the Ravens will be in trouble on offense.
It doesn’t get too much better on defense. Baltimore’s front seven will be just fine, but its secondary has some major issues. As of right now, Matt Elam and Kendrick Lewis are slated to start at safety. They are nowhere near starter-caliber cover guys from their respective positions. In order for the Ravens defense to even come close to keeping this team in contention, Lardarius Webb will have to return to pre-injury form. If that doesn’t happen, the Ravens are going to be in trouble. As it is, this team is closer to last place than first place based on pure talent alone.
4. Cleveland Browns
Key Additions: Josh McCown (QB), Tramon Williams (CB) and Randy Starks (DT)
Key Losses: Brian Hoyer (QB), Jordan Cameron (TE), Jabaal Sheard (LB) and Buster Skrine (CB)
Where should we start? Not only is Cleveland’s “franchise quarterback” in rehab, its top receiver, Josh Gordon, is suspended for the entire 2015 season. Adding more to the misery, Jordan Cameron has moved on to the Miami Dolphins in free agency, and the team’s starting quarterback from last season is now in Houston. Defensively, the Browns lost two key members in the form of Jabaal Sheard and Buster Skrine. Teams that aren’t attractive free agent destinations in the first place need to keep their young talent. Cleveland hasn’t done that.
Now that Cleveland will likely move forward with Josh McCown under center and a talent-stricken wide receiver group, it’s going to be up to the team’s defense to keep them in contention. Even then, this is a squad that has no real hope of competing in 2015. It’s now all about finding solid starters in the draft and building for the future. Sound familiar?
Photo: USA Today