A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC North team:
1. Sign guard Marshal Yanda: The Ravens are already struggling on the offensive line, and losing Yanda at right guard would be a big blow. Baltimore doesn't have quality backups behind Yanda, and the right tackle spot is wide open as well. Yanda will not come cheap. He is versatile and played guard and tackle for the Ravens, which will help his stock on the open market.
2. Find a pass-rusher: Baltimore has many strengths on defense, but rushing the passer isn't one of them. The Ravens registered just 27 sacks last regular season. Pass-rushing help most likely will be needed at outside linebacker in Baltimore’s hybrid defense. The problem is that teams do not let go of players who can get to the quarterback, so it’s a very thin crop this year. If the Ravens can just get a player who can add six-to-eight sacks to the pile to help Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs, that would help tremendously.
3. Extend defensive lineman Haloti Ngata's contract: Make no mistake, this is the top priority for the Ravens this summer. But the reason this is listed third is that the Ravens put the franchise tag on Ngata before the lockout, which buys them time to get to these negotiations once a fast and furious free agency is complete. Hundreds of players without contracts will be signed in a matter of days. So the Ravens need to focus on those players first before they are left behind. Ngata will get his money before the regular season -- and plenty of it.
1. Determine the futures of RB Cedric Benson and CB Johnathan Joseph: The Bengals have two important starters set to hit the open market in Benson and Joseph. Benson was expected to be a big part of the Cincinnati's new West Coast offense until his recent arrest for alleged assault put his future with the team in question. First year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants to implement a power running game, which fits Benson's style. But if Benson is facing a suspension to start the season, it would make more sense for Cincinnati to spend money on a player who can help them for all 16 games. With Joseph, the Bengals didn't seem interested in paying the cornerback market value, which can range between $8-$10 million per season. The new collective bargaining agreement may include mandatory spending to the salary cap, which will force Cincinnati to spend big in free agency. If that's the case, Joseph becomes a much better possibility to return.
2. Find a veteran quarterback: Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer said he's not returning. So the Bengals must find a veteran free agent at the position. Cincinnati would be skating on very thin ice if it went into the season with rookie Andy Dalton as starting QB and Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour as backups. The trio has zero NFL starts. Don't expect the Bengals to search for an expensive, big-name starter. Most likely the team will get a career backup with some starting experience to support Dalton. A couple of names to consider are Bruce Gradkowski and Jim Sorgi.
3. Make roster cuts: The Bengals have plenty of cap room, so they don't have to slash salaries right away. But there are several players on the chopping block whose production no longer matches their big contracts. Receiver Chad Ochocinco, 33, is making $6.5 million and is coming off his second poor season in three years. The Bengals are also getting younger at the position and drafted A.J. Green as his replacement. Defensive linemen Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom have high salaries in 2011, but have been plagued by injuries and poor production. Look for Cincinnati to cut at least one of these players, because second-year defensive end Carlos Dunlap looks poised to take over a starting role permanently.
1. Sign a defensive end: The Browns will have a very young defensive line, probably including rookie starters Phil Taylor, a first-round pick, and Jabaal Sheard, a second-rounder. Therefore, it's important that Cleveland adds experience up front to relieve some of the pressure. Two very good free agents who can help are Ray Edwards and Charles Johnson. Both have starting experience and ability to get to the quarterback.
2. Find a starting safety: The Browns have two good, young pieces in the secondary in cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward. But they're missing another safety to help fill out the back end. Abram Elam, a favorite of former Browns head coach Eric Mangini, has been average. Now that Pat Shurmur has taken over, don't expect Elam to return. Fortunately for Cleveland, safety is one of the deeper positions in free agency. Quality candidates include Quintin Mikell, Donte Whitner and Eric Weddle.
3. Cut QB Jake Delhomme: The Browns are on the hook for $5.4 million if they keep Delhomme this season. Cleveland likes his leadership in the locker room, but he's too expensive for a third-string quarterback. The Browns made their choice for backup quarterback before the lockout when they signed Seneca Wallace to a three-year extension. Wallace knows the West Coast offense better than anyone on the team, and the Browns believed that knowledge was more valuable behind second-year quarterback Colt McCoy.
1. Make roster cuts: The Steelers are expected to be well over the cap when the final numbers are determined. So their first priority will be to free up space to sign free agents and draft picks. Some solutions could include cutting veteran tackle Flozell Adams ($5 million) and receiver Antwaan Randle El ($2 million). Restructuring the contract of defensive end Aaron Smith is another possibility. The Steelers must free up money first before they make other tough calls.
2. Sign a starting corner: This could mean re-signing Ike Taylor or signing a player from outside the organization (Carlos Rogers or Richard Marshall). But it's important for the Steelers to land a starting-caliber corner in free agency. Pittsburgh's secondary struggled against good quarterbacks last season. Teams will continue to attack Pittsburgh through the air until the team proves it can slow multiple-receiver sets. To do this, the Steelers must have at least three solid corners. Bryant McFadden is the only corner under contract with starting experience.
3. Sign a kicker: No one cares about kickers until you need one in an important spot. The Steelers are in the market for a kicker after cutting Jeff Reed last season. Shaun Suisham filled in last season and did a decent job, but he's also a free agent. Kicking in Heinz Field can be tough, especially late in the season when inclement weather and soggy field conditions play major roles. Pittsburgh must make sure its new kicker can handle it.