Off-season Primer: AFC North
Has there ever been another division where we've talked as much about the last-place team?
While the Steelers and Ravens keep butting heads and the Bengals keep making the playoffs, the Browns -- who own a playoff drought dating back to the 2002 season -- keep swiping many of the headlines.
Cleveland would prefer to live a little more in the shadows, eliminating the drama from its front office on down. After all, just across the state, Cincinnati has built one of the more monotonous franchises in the NFL with four consecutive playoff berths. Granted, none of those trips has resulted in a victory but still...
The North actually claimed three of six AFC postseason berths last year, with Baltimore qualifying after missing out in 2013 and Pittsburgh making it for the first time since '11.
Will any of those teams get back in 2015? Can Cincinnati climb any higher on the NFL ladder? What else can go wrong in Cleveland? Day Two of our Off-season Primer series takes us on a stroll through the AFC North:
• Key free agents: WR Kamar Aiken (exclusive rights), TE Owen Daniels, RB Justin Forsett, S Will Hill (RFA), CB Anthony Levine (RFA) OLB Pernell McPhee, WR Torrey Smith, S Darian Stewart, QB Tyrod Taylor, K Justin Tucker (RFA)
• Players team needs to bring back: Daniels, Hill, Tucker ... and Smith?
CBS' Jason La Canfora reported last week that the Ravens offered Torrey Smith a five-year, $35 million deal with $19 million guaranteed before the 2014 season. Smith then proceeded to produce a career high in TD catches (11) and a career low in yards receiving (767). So, where does his value lie now? Probably around that $7 million-per-year range -- a healthy chunk of change for a team currently projected to be right around next year's salary cap (restructuring Haloti Ngata's deal, among other things, will help).
The Ravens could find a replacement for Smith in the draft -- someone like, say, Ohio State's Devin Smith, who brings the same deep threat that Torrey Smith has for Baltimore. Or, they could re-sign Torrey Smith and draft a big-bodied wideout: Jaelen Strong, Devin Funchess, etc.
Young receivers Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown showed promising potential last season, but neither can fill Smith's role. It's a critical one in the Joe Flacco-led offense, too, given the veteran QB's propensity for picking up chunks of yardage via deep completions or -- as often is the case with Flacco-Smith -- drawing pass-interference calls.
Along with Ngata's salary, the Torrey Smith dilemma is among Baltimore's most pressing issues this off-season. The other choices here are relative no-brainers: Hill is a bargain (assuming he can avoid off-field issues) as a restricted free agent, Tucker is one of the game's best kickers and Daniels served a needed role in the offense with Dennis Pitta injured again.
The Ravens would love to keep McPhee, but he's probably played his way into more money elsewhere a la Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe. Meanwhile, Forsett will be near the top of the Ravens' wish list. The minimum contract he signed last off-season, though, prevents Baltimore from re-signing him until free agency begins, meaning another franchise could swoop in with an offer.
• Positions team needs to improve: CB, RB, WR
They needed help to sneak into the playoffs, but the Ravens' roster has the look of a 2015 contender. If Daniels, Smith and Forsett all return and Pitta makes it back from injury, the secondary will be the clear focus over the coming months. Neither Lardarius Webb nor Jimmy Smith was able to stay healthy last season, and Baltimore saw the muddled results.
• Players team needs to bring back: Boling and Lamur.
Lamur leaves something to be desired against the run (Pro Football Focus rated him as the Bengals' second-worst defender there), but the 25-year-old starting linebacker covers the field well. Cincinnati has enough question marks at linebacker without letting Lamur walk -- Maualuga could hit the road and Vontaze Burfict recently underwent microfracture knee surgery. Overpaying Lamur would be a misstep. So would losing him.
Let's also not forget that this team was burned by letting another RFA get away last off-season: WR Andrew Hawkins. Cincinnati low-balled him with its qualifying offer, then watched him catch 63 passes for 824 yards after signing with Cleveland.
Boling, like Lamur, may never be an All-Pro, but he has more than proven his value to the Bengals at both guard and tackle. Cincinnati can lock him in along the interior for 2015 and turn its attention to adding depth elsewhere.
Speaking of which, Winston should be of higher priority than Newhouse, should the Bengals opt to retain one of their backup tackles. He would provide a steady safety net behind projected starters Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith.
And what of Gresham? The 26-year-old TE averaged a paltry 7.4 yards per catch this season, with Tyler Eifert expected back in 2015 after an injury-halted '14 campaign. The pro-Gresham argument is that he is the Bengals' best run-blocker at the TE position and Gresham-Eifert two-TE sets might be the ideal plan of attack for this offense.
• Positions team needs to improve: DE, DT, LB, QB, WR
I'm gonna go ahead and skip the Cincinnati quarterback discussion. There's nothing to be said about Andy Dalton at this point that has not already been said, and that goes for the positives and negatives.
Geno Atkins will be around for a long time, but (when healthy) he needs more production next to him. Carlos Dunlap found himself in a similar predicament at DE last season -- he led the team with 8.0 sacks, Atkins had 3.5 and no other Bengal made it to 2.0. A bounceback from Wallace Gilberry or breakthrough by Margus Hunt would be welcome. Cincinnati might have to look elsewhere.
• Players team needs to bring back: Cameron, Gipson, Robertson, Skrine.
"We'll see," Jordan Cameron told Fox Sports Ohio's Fred Greethem at the end of the season, regarding his Cleveland future. "There are a lot of things that have to go into it. It's not just me wanting to come back. There are a lot of situations that have to go in my favor. I really haven't given it a lot of thought. It's really up in the air."
Early this month, ESPNCleveland beat writer Tony Grossi put the odds of Cameron sticking around at 1%. If that guess is on the ball, it's tough to figure out what the Browns are thinking at this point. They'll already be without No. 1 receiver Josh Gordon for the duration of 2015, so subtracting Cameron, injury-prone as he was last season, would force a hard reset on the offense.
There are but a handful of tight ends who pose as many matchup problems as does Cameron when he's on the field. The draft certainly offers a limited quantity of those types, a list perhaps starting and ending with Minnesota's Maxx Williams.
Cleveland should be trying to get Gipson locked up long-term, despite the knee injury that sent to IR late in 2014. He picked off six passes in 10 games before that and earned a Pro Bowl nod anyway.
The Browns badly need Skrine back in their secondary, too. The 2014 season was the best of his career. Sure, there's always a slight concern a guy will regress after a huge contract-year effort, but with Justin Gilbert racing toward bust status Skrine is a must-have for this defense.
Robertson played in all 16 games and started 11. His ERFA tender last season paid him $570K. At or around that same price, he's worth it.
• Positions team needs to improve: CB, DE/OLB, DT, OT, QB, TE, WR
There are a few bright spots for Cleveland: safety (provided Gipson's back) and the offensive line (aside from the RT spot) are in decent shape, and there is some clear upside at running back. Everywhere else, work remains.
Moving forward with any grand designs will be difficult until the discombobulated front office sorts out Johnny Manziel's situation and/or re-signs Brian Hoyer. Of course, it may not matter who is under center if the Browns cannot come up with some more help at the skill positions. With two first-round picks, Cleveland might even consider doubling down at WR/TE early.
The defense finished ninth in points allowed ... and 32nd against the run. Reshaping the line will be on the to-do list, especially if Rubin is permitted to test the free-agent waters. Another pass-rusher wouldn't hurt, either.
• Players team needs to bring back: Allen, McCain, Moats.
The Steelers' on-the-fly facelift, a process that has been underway for several off-seasons now, will continue into the coming months. Longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau already has relocated to Tennessee; familiar faces Jason Worilds, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Ike Taylor all could follow him out the door.
Thus, the onus is on Steelers GM Kevin Colbert to find versatile contributors, ideally for manageable prices.
Moats fits the bill. Capable of playing anywhere across the Steelers' linebacker alignment, the ex-Bill turned in nine starts and a career-high 4.0 sacks -- two coming in a Week 14 win over Cincinnati, with Harrison out of the lineup. Transitioning from Worilds and Harrison as the starting OLBs to Moats and 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones may take some time, yet it's not the worst plan. If nothing else, Moats again could give Pittsburgh a multi-positional backup.
The secondary has a matching need for the 32-year-old Hill, who saw four starts last season and could bump into the lineup permanently if Polamalu is released. The Steelers also could give Shamarko more responsibility and keep Hill in their back pocket as insurance.
McCain tied William Gay for the team lead in interceptions (three), as part of a patchwork CB group. He won't come anywhere close to breaking the bank.
• Positions team needs to improve: CB, OLB, OT, RB depth, S
That whole "RB depth" headache started when the Steelers cut (future Super Bowl champion) LeGarrette Blount and ended with Tate et al stumbling to replace Le'Veon Bell during a playoff loss. The draft has loads of capable backs. Pittsburgh should pluck one to serve as Bell's backup.
The aforementioned defensive depth is problematic even if Polamalu, Worilds and Harrison all return -- unlikely as that scenario is. The Steelers found themselves scrambling at the cornerback and linebacker sports for varying chunks of the season, because of injury and inconsistency.