For two teams in the AFC North it’s a place that quality quarterback play has forgotten and shunned. The difference is one is firmly denying that core problem, while the other will throw a first-round pick dart at it for the second time in three years.
Estimated cap room: $27.6 million
Draft slot: 24th
End game: A year ago in the the draft Cincinnati rightfully decided it was a good idea to support Andy Dalton with a heaping handful of young offensive talent, taking Tyler Eifert in the first round, and then trading up in the second to making Giovani Bernard the first running back off the board. Fast forward to current times, and the problem doesn’t lie with the support, rather the guy getting supported.
Andy Dalton has repeatedly received the always vague (and ultimately meaningless) confidence votes from head coach Marvin Lewis and others, but his most glaring problem remains: an arm resembling a pool noodle. In a playoff loss at home, to a Chargers team that finished barely above .500, Dalton turned the ball over four times, three of which came in the second half to crush whatever hope remained. That came after a regular season when Dalton threw 20 interceptions with a passer rating of just 88.8.
Again, there’s been nothing but praise from Jones and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as Dalton enters the final year of his rookie contract, so the most Cincy will do to change their QB depth chart is spend a mid-round pick on a development prospect. The hope and aim for Bengals fans is Jackson shifts a greater load to Bernard on the ground, and constructs an offense that can succeed despite Dalton’s presence, not because of him.
Quarterback aside, a defense rooted in pressure that had 43 sacks in 2013 is likely to lose Michael Johnson, a young (27) pass rusher who took a step back this past season, but he’s still only a year removed from a 11.5 sack season with plenty of room to grow. The Bengals will make a play for him, but Johnson’s market is about to ballon fast with the Bears and Bucs most interested in this year’s top free agent defensive end (after Greg Hardy was franchised). It’s a blow that sucks as all free agency blows do, but it’s one the Bengals can absorb with a deep pass rush between Carlos Dunlap, a hopefully healthy Geno Atkins, and Margus Hunt, a second-round pick from last year’s who’s ready to ascend.
There are multiple directions the Bengals could go with their draft, and in the back half of the first round they may be in position to add even more pass rushing depth in the form of Dee Ford. But younger bodies are more important at corner, where Leon Hall will return next fall after suffering his second Achilles tear over the past two seasons.
Estimated cap room: $12.5 million
Draft slot: 15th
End game: Sweet, Steelers, you have something that resembles cap room. That blessing was achieved through extensions to Troy Polamlau and Heath Miller. Now one final move needs to be made before the market’s grand doors swing open tomorrow: either cut or significantly restructure Ike Taylor.
Taylor was once a fine shutdown corner. But time is an enemy we all bow before eventually, and at 34 years old Taylor is far removed from being trusted with shutting down anyone. By cutting Taylor the Steelers can save $7 million, which would give them a more than comfortable cap situation to make a run at Alterraun Verner or Aqib Talib.
Funds desperately need to be freed after Jason Worilds was given the transition tag and guaranteed $9.754 million in 2014. LaMarr Woodley is also a prime cut candidate since he’s now far removed form his last double-digit sack season (2010), and he’s set for a monstrous $13.6 million cap hit. Indeed, Adam Schefter reports that cutting Woodley is just a formality now, and it’ll happen tomorrow afternoon. He’ll find other employment in a market where pass rushers are treated like a PS4 on Black Friday, but it’ll be at a rate far more in line with that of a defensive end who’s declining and will soon be on the wrong side of 30 years old.
Elsewhere they’re set to lose Emmanual Sanders as he joins the muddled group of free agent wide receivers who aren’t named Eric Decker. He’ll be targeted by the wide receiver needy teams (Lions and Jets) who miss out on Decker, with Pittsburgh unable to match as they fly to close to the cap. It’s all good, though, because last year’s draft produced Markus Wheaton, and he can slide up. Obvious statement for obvious thing: drafting is important, but it’s really important when you have no money.
With that wideout depth depleted the Steelers will be in a position to jump into the deep WR draft pool, as Mike Evans could be available midway though the first round, along with Marquise Lee. But as sexy as those picks would be, addressing a still old and still decaying defense is a priority. If we include Taylor, three of Pittsburgh’s four secondary starters are currently 32 or older, and at the piece of first-round real estate the Steelers occupy two top safeties (either HaHa Clinton-Dix or Darqueze Dennard) should be available.
Estimated cap room: $24.9 million
Draft slot: 17th
End game: Let’s get a little nostalgic again and rewind to a year ago. That was a glorious time in Baltimore for a few weeks in February, because people are generally happy after a championship. That is a fact.
But then when the drudgery of the offseason started sadness set in. Since Joe Flacco had to get paidddddd, the Ravens were quickly in salary cap hell. The body ditching began: Anquan Boldin was dealt to San Francisco, while Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard, Cary Williams, and Ed Reed walked, and Ray Lewis retied. Ozzie Newsome did a fine job of finding capable replacements, most notably Daryl Smith up the middle, Chris Canty, and Elvis Dumervil after he couldn’t operate a fax machine properly and left Denver.
Now Newsome has an odd, invigorating feeling: that of being rich. Filthy rich by comparison at least, and he needs to use pretty much every dime to plug the holes left in his offensive line. Newsome chose not to use the franchise tag on Eugene Monroe, and now an active dialogue has continued and there’s optimism a new deal will be worked out before 4 p.m. ET tomorrow. An excuse to be motivated to re-sign a 26-year-old left tackle isn’t needed, especially when Pro Football Focus ranked him 24th out of 76 left tackles. But with other signings among the top soon-to-be free agents at the position unofficially official (Branden Albert to the Dolphins, and Jared Veldheer to the Cardinals), there’s an even greater need to stop Monroe from becoming a free agent.
Michael Oher is a goner too, and good riddance. He was a bottom 10 tackle according to PFF, and an upgrade can be acquired through the draft. About that: in the early rounds Newsome will target a tackle and a wide receiver, and not necessarily in that order. Support is desperately needed for Torrey Smith, especially if Jacoby Jones walks. That makes Baltimore yet another potential landing spot for the handful of possible mid-round receivers (Evans, Lee).
Estimated cap room: $55.8 million
Draft slot: 4th
End game: The most logical free agency connection is between the Browns and Jairus Byrd, the Bills safety who’s about to make bank. The Browns have all the money, they’re likely about to lose T.J. Ward, and Mike Pettine is the new head coach in Cleveland after being the defensive coordinator in Buffalo. But Cleveland isn’t a place where logic usually lives, and despite the legal tampering window opening Saturday they still haven’t contacted Byrd. That could mean very little or a whole lot, and we’ll find out tomorrow.
Donte Whitner has been connected to the Browns too, with Mary Kay Cabot reporting there’s been serious discussions. Whether it’s Whitner, Byrd, or re-signing Ward, a healthy chunk of the Browns’ small country-sized mound of cap space needs to be spent on the safety position, then second on the priority list is finding a running back who’s faster than a well-thrown rock. Discarding Trent Richardson now looks wise, but Willis McGahee is about 49 years old in running back years, and he’s walking in free agency anyway. Expect the Browns to overpay for Ben Tate, the only running back on the market worth paying anything of significant for, before dipping into the second tier of wide receivers to support Josh Gordon, and maybe going after Andre Roberts.
I know this is startling knowledge, but the Browns will select a quarterback with their fourth overall pick. At this point we can pretty much ask every eight ball ever made who that quarterback will be. Repeatedly we’ll be told to ask again later, and we still won’t have our answer.
My steaming hot take: after whiffing so catastrophically on Brandon Weeden, the Browns will go with either Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles, who are safer though less sexy (literally and figuratively?) than Johnny Manziel. With 10 picks overall this year and five in the first three rounds after the Richardson trade, there’s an opportunity for the Browns turn this cluster-mess around quickly.