NFL Free Agency Previews: AFC North

With the legal tampering period starting in just ten days, now seems look like a great team to take a closer look at each team’s priorities heading into free agency. We’ll go by division by division, looking at each team’s biggest needs, a player they must re-sign, along with the one free agent they need to sign. We’re starting off with the AFC North, with two young, up and coming teams (Browns, Ravens), a contender with a lot of changes to make (Steelers), and a team with its work cut out for them (Bengals). It’s a very interesting division, so without further adieu, let’s get started! We’ll go in order by the final standings last season.

Baltimore Ravens

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Ravens GM Eric Decosta- Photo Cred: Baltimore Sun

Top Needs: WR, RB, OL

Without a doubt, the Ravens’ biggest need is at wide receiver. They’ve already released Michael Crabtree, while John Brown is a pending free agent. In order for Lamar Jackson to realize his full potential, he needs bigger body targets with the ability to get open. Meanwhile, Gus Edwards is coming off a season in which he averaged 5.2 yards per carry, but he’s a former undrafted free agent and only had two catches the entire season. At the very least, Baltimore should pursue a compliment for Edwards with the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Besides those two glaring needs, the Ravens are mostly set, but they could use help on the interior of their offensive line; Alex Lewis and Matt Skura are more fill-ins that long-term starters.

Player They Need To Re-Sign: ILB CJ Mosley

The 26-year-old Mosley is coming off of another terrific season in which he had 105 combined tackles and ranked as the 22nd best linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s the centerpiece of a defense that ranked first in yards allowed last season, and the Ravens cannot afford to lose him.

Top Free Agent Target: WR Devin Funchess

No receiver fits the bill as a big-body reciever like Funchess does. At 6 foot 4, 225 pounds, the 24-year-old is an enormous presence and has developed into a solid red zone threat. He has 12 touchdowns in his past season, and ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 54th best receiver. He’s the perfect fit for Jackson, and obtaining his services has to be a priority.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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Steelers GM Kevin Colbert- Photo Cred: behindthesteelcurtain.com

Top Needs: LB, CB, WR

Ever since Ryan Shazier suffered his catastrophic injury that almost left him paralyzed in  Week 13 of the 2017 season against the Bengals, the Steelers have lacked a presence on the inside of their defense. Vince Williams and Jon Bostic were picked on, especially in coverage, and a more athletic linebacker is greatly needed. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh lacks a starting-caliber corner alongside Joe Haden; both Cody Sensabaugh and Artie Burns struggled mightily last season. On offense, if Antonio Brown is indeed traded, the Steelers will need to replace him with a cheaper alternative. If not, Juju Smith Schuster will have little help and is in danger of being frequently double-covered.

Player They Need To Re-Sign: OG Ramon Foster

Foster ranked as the 16th interior offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus, and is an integral part of one of the league’s top offensive lines. At age 33, it’s unclear what type of market he’ll have, so Pittsburgh likely won’t have to spend much to retain him. In order for James Conner to continue to develop into an above average running back, the Steelers need to continue to open up holes for him, and re-signing Foster would go a long way into ensuring that.

Top Free Agent Target: LB Denzel Perryman

The Steelers don’t have the financial flexibility to pursue the top free agents, meaning that they’ll need to look at second to third tier free agents to fill their needs. The 26-year-old Denzel Perryman has played in just 16 games over the past two seasons due to injuries, but he’s a terrific player when healthy. He ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked linebacker and fits best in a 3-4 defense as an inside linebacker. Furthermore, he provides the Steelers with the athleticism they’re lacking from their linebackers, and his injury history should keep him in their price range.

Cleveland Browns

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Browns GM John Dorsey- Photo Cred: cleveland.com

Top Needs: WR, DT, CB

The Browns are coming off an impressive 7-8-1 season, and look like one of the league’s best young teams. To continue to improve around quarterback Baker Mayfield, they need to fill some holes, however. That starts with wide receiver; outside of Jarvis Landry, there’s little depth behind him for Mayfield to connect with. That’s undoubtedly their main weakness, but on defense, Cleveland should look to upgrade at defensive tackle and corner back. For the former, an interior pass rusher opposite of Larry Ogunjobi is needed, while for the latter Denzel Ward remains the Browns’ only starting-caliber cornerback. Outside of these needs however, the Browns are a very well-rounded team and could be a playoff team next season if they go about their offseason properly.

Player They Need To Re-Sign: WR Breshad Perriman

A former first round pick, Perriman was a major bust for the Ravens However, with Cleveland, he was a solid deep threat for Mayfield with 340 receiving yards in ten games, grading out as above average by Pro Football Focus. With little proven production, Perriman will be easy to re-sign, and he’d provide Cleveland with needed depth at their weakest position.

Top Free Agent Target: WR Tyrell Williams

Sticking with wide receivers, Landry is a terrific receiver, but he’s more of a slot reciever than a deep threat or a Red Zone target. Tyrell Williams has breakaway speed, and is also 6 foot 4. He’s been an impressive vertical threat for the Chargers, with 2,440 receiving yards over his past three seasons, and is a terrific fit along with Landry for Mayfield. With the addition of Williams, Cleveland’s biggest weakness would immediately turn into a strength.

Cincinnati Bengals

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Bengals Coach Zac Taylor- Photo Cred: bengals.com

Top Needs: OL, LB, TE

Unlike the other three teams in this division, the Bengals have quite a few holes; it’s unlikely they’ll be a legitimate playoff contender this next season. On the offensive line, the Bengals are likely set with Cordy Glenn at left tackle and Billy Price at center, but the rest needs to be upgraded. Sticking on offense, both Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft are free agents, and a vertical threat down the seam would help quarterback Andy Dalton dramatically. On defense, Cincinatti ranked last in opposing yards allowed per game, in large part due to a very weak linebacking core. At least two linebackers need to be added this offseason, which will be tough for the Bengals to do.

Player They Need To Re-Sign: CB Darqueze Dennard

The last thing the Bengals can afford to do is to let one of their better defensive players leave via free agency. Darqueze Dennard is a very solid slot cornerback, and is a very underrated player. After ranking as the 52th best cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus, the 27-year-old could have a larger-than-expected market if the Bengals let him walk, so they need to make an aggressive push to re-sign him before that happens.

Top Free Agent Target: OL Rodger Saffold

As mentioned previously, the Bengals are incredible weak on the offensive line, especially in the interior. Rodger Saffold ranked as the 9th best guard according to Pro Football Focus, and may fall out of the Rams’ price range. Once he reaches the open market, coach Zac Taylor, who previously served as Los Angeles’ QB coach, should persuade owner Mike Brown to invest in the 30-year-old; he could make life a lot easier for Dalton and running back Joe Mixon. The Bengals are trying to develop an offense around Dalton, Mixon, and with the scheme of the innovative Taylor. That can only happen if they upgrade up front, and they have the resources (around $50M cap space) to make a strong push for him.

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