Monday February 13th, 2012

After Ray Rice compiled 2,068 yards of total offense last season, the Ravens are sure to make keeping their star running back a priority in free agency. (AP)

The AFC North accounted for half of its conference's playoff teams in 2011, with the upstart Bengals joining perennial powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh on the NFL's big stage. The framework is in place for both the Ravens and Bengals to stay competitive in 2012.

Just about everyone would expect the Steelers to stay in the hunt, too, but they face some major questions heading as the offseason begins.

And then there's Cleveland: Can the Browns finally turn the corner in 2012? What they decide to do with some in-house free agents could go a long way toward answering that question.

Here's a look at the AFC North's free agency situations:

Baltimore Ravens

Key free agents: C Matt Birk, G Ben Grubbs, LB Jarrett Johnson, LB Jameel McClain, DE Cory Redding, RB Ray Rice, CB Lardarius Webb (restricted), S Tom Zbikowski

Players Baltimore needs back: Birk/Grubbs; Johnson; Rice; Webb

Birk reportedly is considering retirement. If he opts to come back, the Ravens  will try to ensure it's with them -- Birk has started the last 48 regular-season games for Baltimore. If Birk decides to call it quits, though, Grubbs and possibly even versatile pending free agent Andre Gurode become priorities, so the Ravens don't have to undergo massive changes on the interior of their line.

Baltimore wants Webb signed long-term. Same goes for Rice, though he's a candidate to receive the franchise tag if the two sides cannot work something out before March.

• Player Baltimore should let walk: Johnson

The 30-year-old linebacker has been with the Ravens for nine seasons, but it's time for both sides to move on. Johnson remained strong against the run last year but was a disaster against the pass, opening the door for Paul Kruger to see more playing time. Baltimore has some youthful depth at LB, so there's no need to force Johnson into the lineup.

• Outlook: The Ravens' top priority will be to keep things together on the offensive side of the ball. If they can sign Rice long-term, convince Birk to give it one more go and bring back either Grubbs or Gurode, 2012 should be pretty status quo up front for the defending division champs.

Cincinnati Bengals

• Key free agents: RB Cedric Benson, WR Andre Caldwell, WR Jerome Simpson, OT Anthony Collins, DE Jonathan Fanene, DB Adam Jones, DE Frostee Rucker, S Reggie Nelson, K Mike Nugent

• Players Cincinnati needs back: Nelson; Nugent; Rucker

Nelson turned in a very solid campaign in his second season with the Bengals. Jones, Kelly Jennings and Gibril Wilson are also free agents in Cincinnati's secondary, so the franchise should prioritize and focus on bringing Nelson back. Same goes for Rucker, who's about to join Bengals defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene and Pat Sims on the free-agent market. None is a game-breaker, but Rucker was the most reliable in 2011.

Nugent, meanwhile, hit 33 of his 38 field goal attempts. As we saw this past postseason, having a kicker you can count on does wonders.

• Players Cincinnati should let walk: Benson; Caldwell/Simpson; Jones

Benson has topped the 1,000-yard mark each of the past three seasons, but it's time for he and Cincinnati to go their separate ways. The Bengals need more of a big-play threat in the backfield, and Benson would like to find an offense more in tune with his abilities.

Cincinnati might opt to bring back one of the Caldwell-Simpson duo at wide receiver, but if that's the case, it needs to be as a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver -- as opposed to the No. 2 role the Bengals tried to squeeze those guys into this season. A.J. Green needs a legit threat opposite him on the field.

And, finally, Jones. He actually played OK in his seven starts, but he's had issues staying on the field, and the Bengals can upgrade in free agency.

• Outlook: The Bengals look like they'll have tons of money to spend under the salary cap this offseason, meaning that they could take a run at some of the bigger names. That flexibility ought to make it easier to bid farewell to some players that had key roles in the team's surprising playoff run. No matter what it takes, Cincinnati needs to surround Green with more talent.

Cleveland Browns

• Key free agents: S Mike Adams, K Phil Dawson, RB Peyton Hillis, LB D'Qwell Jackson, DB Dimitri Patterson

• Players Cleveland needs back: Jackson, Patterson

After missing all of 2010, Jackson put his career back on track with a 158-tackle season, which was good enough to land him as the runner-up for the Comeback Player of the Year award behind Matthew Stafford. Jackson was Cleveland's best defender all season, so losing him now after he bounced back so well would be devastating.

Adams might be on some Browns' fans lists -- and Cleveland may try to keep him after he started 16 games in 2011. Patterson, though, was a low-risk/high-reward signing for Cleveland last offseason and he paid off well. He saw a lot of his action in a nickel-back role but might have a shot to start if he returns in 2012.

Player Cleveland should let walk: Hillis

This marriage really fell apart in a hurry. After Hillis rushed for nearly 1,200 yards in 2010 to become one of the NFL's surprise stars, he suffered through an unproductive, drama-filled 2011. He played just 10 games for Cleveland and wound up with only 587 yards rushing. Cleveland's other options at RB (Montario Hardesty, Chris Ogbonnaya) might convince the organization to try to retain Hillis. The Browns would be better off looking elsewhere.

Outlook: What Cleveland does with Hillis will be one of the division's biggest questions heading into March. He'll no doubt strike up some interest if he hits the open market, but does Cleveland really want to deal with his antics again? The Browns are in a good cap position and don't have many of their own free agents to deal with -- 11, a low number compared to the other teams in this division. That means they should be able to pick and choose some spots to really make a move.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key free agents: QBs Charlie Batch/Dennis Dixon/Byron Leftwich, WR Jerricho Cotchery, DB William Gay, S Ryan Mundy (restricted), T Max Starks, WR Mike Wallace (restricted)

Players Pittsburgh needs back: Someone at QB, Gay, Mundy, Wallace

Let's just get this out of the way: Wallace isn't going anywhere. The Steelers will hand him a first-round restricted free-agent tender and make sure he stays in town. I'd expect the same will go for Mundy, who will receive a lower-round tender to keep backing up Pittsburgh's safeties. He's not an elite talent by any means but he knows the system and has been adequate when pressed into duty.

Gay started 15 of 16 regular-season games and was one of Pittsburgh's steadier secondary presences -- Pro Football Focus rated him as the Steelers' second-best DB for the season, behind only Troy Polamalu. Assuming Gay isn't looking for a monster contract for some reason, expect him to stick around.

Pittsburgh has to figure out who will back up Ben Roethlisberger in 2012. Batch fell into the job this season with Dixon and Leftwich hurt, but he's a No. 3 quarterback at best these days. Choosing between Dixon and Leftwich could be a tough choice, but Leftwich has more experience.

Players Pittsburgh should let walk: Cotchery, Starks

If the Steelers can talk Cotchery into a fourth-receiver role, he would still fit. Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders should get the top three spots, though.

Starks is a tough call, because no matter how hard the Steelers try to get rid of him, he just winds up back in their starting lineup. Still, they need to get better along the front line and somehow improving on Starks would be a step in the right direction.

Outlook: Pittsburgh entered this offseason projected to be higher over the salary cap than any team in the league -- somewhere in the vicinity of $25 million. The Steelers restructured the contracts of LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Ike Taylor to slice a big chunk off that, but there is not a lot of wiggle room. That reality will make Pittsburgh's task much tougher this summer.

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