Four Downs

Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC North

by Rivers McCown

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 (provided they aren't franchise tagged or re-signed before March 5).

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Hole: Wide receiver

Throwing three new additions at a clear problem area last year, the Ravens hit on their low-level gambles but failed on their real investment. Michael Crabtree was statistically one of the three worst receivers who cleared 100 targets last year, finishing 74th of 81 qualifying receivers in receiving DVOA. Crabtree also finished tied for third in the NFL in drops, with eight. With $4.7 million in cap space cleared up on his release -- and more if he's designated as a post-June 1 cut -- cutting him was sort of a no-brainer.

Willie Snead and John Brown were finds for the Ravens, but struggled to be consistent through the offensive change from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson. Brown was a fantasy football find for as long as deep balls were being dialed up for him, and Snead replicated his success from New Orleans as a slants-and-underneath short-area receiver. The only other receiver to play much of a role last year was Chris Moore, a useful speed guy who is not quite the deep-ball artist Brown is. Even if Brown comes back in free agency, the team could use some help here. If Brown flees, look for the Ravens to target another deep specialist like Oklahoma's Hollywood Brown.

Major Free Agents: LB C.J. Mosley, Edge Terrell Suggs, Edge Za'Darius Smith, WR John Brown, DL Michael Pierce (RFA)

Keeping Mosley happy is priority one in free agency. Unfortunately, without a true sense of how Flacco's trade will work out contractually as of this writing, we don't know exactly where the Ravens are starting from. They can definitely afford to franchise tag Mosley should negotiations go sour, though. Suggs and Smith were the team's most effective edge players last season, and Suggs finished in the top 20 in Sports Info Solutions' hurries despite his advanced age. I'm interested to see if anyone will make a play for Pierce, who has been the team's most consistent interior player for the last few seasons.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Hole: Tight end

There are really two biggest holes for the Bengals, but with the offensive line having some young pieces who could still develop, let's go with the gimme.

The top four tight ends in snaps played for the Bengals last season are unrestricted free agents -- except for Matt Langel, who is merely a restricted free agent! The devotion to Tyler Eifert has been strong, and his injury history will keep him cheap enough for the Bengals to keep bringing him back. C.J. Uzomah saw a big usage bump and has proven adequate if not an upper-level receiver. Tyler Kroft has been an excellent blocker and a solid underneath receiver. The Bengals have both the money to do what they see fit and the ability to either stick to what they've been doing or go completely off the reservation at this position. Knowing the Bengals, we'd bet on more of the same.

Major Free Agents: T Bobby Hart, TE C.J. Uzomah, CB Darqueze Dennard, G Trey Hopkins (RFA), DE Michael Johnson

Dennard's average yards allowed per target has been OK, but he has been mediocre at best by any other statistic that we compile on corners for the last two years, and he was outright torched in 2016. His market will be curious -- he feels like the kind of guy who gets disappointed by what is out there and then comes back to Cincinnati for a modest contract.

Hart and Hopkins are two of four free agents the Bengals have, along with failed Andrew Whitworth replacements Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher. Yikes. Cordy Glenn should be solid, and Christian Westerman and Billy Price need more snaps. But, as mentioned above, a real offensive line investment would be a nice thing for this team. Jonah Williams would make some sense here.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest Hole: Wide receiver

We'd originally written this up as left tackle, but the Browns surprisingly stood up and committed to another year of Greg Robinson. The combo of Robinson and Desmond Harrison did give some reason for optimism down the stretch, but they're hardly a great bet to hold up long-term based on the respective histories of Robinson and UDFA left tackles. It's kind of jarring to look at Cleveland's roster and realize how deep and talented it is. There's a reason the Browns went on a run as soon as Hue Jackson was fired and they were calling Baker Mayfield's plays. Neither tackle played so well that you'd expect great things next year, but it's clear the Browns won't be filling that hole this offseason.

So the next spot to target for a big upgrade is probably wide receiver. Jarvis Landry and the Freddie Kitchens offense did not have great statistics together, with Landry averaging just 6.9 targets per game over the second half of the season compared to 11.8 pre-Jackson's firing. Landry also caught only 54.4 percent of his targets after being freed from his starring role as Dolphins de facto running game. Meanwhile, Antonio Callaway demonstrated just enough talent to drive everyone crazy with his drops, fumbles, and other foibles. We suggested DeSean Jackson as a possible fit with former OC Todd Monken in our Bold Moves piece for ESPN, but there are a lot of different ways the Browns could take this depending on just how happy they are with Landry. Some consistency would be a nice thing to have around as Mayfield develops.

Major Free Agents: DB Briean Boddy-Calhoun, DT Trevon Coley, WR Rashard Higgins (RFA), QB Tyrod Taylor, WR Breshad Perriman

I can't believe I'm writing this after his first three seasons, but Perriman might be the most interesting player on this list. He balled out for the Browns down the stretch, with a 36.6% DVOA on 25 targets. The NFL always believed strongly in his talent and pedigree, and if Perriman is finally healthy, he might be able to get a big contract. Taylor faces his own interesting free agent market after his disastrous ~100 attempts. Who is going to give him another chance to start? Where would he fit best as a backup?

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Hole: Secondary

Let's ignore Skill Position Player Drama Bingo for a bit and talk about a real issue for the Steelers last year: defensive coordinator Keith Butler could not rely on defensive backs in 2018, other than Joe Haden and Mike Hilton. Artie Burns was Artie Burned, Cameron Sutton continued to look like someone who nobody should give snaps to, Morgan Burnett was a poor fit in Butler's scheme, and Terrell Edmunds was so raw that he couldn't help but keep contributing to breakdowns in the back half. The Steelers allowed a 76.9% DVOA on passes targeting the deep middle of the field, fifth-worst in the league.

The good news for the Steelers is that safeties have been devalued constantly across the league over the past couple seasons, and that they stand a good chance of finding a good player out there if they want to chase one. Someone like Tyrann Mathieu would be a better fit for how the Steelers wanted Burnett to play last season. It's also a fairly deep secondary draft class, and someone like Georgia's Deandre Baker may be available in the first round to shore up that other outside cornerback spot.

Major Free Agents: RB Le'Veon Bell, G Ramon Foster, LB L.J. Fort, LB Ryan Shazier, TE Jesse James

I know one running back who won't be coming back.

Foster has been a reliable guard for the Steelers for a long time, but at 33 years old, he might be relinquished. B.J. Finney has played well in short stints and, as a restricted free agent, should be cheaper to keep. Fort had a solid run of snaps after replacing Jon Bostic, but that's out of character with his career. I'd be surprised if Shazier ever played again, but it is worth pointing out that he is opening up some cap space that the Steelers haven't had in some time. If they're able to trade Antonio Brown without negative cap effects, they might make their way over $30 million in cap room.

Comments

4 comments, Last at 11 Mar 2019, 4:45pm

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by herewegobrowniesherewego // Mar 06, 2019 - 10:38pm

Browns cut Jamie Collins.

This was arguably a position of need to begin with, with Kirksey and JoScho missing a lot of time this past year...but I understand the need to free up for an "all-in" run while #95 and #6 are on their rookie contracts.

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2 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by CaffeineMan // Mar 08, 2019 - 7:13pm

I'm curious for your take on how he played. Was it more a salary cut or a performance thing? You probably heard the story with him on the Pats, regarding him freelancing too much and giving up too many big plays as a result. I don't know enough to be able to tell if that was true, even on the Pats.

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3 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by herewegobrowniesherewego // Mar 10, 2019 - 1:41pm

"Was it more a salary cut or a performance thing?"

The answer is "yes" :) and by that I mean both; his production generally wasn't terrible, but wasn't in line with his salary

He got a lot of grief for taking plays off, most notably when he got blocked by Phillip Rivers this past season, but even the best players take plays off.

They were trying to restructure or trade for a while, but ultimately I don't think they wanted to have a guy approaching 30 and having a significant injury history being a long-term cornerstone unless he bright a lot more positives to the table.

I'm familiar with the freelancing criticism, but I remember in '16 he almost by himself lifted the defense from very bad to merely below-average. I think aging and getting his payday got to him.

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4 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

by CaffeineMan // Mar 11, 2019 - 4:45pm

Thanks.

I didn't mean to make it sound like it was an either/or proposition. :) I agree that Performance/Salary is a sliding scale and you answered the question.

The freelancing thing is the type of thing that is more problematic for Belichick than it may be for other coaches. He made some great plays in NE and I'm not surprised at his ability to lift a defense (other than Belichick's, the ultimate stay-in-your-lane defense). I'm just personally fascinated by talent/fit/salary tradeoffs and Collins was an interesting case.

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