This is the final week that several big names will be under contract with their respective AFC North teams.
The new league year starts on Friday, March 4, with a lot of labor uncertainty. Free agency cannot begin until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. But at least we will know who the key players are this offseason by the end of the week.
Here is how things are shaping up in the AFC North:
Baltimore Ravens: Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata received the franchise tag, and signing him long term is Baltimore's biggest priority this offseason. The Ravens also have several interesting free agents. Offensive lineman Marshal Yanda is one of the most underrated free agents in this division. He has the versatility to play guard and tackle, and the Ravens want him back to help patch up the right side of their offensive line. The secondary also could be taking a hit as safety Dawan Landry and cornerbacks Josh Wilson and Fabian Washington are all set to hit the open market. Of the three, I think Wilson was the most consistent for Baltimore this season. The Ravens will allow fullback Le'Ron McClain to test free agency. He wants the opportunity to carry the football more and won’t get that in Baltimore. With the team expected to release Willis McGahee, the Ravens could be thin at running back behind starter Ray Rice if both McClain and McGahee do not return in 2011.
Cincinnati Bengals: We have addressed the situation numerous times with Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph. He has quietly been one of the top defenders in the AFC North and will likely get a huge payday, considering the going rate for cornerbacks. Unless Cincinnati is willing to pay at least $10 million per year to keep Joseph, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t hit the open market this week. Starting tailback Cedric Benson is another interesting free agent. He’s led Cincinnati in rushing two years in a row after posting a pair of 1,000-yard seasons. But Benson was unhappy with the Bengals last year and his production also tailed. Will he work out a deal to stay in Cincinnati? Stay tuned. The Bengals also have aging free agents like receiver Terrell Owens and linebacker Dhani Jones who are not expected to return because the team is rebuilding and going younger. Cincinnati also has to figure out what to do at quarterback now that starter Carson Palmer wants to be traded and threatened to retire.
Cleveland Browns: The Browns were lacking talent to begin with. So they don't have many big-name free agents. But some players who were productive in 2010 are hitting the open market, including fullback Lawrence Vickers, linebacker Matt Roth and safety Abe Elam. Both Roth and Elam were unhappy about not getting long-term extensions in Cleveland and probably will look elsewhere, while it's unknown how well Vickers, a power fullback, fits in a West Coast offense. With a new coaching staff led by head coach Pat Shurmur, expect a lot of turnover on the roster as the Browns get players who fit their offensive and defensive schemes. The Browns recently used the franchise tag on veteran kicker Phil Dawson to keep him off the market.
Pittsburgh Steelers: No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor has been in preliminary discussions with Pittsburgh but is likely running into the same challenges as Joseph. Similar to Cincinnati, would the Steelers be willing to commit at least $10 million per year to a cornerback? That appears to be the going rate for solid, free-agent corners. The Steelers will probably let Taylor test the market and compete with other teams before they pay that amount. If Taylor can get that elsewhere, he probably will take it. If not, Taylor can return to a Super Bowl contender in Pittsburgh at a reduced rate. Other than Taylor, the team doesn't have many key players hitting the open market next week. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley was given the franchise tag. Role players like tailback Mewelde Moore, backup center Doug Legursky and kicker Shaun Suisham are among other notable free agents for Pittsburgh.