I'm officially back today from some time off and the AFC North blog is set to get you ready for the start of free agency, which begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. As always, here is your AFC North wake-up call:
The Patriots could target a restricted free agent from the AFC North and it's not Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. New England could use one of its late first-round picks to pry away cornerback Lardarius Webb from the Ravens, a scenario recently speculated by Comcast SportsNet's John Eisenberg.
Like Wallace, Webb is expected to receive a first-round tender, which allows the Ravens to match any offer sheet or get a first-round pick as compensation. The Patriots are looking to upgrade at cornerback after having the NFL's second-worst pass defense last season and wouldn't mind hurting an AFC contender in the process.
Webb is young (26) and is coming off his best season (career highs of 67 tackles and five interceptions). The Ravens have expressed interest in signing him to a long-term deal. "I think it would be best for this organization," general manager Ozzie Newsome said last month.
Hensley's slant: I'm not going to rule out the Patriots going after Webb, but I don't think it's going to happen. The Patriots have quickness at cornerback with Kyle Arrington and they have decent size if Ras-I Dowling can stay healthy. What New England needs is a veteran presence. Look for the Patriots to pursue someone like Marcus Trufant, who was recently released by the Seahawks, instead of Webb.
BENGALS: The Bengals will talk to the agent for free-agent safety Reggie Nelson today, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Nelson is expected to become an unrestricted free agent tomorrow, but the Enquirer indicates there is "a slight chance" that the team could sign him to a deal before free agency begins. According to the paper, the team should have talks with defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene, both of whom will become free agents tomorrow. Hensley's slant: The Bengals likely will have to use some of that massive salary-cap space to keep Nelson, who should draw heavy interest. He is the second-best safety in the free-agent market (behind LaRon Landry), and teams know they won't be able to fill voids with a weak draft class at safety. Nelson is the Bengals' top free-agent priority, and they will have to show how much they want to keep him.
BROWNS: The Browns botched the deal to trade up and position themselves to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III, according to the Akron Beacon Journal's Marla Ridenour. "Playing it safe and clinging to their five-year plan that feels like a ball and chain right now, they let Baylor’s Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, the most electric franchise-quarterback prospect in a decade, slip through their fingers," Ridenour wrote. The Washington Redskins reportedly outbid the Browns for the No. 2 overall pick, sending three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to the St. Louis Rams. Hensley's slant: As I posted in my weekend blog, the Browns were the biggest losers in this pre-draft trade because their alternatives at quarterback this year are no comparison to RG3.
STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out that wide receiver Mike Wallace would join an exclusive club if the Steelers signed him to a long-term contract. In the 20-year free-agency era, Pittsburgh has signed only one wide receiver to a muti-year contract -- Hines Ward. The Steelers let several wide receivers leave in free agency (Yancey Thigpen, Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El and Nate Washington to name a few) and traded three others (Santonio Holmes, Jeff Graham and Troy Edwards). To keep Wallace from becoming a free agent, Wallace is expected to be the only Steelers' restricted free agent to receive a first-round tender ($2.7 million), which would bring a first-round draft pick as compensation if he signs another deal and the Steelers decline to match it. Hensley's slant: I would be shocked if the Steelers didn't match any offer sheet for Wallace. Holding onto a deep threat who is about to hit his prime is worth more than a late first-round pick. Wallace has earned a long-term deal from Pittsburgh.