|Can Baltimore do enough this offseason to stay ahead of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati? (Getty Images)|
By Ryan Wilson
Baltimore RavensIn 2011, for the fourth time in John Harbaugh's four years as head coach, the Ravens made the playoffs, this time sweeping the Steelers and winning the AFC North in the process. But this team isn't without issues -- questions about Joe Flacco and the passing game linger, the defensive leaders are old, and fans still aren't sold on Harbaugh, especially in big games. Despite the concerns, Baltimore is annually one of the NFL's best teams, thanks largely to general manager Ozzie Newsome's keen ability to put together a roster.
Free agents of note
The team wisely franchised its best offensive weapon, running back Ray Rice, and now maybe Harbaugh can convince coordinator Cam Cameron to actually use him … Center Matt Birk apparently won't retire this offseason and he'll meet with the team soon to talk about a new deal … That holds for guard Ben Grubbs, too, considered Baltimore's best offensive lineman. The two sides have spoken about a long-term contract but progress has been slow … Linebacker Jarret Johnson might be the Ravens' most underrated defender. If he doesn't return, Jets head coach Rex Ryan is reportedly interested in bringing him to New York … Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams are restricted free agents but the former could draw some interest even if he receives a first-round tender.
Flacco was sacked 31 times last season, a career low, but the offensive line is still an issue. They signed Bryant McKinnie off the street to play left tackle and if Grubbs hits free agency, the left side will be a liability.
In the last two offseasons, Baltimore brought in T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Lee Evans and neither impressed. Derrick Mason was Flacco's security blanket for his first three seasons, and now that distinction has fallen to Anquan Boldin (and you could even argue Ray Rice). While Torrey Smith made progress his rookie season, Baltimore needs a quality third receiver to go with their young, emerging tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.
Newsome doesn't look to be a big player in free agency because of salary-cap limitations, but Mike Wallace makes a ton of sense if the asking price is a low first-rounder. And while they won't be able to afford guard Carl Nicks, Pro Football Focus suggests that Evan Mathis could be an affordable alternative should Grubbs get away and Mathis doesn't return to Philly.
Cincinnati BengalsThe 2011 Bengals took everyone by surprise, and that includes head coach Marvin Lewis, who probably had no idea what to expect when he re-upped in January, jettisoned Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, and watched as Carson Palmer sat out the season before eventually being traded. Cincy drafted a big-play wideout, a smart, accurate quarterback, started both and ended up in the playoffs. Go figure. If the Bengals are to improve in Year 2, they'll need to upgrade the players around Andy Dalton.
Free agents of note
Running back Cedric Benson made the most of a second chance in Cincy but he won't be back … Wide receiver Jerome Simpson pleaded guilty to drug charges recently and his NFL future is uncertain … Guard Bobbie Williams will likely be replaced and Pacman Jones probably won't be re-signed either … The Bengals would like to keep defensive ends Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker … They franchised kicker Mike Nugent.
A.J. Green was a godsend but Simpson's legal trouble and Andre Caldwell's inconsistency means that Dalton could use another outside threat. Same holds for the running backs. Bernard Scott will get more carries as a result Benson's departure, but he's not an every-down back (is anybody in today's NFL?). Either way, there isn't much depth behind him unless you think Brian Leonard is a viable second option. With Williams' departure, there's a need at right guard, too.
The Bengals have some $60 million in cap space and they could address a whole heap of needs … except they rarely go big in free agency. So look for them to focus on less expensive, second-tier players. PFF mentioned Jerricho Cotchery, and Eddie Royal would make sense, too. Effective running backs can be had for cheap, and if none are available before the draft, the Bengals could find one in the later rounds.
Cleveland BrownsPat Shurmur's first season was a forgettable one (and it's a good bet that, thanks to James Harrison, Colt McCoy has already forgotten it). There were allegations that the offense was too predictable, but this is what happens when a second-year quarterback is without his Pro Bowl running back, doesn't have a go-to receiver, and the offense line struggles to keep him upright. Depending on what happens in free agency and the draft, McCoy's window might already be closed.
Free agents of note
Madden curse victim Peyton Hillis wasn't franchised and has since been reduced to publicly stating that he'd take a hometown discount to stay in Cleveland (and he has no plans to join the CIA) … However, the Browns did franchise 37-year-old kicker Phil Dawson.
After a promising rookie season, McCoy regressed in Year 2, but again, that wasn't entirely his fault. That said, this is the NFL and second and third chances are rarely granted because of ill-timed misfortune. McCoy should get an opportunity to compete for the starting job but he won't head into training camp with his name atop the depth chart.
Hillis was a flake in 2011 and the Browns can't trust him to show up from one week to the next. Even if he returns on the cheap, they'll need depth behind him.
Greg Little was the team's second-round pick in 2011 but he's raw. He struggled with dropped passes as a rookie but the bigger issue is that Cleveland didn't have a legitimate deep threat.
There's the possibility that Cleveland makes a move for Robert Griffin III, and even if that doesn't happen, if the Cardinals release Kevin Kolb, the Browns would certainly be interested. Matt Flynn is also a possibility should Peyton Manning end up in Miami.
Whether through the draft or free agency, the Browns haveto find a wideout. Look what A.J. Green did for the Bengals if you need proof for why they're important. Where they find said wideout is a different story. We can't imagine Vincent Jackson would want to come to Cleveland with the QB situation unsettled, but the Browns have two first-rounders. If they don't have to mortgage them both to get RG3, they could address other needs -- including WR -- in Round 1.
Pittsburgh SteelersFree agents of note
Gone are many of the players responsible for the Steelers' three Super Bowl appearances since 2005: Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Bryant McFadden and Chris Kemoeatu were all released. Backup defensive tackle Chris Hoke retired, and left tackle Max Starks, who came off his couch to bolster the o-line midway through the '11 season, won't be re-signed. With Mike Wallace a restricted free agent, the Steelers have two wideouts currently under contract (Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders) … Jerricho Cotchery would like to return -- and the team wants him back -- but they'll need to so some salary-cap gymnastics to make it happen … Third-down back Mewelde Moore could return but he's not a priority … Cornerback William Gay was a solid starter but he excels as a nickel back. Again: the cap could determine if he's back … Starting guards Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster are both restricted free agents.
If Willie Colon can stay healthy, the Steelers should be set at tackle (second-year player Marcus Gilbert will move to the left side in 2012). And with Maurkice Pouncey at center and either Foster or Legursky at right guard, the only gaping hole will be at left guard (which was pretty much the case when Kemoeatu was still with the team).
With Ward and Cotchery now free agents and Wallace a possible target for WR-needy teams, the Steelers need to find depth behind third-year players Brown and Sanders.
Farrior's age (37) and salary necessitated his departure but now Pittsburgh needs to find their next young menacing linebacker to replace him. Larry Foote can serve as the bridge to whomever will end up playing alongside Lawrence Timmons.
There was speculation that nose tackle Casey Hampton could become a cap casualty but he's currently with the team. Still, with Hoke and Smith's departure, Pittsburgh could stand to add some warm bodies along the defensive line.
Typically, the Steelers don't make many splashy free-agent signings and that'll again be the case this offseason. They'd love to have Cotchery back, as well as find ways to re-sign Moore and possibly Gay (not to mention keep Wallace). Expect them to target an offensive lineman, linebacker or defensive lineman in the early rounds of the draft.
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