AFC North offseason advice: Ravens need someone to rush the passer
With free agency starting March 9, USA TODAY Sports is looking at all eight NFL divisions and what could be in store for teams this offseason, as well as the moves they should make. Today, the AFC North:
Prominent free agents: LB James Harrison, LB Lawrence Timmons, RB DeAngelo Williams, LB Jarvis Jones, WR Markus Wheaton
Franchise tag: RB Le’Veon Bell
Cap situation: $24.6 million in cap space, according to overthecap.com
Primary issues for 2017: GM Kevin Colbert said recently that his priority was to get Bell and WR Antonio Brown locked into deals and he followed through on that with a new deal for Brown and an exclusive franchise tag on Bell. The defense improved toward the end of the season, but a little more depth would help. The Steelers reached the AFC Championship Game, so they have the talent to compete for Super Bowls. But with aging QB Ben Roethlisberger, who still has not confirmed he will return for next season, could the window for the current group be closing?
Our advice: Now that they have taken care of their two biggest offensive pieces, other spots to address in the draft are outside linebacker — Harrison turns 39 in May — and tight end. And it might be time for the Steelers to draft and groom Roethlisberger’s replacement.
Prominent free agents: S Matt Elam, WR Kamar Aiken, CB Jerraud Powers, DE Lawrence Guy, RT Ricky Wagner, FB Kyle Juszczyk
Cap situation: $15.4 million in cap space, according to overthecap.com
Primary issues for 2017: The Ravens have hit a rough patch, failing to make the playoffs in three out of the past four years after they had reached the postseason in each of coach John Harbaugh’s first five seasons. Part of the problem is an ongoing rebuild that has been slow to purge the roster of aging veterans who may be past their prime. Two of the positions most affected by that are edge rusher and wide receiver.
Our advice: It makes most sense to cut OLB Elvis Dumervil and take the more than $6 million the team would save to invest that in other spots. Drafting a quick-twitch pass rusher is essential. The Ravens need more competition and more youth, so adding more than one edge player shouldn’t be out of the question in the draft. With the retirement of Steve Smith, Baltimore should look strongly at adding a receiver in free agency, and certainly in the draft as well. Baltimore also badly needs another cornerback to bolster an inconsistent secondary.
Prominent free agents: LT Andrew Whitworth, DT Domata Peko, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, G Kevin Zeitler
Cap situation: $43 million in cap space, according to overthecap.com
Primary issues for 2017: After the Bengals made the playoffs for five seasons in a row, 2016 was a regression. Now Cincinnati has to show it was more an anomaly and not a sign of things to come. The Bengals allowed 41 sacks last season, which was tied for seventh most in the NFL. Two starters on the offensive line are free agents, so shoring up the group is key. The run defense was also vulnerable, so they need to reinvest in their front four.
Our advice: In a league that prizes standout left tackles, Whitworth is likely to field sizable contract offers from multiple suitors. Cincinnati has some cap space, but it may be considering letting the 35-year-old walk if the price is too exorbitant. Former second-round pick Jake Fisher is entering his third year, and it may be time for him to step up. If, however, the Bengals can get Whitworth to agree to a reasonable number, it’s a no-brainer to get him back. The Bengals could always slide 2015 first-round selection Cedric Ogbuehi from right tackle to left to mitigate a potential Whitworth departure, but adding reinforcements on the offensive front are a priority. Part of Cincy’s struggles in the run game stem from a lack of athleticism from their linebackers. Speed on the edge and interior could go a long way toward solving that.
Prominent free agents: WR Terrelle Pryor, CB Tramon Williams, DE Stephen Paea
Cap situation: $106.5 million in cap space, according to overthecap.com
Primary issues for 2017: The Browns have invested in a high-volume draft strategy by stockpiling early picks, including four in the first two rounds in April. Now they’ll need to show they have the scouting eye to pluck dominant players and then coach them. Quarterback continues to be an issue as Robert Griffin III does not appear to be in the team’s long-term plans. But this is still a depleted roster that needs an infusion of talent in multiple spots.
Our advice: This all depends on what coach Hue Jackson and the Browns think of this year’s quarterback class in the draft, but with picks No. 1 and No. 12, they’ll have the chance to get the player they want most. Since this is widely considered a weaker quarterback class, however, the prudent move would be to take Texas A&M pass rusher Myles Garrett. This team won’t become a winner overnight, so the most crucial step is to add the best possible talent. This is where exploring a trade for New England Patriots backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo becomes very intriguing. Cleveland could leverage its numerous draft picks to swing a trade for the talented but still relatively unproven passer. Finding a quarterback in the draft may be tempting, but another botched pick at the position would set the Browns back that much further. Pryor showed in his first season as a receiver that he can be a playmaker, but he still has to learn the intricacies of the position. So Cleveland shouldn’t feel the need to pay top-dollar, elite receiver money to retain him. The Browns have a ton of cap space, but that doesn’t mean they should spend it without care.
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes
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