Under the Cap: AFC North

Under the Cap: AFC North
Under the Cap: AFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

Baltimore Ravens

Cap Space as of February 10th: A little under $12 million. (All monetary figures courtesy of Over The Cap.)

Unrestricted Free Agents (14, UFAs and RFAs culled via NFL.com): Bernard Scott, Jacoby Jones, Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark, Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta, Eugene Monroe, Michael Oher, Arthur Jones, Terrence Cody, Daryl Smith, James Ihedigbo, Jeromy Miles, Corey Graham

Restricted Free Agents (2): Tandon Doss, Albert McClellan. Doss split time with Jacoby Jones on punt returns, and returned one to the house against the Texans. How Baltimore feels about tendering him probably depends a lot on how much money they'll have to spend on special teams, though it should be noted that he was passed on the receiver depth chart by undrafted free agent Marlon Brown.

McClellan is in the same predicament. The Ravens could find themselves up against the cap a little bit, and he's a core special teamer rather than someone who plays on defense. Original round tenders aren't out of the question for either of these guys.

Franchise Tag Candidates: I guess if I really wanted to play Devil's Advocate here we could talk about Dennis Pitta getting tagged. Tight ends are only projected to receive about $6.7 million on tags this season. For a player who has been a solid pass-catcher, but not at all dynamic, that's a stretch. Especially considering how much of last year Pitta missed with his hip dislocation.

Release/Restructure Candidates: Jameel McClain ($3,200,000 saved against 2014 cap if released), Vonta Leach ($1,750,000)

McClain missed the beginning of the season with a spinal cord injury, the Ravens have second-rounder Arthur Brown waiting in the wings, and Josh Bynes can take McClain's spot in the rotation.

As for Leach, let's make a ridiculous strawman argument that he's still the best blocking fullback in the game. How much did that matter last year? Gary Kubiak's entrance could keep him on the roster, but probably not at this price.

Flexibility: Some. The Ravens have three stars with two or fewer years left on their deals: Terrell Suggs (one year, $12.4 million cap number), Marshal Yanda (two years, $8.45 million cap number), and Haloti Ngata (two years, $16 million cap number). An extension for Suggs would be a good start on creating cap space, while Yanda and Ngata could also free up some room with re-negotiations.

Lardarius Webb could convert most of his $7.5 million base salary to a signing bonus. Then there's the elephant in the room: the Ray Rice contract. A team shouldn't want to punish a guy for playing hurt behind a bad offensive line, but an $8.75 million cap figure for a running back who played that poorly last season is not optimal.

Overview: Welcome to the Joe Flacco's Contract Era, everybody! Last season was a brief respite at a $1 million base salary. This year it shoots up to $6 million with a total cap figure of $14.8 million.

Cian Fahey's AFC North Four Downs focused on Baltimore's offensive line, but another issue is tight end: all but 65 snaps at tight end came from free agents Pitta, Dickson, and Clark. Somehow this team also needs to find cap space to fix wide receiver (with Jones likely moving on, and Doss potentially doing so as well) and re-sign or make up for a few key defenders that could defect.

Guess who finished third in pass defeats last season, behind only Thomas Davis and Lavonte David? A fully healthy Daryl Smith, that's who. And the Ravens have decisions to make on him, Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo, and Arthur Jones. You might not think of Ihedigbo as a good safety -- neither do I -- but he had more snaps than any Ravens defender last season. It's going to take a delicate Ozzie Newsome juggling act to bring back everyone of importance, especially if the offensive tackles draw a bit more interest than you'd expect due to their youth.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cap Space as of February 10th: A little under $24 million.

Unrestricted Free Agents (12): Brandon Tate, Alex Smith, Anthony Collins, Dennis Roland, Mike Pollak, Michael Johnson, Michael Boley, Brandon Ghee, Chris Crocker, Taylor Mays, Zoltan Mesko

Restricted Free Agents (3): Andrew Hawkins, Dane Sanzenbacher, Vincent Rey. Both Rey and Hawkins have played well enough to get tendered. Hawkins is at best the fourth receiver in Cincinnati, and the Bengals seem fond of Rey Maualuga even if he's barely scratching replacement level. A crafty team might sign one of them at the original-round level, so perhaps the Bengals should play it safe and go with the second-round level. (Both of them are undrafted.)

Franchise Tag Candidates: What to do with Michael Johnson? After getting designated with the tag last offseason, his sack total went from 11 in 2012 to 3.5 in 2013, but per our game charting project he still recorded plenty of pressures. The Bengals have already paid Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap on the defensive line, and they've also got second-rounder Margus Hunt waiting in the wings as a possible replacement.

So while the Bengals, in theory, have the money to bring Johnson back, they probably won't. A second franchise tag is projected to cost them about $13.3 million with the repeater bonus, and even though this franchise is in good fiscal shape, it's not as if they need Johnson to have a good defense. The Cincinnati Enquirer gives Johnson just a 20 percent chance to be back with the Bengals.

Release/Restructure Candidates: BenJarvus Green-Ellis ($2,500,000)

The Bengals have mostly avoided bad contracts, so the worst we can find is a usable power situations back making about double what he should. Green-Ellis finished 37th of 46 qualifying backs in rushing DVOA. Giovani Bernard is a much more explosive and aesthetically pleasing back, but Bernard also had a fairly pedestrian -4.6% rushing DVOA. (The explosiveness shows up in his 28.8% receiving DVOA, fourth among running backs with at least 50 pass targets.)

Cincinnati could do better for the cap space, but $3 million for a situational back is hardly a killer.

Flexibility: In addition to their cap space, the Bengals could earn extra room by converting most of the base salaries of Leon Hall ($6.8 million) and Andrew Whitworth ($5 million) to signing bonuses.

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Overview: The real main event for Cincinnati this offseason should be feeding their own: A.J. Green is finally up for an extension and the Bengals should do all they can to make it happen. Andy Dalton could also be renegotia -- ha ha, sorry, couldn't type that one with a straight face.

Elsewhere, expect Anthony Collins to walk -- starting him at left tackle and Andrew Whitworth inside was their best option last year, but it's not a smart use of resources and the Bengals are nothing if not prudent. None of their other free agents are priority re-signs, so Cincinnati can focus on bigger roster issues: youth at cornerback and what they're going to do about Dalton and Jermaine Gresham. Both Dalton and Gresham are set to be free agents after 2014, and high-round pedigree aside, neither has shown much of a reason to believe in them as building blocks.

Cleveland Browns

Cap Space as of February 10th: A little over $45 million.

Unrestricted Free Agents (6): Willis McGahee, Oniel Cousins, Shawn Lauvao, Alex Mack, T.J. Ward, Billy Cundiff

Restricted Free Agents (0): Although really, in Jimmy Haslam's world, we're all restricted free agents.

Franchise Tag Candidates: There are two of them: safety T.J. Ward and center Alex Mack. The offensive line tag is projected to be at about $11.1 million, while the safety tag is going to be around $8 million. Mack is more durable than Ward, but Ward plays a position where you'd be hard-pressed to find another player of his talent on the free agent market. This is an actual, honest-to-goodness, football debate. I'm not sure there is a wrong answer outside of letting them both walk, to be honest with you.

But for me personally, I'd tag Ward due to the price difference. The best centers in the game aren't really compensated like the best offensive tackles in normal circumstances. I don't think it's entirely fair to blame Mack for the problems the Browns had running the ball last year (the Browns were 18th in ALY, 30th and 32nd on Second-Level and Open-Field Yards, respectively) because I wasn't a fan of either of their guards, but if I'm paying anyone $11 million they better be able to dominate their area of the game without much additional help.

(And, given Ward's propensity to miss games -- 10 in the two seasons before 2013 -- I'd rather him be on the short-term deal.)

Release/Restructure Candidates: Jason Campbell ($3,250,000)

Campbell was overlapped by Brian Hoyer in the "not Brandon Weeden" sweepstakes this year before Hoyer got hurt. The Browns would take a cap hit to keep Weeden, and would gain more money by releasing Campbell. For whatever Weeden's faults are -- and there are a lot of them -- he's not so much worse than Campbell that the Browns need to eat the money.

Of course, they could just get rid of both of them and draft a real quarterback to be backed up by Hoyer. That'd be ideal.

Flexibility: Plenty! Like the Dolphins, the Browns predominantly have their players making base salary rather than signing bonuses. In the unlikely scenario that the enormous amount of cap space Cleveland has isn't enough to follow through with their plans, they can create some new room by converting base salary into a bonus for Joe Thomas ($10.9 million). Joe Haden ($6.6 million base, $8.9 million cap number) and Ahtyba Rubin ($6.6 million base, $8.1 million cap number) are in the last seasons of their contracts, and both could get extended. Extending Haden, in particular, seems to be priority one for the Browns this offseason.

Overview: Cleveland is going to have to remake the interior of their offensive line with or without Mack. They could also be shopping for a No. 2 cornerback to bump Buster Skrine down the depth chart, and a No. 2 wide receiver to slot next to Josh Gordon. They are commonly linked with Eric Decker. Guard is a little bit harder to fill, but players like Jon Asamoah, Willie Colon, and Zane Beadles are out there if the Browns don't want to try their luck on the Incognito baggage train.

So, to recap, the Browns have a veritable Red Wedding of coach and general manager blood on their hands, and new general manager Ray Farmer has All Of The Cap Space to work with. It's going to take a real upset for someone to beat them in the Overpay Sweepstakes -- Jeff Ireland is no longer employed to do this sort of thing.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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Cap Space as of February 10th: About minus-$12.5 million.

Unrestricted Free Agents (21): Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Plaxico Burress, Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, David Johnson, Michael Palmer, Rashad Butler, Guy Whimper, Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Al Woods, Jamaal Westerman, Jason Worilds, Stevenson Sylvester, Will Allen, Ryan Clark, Mat McBriar, Rod Woodson, Stealy McBeam, everyone else on the roster, you.

Restricted Free Agents (0):

Franchise Tag Candidates: Not that they could afford it, but no, none of these free agents are worthy of the tag.

Release/Restructure Candidates: Troy Polamalu ($8,250,000), Ike Taylor ($7,000,000), Levi Brown ($6,250,000)

Levi Brown has as much chance of seeing out his non-guaranteed $6.25 million contract as you or I do.

With the life-long Steelers, it's a little more complicated. Taylor and Polamalu are each in the last year of their contracts. It would be nice to give them extensions, but they've both noticeably declined from their prime years, and while Polamalu still has the instincts to be a good safety, he no longer has the range to be the game-changing thumper he once was. The charting project had Taylor inthe bottom ten among 85 qualifying cornerbacks in both Success Rate and Yards per Pass allowed. My basic conclusion is that Polamalu is a salvageable extension candidate as long as it's cheap, but that it's probably time for Taylor to leave.

(LaMarr Woodley? He can't be cut right away, but the case for him as a Post-June 1 cut is well-founded.)

Flexibility: Little. Possible extensions for Ben Roethlisberger (two years, $18.8 million cap number) and Heath Miller (one year, $9.4 million cap number) would help. Antonio Brown could convert most of his base salary ($6 million) into a signing bonus. Pittsburgh may need some of those things to happen just to pay their draft picks.

Overview: Inevitably, every successful franchise faces the same salary cap conundrum: there are only so many players you can extend for so long before the economics blow up in your face. Woodley's extension has been an enormous bust and Pittsburgh wasn't able to rush the passer competently in 2013 because of that and a series of failed draft picks.

This is an offseason where that combination, among other things, comes to roost. The Steelers are probably going to lose Sanders (which makes you wonder why they didn't just take the third-round pick they would've received for him last year), and they're probably going to watch Jason Worilds leave as well.

On the bright side, a lot of these contracts will be forgotten after this coming season. But for now, they are paying the price for their mistakes.


10 comments, Last at 19 Feb 2014, 11:44am

#1 by Thomas_beardown // Feb 15, 2014 - 1:35pm

"whatever Weeden's faults are -- and there are a lot of them -- he's not so much worse than Campbell that the Browns need to eat the money."

Campbell DVOA: -12%
Weeden DVOA: -36% (worst in the NFL among qualifying players)

One wonders what Rivers considers "much worse" to be.

Also, since the Browns had 45 million in capspace, shouldn't not take advantage of any of the flexibility options, which would lead to more capspace in the future when they might need it?

Points: 0

#2 by Hurt Bones // Feb 15, 2014 - 1:58pm

"Bengals are nothing if not prudent." Frugal more like. Prudence suggests a little more sagaciousness than the Bengals possess.

Points: 0

#3 by djanyreason // Feb 15, 2014 - 7:47pm

The Steelers would've gotten a 3rd for him last year. They'll get, let's say, a fifth for him next year in a compensatory pick. Its entirely possible that the 3rd rounder wouldn't be around for the next good Steelers team - the 5th is arguably more likely to be a contributor.

Additionally, without Sanders the Steelers would have been absurdly thin at WR and would have been almost forced to draft a WR in round 1. Given their needs elsewhere, it was far more prudent to keep Manny for the extra year.

Points: 0

#10 by Noahrk // Feb 19, 2014 - 11:44am

Nothing screams homer more than "the 5th is more likely to be a contributor [than the 3rd rounder]"!

The man with no sig

Points: 0

#4 by jonnyblazin // Feb 15, 2014 - 8:38pm

Suggs is absolutely a candidate to be released for the Ravens if he doesn't renegotiate or sign an extension that reduces his cap number.

Another sure-fire cut is Sam Koch, which would save $1.6 mil.

Replacing Ihedigbo isn't really a big deal, as Matt Elam was excellent when playing SS but was often forced into the FS role. The Ravens simply have a glaring need at FS, because they played with two SS last year and it didn't really work that well.

Points: 0

#5 by Mash Wilson // Feb 16, 2014 - 11:45pm

It's time for the Steelers to blow it up and start over. The defense was bad last year, the resources they've sunk into improving the o-line haven't worked out, and help isn't coming anytime soon.

Before extending Roethlisberger they probably ought to call around and see what he might bring back in a trade. It looks unlikely that by the time the Steelers have the talent to be contenders again, Roethlisberger will still be around in anything like his present form.

Points: 0

#7 by Steve B // Feb 17, 2014 - 3:23pm

(Full disclosure, I'm a Steelers fan)

When the team was 0-4 and then 2-6, I had some thoughts about them 'blowing it up', too. But given the team's strong second half (6-2), that would now seem a mistake, particularly trading Roethlisberger. The O looked better once Bell and Miller returned from injuries and got fully acclimated and, if there were doubts, Roethlisberger and Haley now seem to be on the same page. While Mike Adams struggled at LT and ended up in more of a reduced role, his replacement Kelvin Beachum showed enough to think that he could be at least serviceable there if they decide not to give Adams another shot there and look to move him to RT. David DeCastro, after missing most of his rookie season, had a very fine season. Somewhat quietly, the team made one of the better assistant hires of the off-season so far by bringing in Mike Munchak to be the o-line coach. Funny enough, the O looks to be in better shape right now than the D overall. Biggest keys there look to be:

-Re-signing Worilds. Kind of a tough situation for the Steeler FO. Worilds played very well overall after replacing Woodley at strong side OLB, but we're only talking about basically an 8-game stretch. In the three seasons before that, as understudy to Harrison and Woodley, Worilds only showed an occasional flash here and there and he's had injury issues. If he signs elsewhere, that leaves them with Jones (who hasn't really proven much of anything, yet) and Woodley (still at least an above average OLB, but can't seem to stay healthy) as their projected starting OLBs for 2014. Pretty dicey proposition. I'm sure they want Worilds back, but not at any cost. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

-Jones showing why he was the 17th overall pick of the '13 draft and why he was being talked about as a top 5 pick for a while. Safe to say he'll never have the burst of a Von Miller, so he needs to focus on developing strength and moves.

-Finding a play making FS. Ryan Clark's had a nice run with Steelers, but his play fell off noticeably in 2013 and even in his prime years he wasn't exactly a ball hawk. Add in that he's got one foot in the media world and it's unlikely that he'll be back. This looks to be an area they'll have to address in the draft.

-ILB. They're set at one spot with Lawrence Timmons, but the team had noticeable and very uncharacteristic issues at times during the season vs. the run after losing the dependable and largely unheralded (including by a number of Steeler fans) Larry Foote to a torn bicep in the season opener. Among other things, Foote was the signal caller for the defense. Vince Williams, a 6th round rookie from Florida St., ended up being Foote's replacement and while he showed some potential, he also had his share of struggles. Eventually, the team decided to use Polamalu at ILB. Safe to say they don't want to do that two seasons in a row, so who gets the spot going into 2014? Do they bring back Foote, who turns 34 in June and, while smart and dependable, has never exactly been an athletic marvel? Do they see if Williams can grow into the role? Do they hope that Sean Spence, a third round pick from Miami in 2012 who suffered a devastating knee injury in a pre-season game and hasn't appeared in a regular season game has something left? All of the above?

On Troy, while no doubt he's nearing the end of his career, I don't think his athleticism is completely gone. Witness the forced fumble he caused in the game vs. the Packers.

So the Steelers obviously have some holes, but I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think that if they address some of them adequately think can win at least 10 or 11 games. Who else in the division (really the conference as a whole) is really that scary?

Points: 0

#8 by Mash Wilson // Feb 17, 2014 - 11:13pm

You can concoct (and have concocted) a scenario where the Steelers can win 10 and the division, but it involves a lot of old guys being healthy *and* a lot of young guys stepping up.

The fundamental problem is that the defense is profoundly untalented (especially the d-line, where it all begins) and that's not going to change; in fact given the cap situation it's going to get worse. The offense is adequate but not great, and also is not likely to improve as they're losing two important receivers, the Steelers don't have the cap space to sign anybody, and they need to sink all their draft picks into the aforementioned talentless defense.

I don't think it's realistic to expect this team to be able to contend during the perhaps three years Roethlisberger has left as an effective quarterback. Then again he might not bring back very much in a trade, but I'd at least check into it before handing him another mega-extension that will only prolong the team's Cap Hell.

Points: 0

#9 by Steve B // Feb 18, 2014 - 3:15pm

I wouldn't say the defensive line is "profoundly untalented". One of the team's best young players (Cam Heyward) resides there.

Yes, Emmanuel Sanders will likely leave in FA, but he's not that big a loss. I'm assuming the other wr you're referring to is Jehrico Cotchery, who's nearing the end of his career, has said repeatedly he loves playing with Ben and likely won't be real expensive to re-sign. Good chance the team drafts a wr in the first couple rounds.

The team's cap situation is not as dire as some are making out to be. As noted, they save over $6 mil just from releasing Levi Brown. It's also likely they'll work out a pay cut with Ike Taylor from $7 mil to around $3-4. Woodley will likely either be designated a post-June 1 cut or asked to take a pay reduction if Worilds is re-signed. Ben, Troy and Heath Miller are all likely restructure candidates.

Sure, the team won't be big spenders in FA, but they never really are.

Yes, they have holes that need addressed, but so does everyone else. Again, who in that division is really scary right now?

And I don't see how you can say it's going to take three years for them to contend again. Have you seen how quickly teams rise and fall nowadays? If the season had played out with them going, say, 4-12, I might be on board with exploring trade possibilities. But I think doing so now would be really foolish. Actually, give him a new deal would give the team some short-term relief.

Points: 0

#6 by jonnyblazin // Feb 17, 2014 - 1:29pm

Looks like the Ravens saved about 5 million in cap space with the Suggs extension.

Points: 0

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