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Free Agency Primer: AFC North

Michael Johnson, Dennis Pitta, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders represent four of the AFC North's top free agents. (AP [4])Michael Johnson, Dennis Pitta, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders represent four of the AFC North's top free agents. (AP [4])
The 2013 season was disappointing for this division, with Cincinnati serving as its lone playoff representative and bowing out in the wild-card round. The Steelers lost their first four games and never really recovered, the Ravens dropped their final two to cough away a postseason spot and the Browns wound up changing coaches again.

There could be significant changes in the offing for every team here before Week 1 of 2014 arrives. Here's a look at what free agency may hold for the AFC North:

Baltimore Ravens

• Key free agents: TE Dallas Clark, TE Ed Dickson, CB Corey Graham, S James Ihedigbo, DT Arthur Jones, WR Jacoby Jones, OT Eugene Monroe, OT Michael Oher, TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith; WR Tandon Doss (RFA)

• Players Baltimore needs back: Ihedigbo, Monroe, Pitta, Smith.

Count Graham as an on-the-fence possibility, too, though the Ravens' nickel back and 2013 leader in interceptions might be more replaceable than the others listed here.

Monroe and Pitta may be priorities No. 1 and 1a for the Ravens. They swung a trade with Jacksonville for Monroe midseason, and he essentially made Oher expendable. The 26-year-old stepped into the starting lineup on Joe Flacco's blindside, likely earning himself a substantial deal with his play over the final three months of the season. Should he reach full-fledged free agency, he would be the top offensive tackle available.

Eugene Monroe was a surprising bedrock for the Ravens' offensive line. (Paul Spinelli/AP) Eugene Monroe was a surprising bedrock for the Ravens' offensive line. (Paul Spinelli/AP)

The Ravens had a glimpse of life without Pitta last season -- and it was ugly. Without their top tight end for 12 games, the Ravens struggled mightily on offense, as Flacco had no real luck replicating the rapport he has with Pitta. The franchise tag could be an option here, but a long-term deal certainly is not out of the question.

Smith, soon to be 32, was a classic Ozzie Newsome find. Baltimore signed him on the cheap, then sat back and enjoyed while he led the team with 123 combined tackles. Another of the team's inside linebackers, Albert McClellan, is a restricted free agent; 2013 draft pick Arthur Brown could be ready to inherit a starting spot.

• Players Baltimore should let walk: Arthur Jones, Jacoby Jones, Oher.

Potentially losing Arthur Jones could be the toughest hit to swallow for Baltimore this offseason. He delivered a very strong season in the team's three-man defensive front ... perhaps strong enough to make it impossible for the Ravens to re-sign him. Given their tight salary cap situation, they might have to give 2013 third-rounder Brandon Williams or a new face a shot at Jones' DT spot.

The other Jones, Jacoby, would cause fewer sleepless nights. The Ravens would have a harder time replacing him as a return man -- remember Super Bowl XLVII? -- than as a receiver, where he caught just 37 passes in 12 games this season. That WR spot is one Baltimore has to address heartily in the coming months anyway.

Oher, as mentioned above, likely will be pushed out by Monroe. Should the Ravens fail to keep the latter, they may turn their attention back to the former first-rounder.

• Outlook: Baltimore has some work to do, what with $70 million of the projected $126 million 2014 cap committed to six players (Haloti Ngata, Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice, Marshal Yanda and Lardarius Webb). Suggs could be out if the Ravens cannot talk him into a pay cut or extension. There also are expected to be four compensatory draft picks headed Newsome's way.

Keeping Monroe and Pitta -- and thus helping stabilize an offense that went through the motions in 2013 -- will be critical.

BURKE: Potential salary cap casualties

Cincinnati Bengals

• Key free agents: OT Anthony Collins, S Chris Crocker, DE Michael Johnson, S Taylor Mays, G Mike Pollak, WR/KR Brandon Tate; WR Andrew Hawkins (RFA). LB Vincent Rey (RFA)

• Players Cincinnati needs back: Collins, Tate, Rey.

The Bengals' offensive line was at its best in 2013 with Collins starting at LT and Andrew Whitworth next to him at guard. They may have to pony up a decent amount of dough to keep Collins in the fold for 2014, but with upwards of $22 million in projected cap space, the Bengals ought to do so.

Tate should not deliver too much of a financial hit. He played this past season for a little less than $1 million and made just one catch. It is as a return man where his value lies for Cincinnati: 26.1 yards per kick return and more than nine yards per punt return.

As a restricted free agent who showed the ability to step in and start, Rey will be back. Will Mays join him? The underachieving ex-USC star started 2013 strong, even sliding up to play a little linebacker, but suffered yet another injury.

• Players Cincinnati should let walk: Johnson.

There are not any other major decisions to be made -- guys like Crocker (who was signed midseason) and Pollak could contribute some depth, but they fall shy of the "make or break" category.

Johnson will receive a lot of attention as a free-agent pass rusher, one the Bengals would keep if the money fit. However, it probably doesn't. Cincinnati franchise tagged him for 2013, plus committed long-term to Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.

• Outlook: This is not a franchise that often kicks right up against the cap, but there will be money to burn this offseason. That's promising news considering how close the Bengals feel they are to a real playoff breakthrough. Solidifying the offensive line and making sure A.J. Green has a worthy complement will be high on the list. Attention may then turn to the linebacking corps or replacing Johnson at DE.

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Cleveland Browns

• Key free agents: OL Oniel Cousins, G Shawn Lauvao, C Alex Mack, RB Willis McGahee, S T.J. Ward

• Players Cleveland needs back: Mack and Ward.

Pretty straightforward situation here for Cleveland, which has just six unrestricted free agents (K Billy Cundiff the only one not mentioned above) and two critical ones. The Browns could use the franchise tag on either Mack or Ward -- early indications point toward Mack -- but it's also possible the new coaching staff may choose to move on from both guys.

Would that be a mistake? Few centers in the league have been as reliable as Mack over recent seasons, while teams are searching high and low to find safeties with Ward's abilities.

• Players Cleveland should let walk: McGahee.

Cousins, a swing lineman (i.e. able to play guard or tackle) might be worthwhile to retain, assuming he stays cheap, as he should. Lauvao, meanwhile, has started 43 games for Cleveland over the past three seasons, so he's a candidate to stay as well.

The only obvious pass for Cleveland comes in McGahee, who was signed after the Browns traded Trent Richardson. He did lead the team with 377 yards rushing and two touchdowns, but that 2.7 yards-per-carry average hardly screams "new contract." The Browns figure to be active searching for a RB in the draft and free agency (Ben Tate?), so McGahee's services are extraneous.

• Outlook: Another offseason, another turnover in the staff. But new head coach Mike Pettine arrives with a projected $46 million of available cash in his back pocket -- $24 million-plus a carryover from what the Browns saved in 2013. Just about every spot on offense needs to be addressed, as well as the secondary. There's a lot of work to do here, but plenty of money to spend.

BURKE: Free agents bound to be overpaid

Pittsburgh Steelers

• Key free agents: CB Will Allen, S Ryan Clark, WR Jerricho Cotchery, RB Jonathan Dwyer, DE Ziggy Hood, DE Brett Keisel, WR Emmanuel Sanders, C Fernando Velasco, DE Al Woods, LB Jason Worilds

• Players Pittsburgh needs back: Cotchery, Keisel, Velasco, Worilds.

As it has the past couple of offseasons, Pittsburgh finds itself likely needing to boot out some of the old guard to make way for new talent. Re-signing Worilds at the expense of Lamarr Woodley would fall under that umbrella. Worilds, 25, led the team with 8.0 sacks this season despite not being a full-time starter. Plenty of teams searching for outside help would give him a call should he get to free agency, but the Steelers ought to be working to prevent that from happening.

Ryan Clark has been with the Steelers for eight seasons. (Gene J. Puskar/AP) Ryan Clark has been with the Steelers for eight seasons. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

The other three names here -- Cotchery, Keisel and Velasco -- are more players that Pittsburgh should attempt to keep than guys it could not live without. Cotchery, who hauled in a team-best 10 touchdown receptions in 2013, would be a much cheaper option than Sanders, and he's developed a strong connection with Ben Roethlisberger.

Velasco finished the year on injured reserve, but he stepped in and played well at center for a banged-up unit. His versatility on the interior line would be welcome for an offense that seems to find itself scraping for reliable pieces on an annual basis.

Keisel, 35, might be ready to move on. If he's not, the Steelers' shaky situation up front could push them to retain their longtime lineman for a little bit longer.

• Players Pittsburgh should let walk:  Clark, Dwyer, Sanders.

The Steelers kept Sanders as a restricted free agent last offseason. He should find something more than that situation this spring after a 67-catch performance. Unless he finds the market extremely cold due to the loaded WR draft class, Sanders likely will land more money outside of Pittsburgh.

Both Clark and Troy Polamalu may be packing their bags, though Polamalu could help his case by restructuring his contract. Clark does not have that luxury. He will turn 35 in the middle of next season, second-year man Shamarko Thomas is waiting in the wings, and Allen would be a cheaper option to retain.

Dwyer doesn't bring much to the table, especially with the No. 1 RB spot clearly in Le'Veon Bell's grasp.

• Outlook: The Steelers' roster is in better shape than that of the Browns (though it's debatable by how much). Their financial situation is about the exact opposite. Pittsburgh has 21 players on the verge of unrestricted free agency, yet is projected to be at least $10 million over the cap for 2014.

Moves like cutting Levi Brown ($6.25 million) or Woodley (approximately $8 million, post-June 1) would help, though other contracts will have to be restructured. Ike Taylor, with a cap number of nearly $12 million for 2014, also could be at the end of the line in Pittsburgh.

Even with a few tricky decisions, the Steelers may be relegated to fixing their roster issues via the draft and some under-the-radar signings. There's certainly not much extra money here to keep the majority of their impending free agents.

BURKE & FARRAR: Top offseason storylines
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