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05 Mar 2018

Four Downs: AFC North

by Rob Weintraub

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Hole: Wide receiver

The Ravens were 26th in passing offense DVOA at -4.8%, and while the offense improved late in the year as Joe Flacco recovered from knee and back injuries, the lack of quality targets hindered the team all season. Their leading wideout in DYAR (47th overall) was Mike Wallace, who is a free agent. Breshad Perriman is looking like bustoleum, and Jeremy Maclin may need to redo his contract to stick around.

It remains to be seen whether the Perriman fiasco scares the Ravens off from selecting a wide receiver in the first round. Regardless, the more probable move is one that has worked out in the past with the likes of Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin -- snagging cap cuts and offering them a Baltimore baptism. Dez Bryant and Randall Cobb leap to mind as strong possibilities for this role, with the likes of Mohamed Sanu a dark horse. The draft doesn't offer many top-flight receivers, but there are plenty of mid-round options that the Ravens could target, like LSU's D.J. Chark and Indiana's Simmie Cobbs.

Major Free Agents: Ryan Jensen, C; James Hurst, OL; Benjamin Watson, TE; Crockett Gillmore, TE; Mike Wallace, WR; Michael Campanaro, WR; Brent Urban, DE.

Jensen and probably Hurst are as good as gone, and only Baltimore's lack of receivers could keep Wallace, Campanaro, or Glilmore in town. Brent Urban will be an interesting case -- he played well before an untimely Lisfranc injury ended his contract season. The Ravens have expressed a desire to keep him, but the steady Urban could get blown away by an offer to move.

     

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Hole: Offensive line

Not much mystery here. While the numbers suggest a line more mediocre than putrid (24th in adjusted line yards, 20th in adjusted sack rate), there's little doubt that the lack of consistent play up front has hamstrung the offense for two years running. Cedric Ogbuehi has been mostly a bust. Jake Fisher's future is in doubt given the irregular heartbeat that ended his season. Only Clint Boling can be counted on as a quality starter headed into 2018.

Certainly, the team will address the line in the draft, and more than once, even if a lineman doesn't go with their top choice (No. 12). Marvin Lewis indicated that his return was in part predicated on a new willingness to pursue free agents, though splashing out for the likes of Andrew Norwell remains highly unlikely. Baltimore center Ryan Jensen is a possibility, though other, less expensive AFC Northers like James Hurst and Chris Hubbard are more Bengals-esque additions. Fans hope the most important addition is new offensive line coach Frank Pollack, in from Dallas to replace longtime coach Paul Alexander.

Major Free Agents: Russell Bodine, C; Tyler Eifert, TE; Jeremy Hill, RB; Kevin Huber, P; Andre Smith, OT; Pat Sims, NT; Chris Smith, DE; Eric Winston, OT.

Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are entering the final years of their contracts, and retaining them means few of the above will remain in Cincinnati. Smith and Winston are old and slow, yet the state of Cincy's tackles is such that at least one will surely be back in stripes. The team has also stated its interest in bringing Bodine back, which is hard to fathom except in a reserve role. Eifert's brittle but ultra-talented package makes him tricky for Cincy to keep -- some team will surely give him guarantees the Bengals are unlikely to, given the amount of time he has spent on their injured reserve list.

     

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

As ever. DeShone Kizer was who we thought he was -- an athletic, big-armed specimen with the accuracy of an Imperial Stormtrooper trying to blast an above-the-title member of the Rebel Alliance. The newly-hired non-nerds in the Browns front office will go back to the well to find a starter, and perhaps a different backup, too, given their antipathy towards just about everything Sashi Brown & Co. did, personnel-wise (they sure love all those draft picks and cap space, though!).

Whomever winds up as Browns signal-caller, be it a free agent or top draftee (you know the names; guessing who the team will draft/sign at this point is just that -- guessing), will have a sturdy line and a decent group of playmakers to work with, one that will surely be improved in the draft and free agency. The Browns could well add, as a hypothetical, Saquon Barkley, Jarvis Landry, Tyler Eifert, Terrelle Pryor, Derrius Guice, and Christian Kirk -- and still be in a position to draft a quarterback with the first pick and sign a bridge free-agent veteran, all while addressing the defense as well. The team can't help but improve, but it still all starts with the choice for the next quarterback(s).

Major Free Agents: Isaiah Crowell, RB.

Not much going on here. Crowell is a sturdy back but can and will be replaced by a combination of drafted players and low-cost free-agent pickups, not to mention Duke Johnson, a bigger receiving threat.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Hole: Safety

Ryan Shazier's injury was not only scary but crippling to the Pittsburgh defense. Before he went out against Cincinnati in Week 13, Pittsburgh sported the fourth-best defense in the league (-13.7% DVOA). Without the unit's best player, they fell to 9th (-6.4% DVOA), then surrendered 45 points at home to Blake Bortles in the playoffs.

But with Vince Williams, T.J. Watt, and enigmatic but toolsy Bud Dupree around, Pittsburgh still has quality linebackers to work with. At safety, however, the outlook is more problematic. Mike Mitchell is a likely cap casualty, while Sean Davis was inconsistent in Year 2. Kenny Vaccaro or Eric Reid have worrying injury histories, but are intriguing options for a rebirth with new scenery. The Steelers will also attack the position in the draft, most likely on Day 2. Terrell Edmunds, Tremaine's less-heralded brother, had a strong career at Virginia Tech and could be in play, as could a local product, Jordan Whitehead of Pitt.

Major Free Agents: Le'Veon Bell, RB; Sean Spence, LB; Chris Hubbard, OL; Daniel McCullers, NT.

Bell's status is the towering story here. A franchise tag will cost the team north of $14 million, and Bell wants a long-term deal that will pay him about that much each season -- huge numbers for any running back, much less one with Bell's injury/diva history and Pittsburgh's precarious cap situation. Nevertheless, it's hard to picture the Steelers cutting ties with Bell. Hubbard will be hard to keep given the dire state of line play around the league.

Posted by: Robert Weintraub on 05 Mar 2018

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