As a Cleveland Browns’ fan, you can care about the Super Bowl, and worry about whether the New England Patriots will repeat as they do every other year, or even wonder just how good the Kansas City Chiefs really are. But first, you have to concern yourself within the division - the AFC North that is.
The free agency period is about to begin. Every club in the NFL has holes that they wish to fill during this time interval.
The Browns are no different and have specific needs they would like to address. Can they find a suitable left or right offensive tackle? Or both? Is there a safety that can be signed that won’t break the bank? Will GM Andrew Berry whisk away a middle linebacker or wait until the April draft to address this position? Maybe a player for depth on the O-Line? A healthy blocking tight end? Cornerback depth is needed.
The answers to most of these questions will lie closely with how much money is available in order to ink these players, and how many athletes are signed. The team with the most money to spend is the Miami Dolphins with cap space of $88,520,426. The bottom of the league are the Minnesota Vikings with a mere $1,504,204 in which to navigate some help.
Let’s look at the AFC North division and see what each club has in its coffers.
Cap space: $37,779,191
Cap space ranking: 20th
In the Top 15 players paid with this franchise, four are members of the defensive backfield. Safety Earl Thomas tops this group with a cap number of $16,266,000 followed by cornerback Brandon Carr’s $7 million. In fact, over $81 million is spent on the defensive side of the ball.
Where the Ravens will probably spend their money is with the wide receiver position. Could Amari Cooper of the Dallas Cowboys be seen in purple next season? That wouldn’t be a surprise since the Cowboys have not sealed his deal to keep him in Texas. Another possibility is Robby Anderson of the New York Jets. He is young, productive and is seen by many as one of the better receivers in the league. He is ranked as the 11th best free agent prospect available whereas Cooper is ranked number 1.
Linebacker is another soft area in Baltimore. Expect the Ravens to go all out for Los Angeles Rams ILB Cory Littleton, this year’s 9th best free agent. Littleton can handle tight ends which was a sore spot on their defense this past season. Do not think for one second that this club won’t pay their linebackers as their highest paid player is outside linebacker Matt Judon with a cap number of over $16 million. This franchise has a love affair with its linebackers and Littleton would continue that tradition.
And what helps the Ravens with cap space funds is the fact that their sensational quarterback, Lamar Jackson, remains on his rookie contract which is only a $2.5 million hit.
Cap space: $44,704,357
Cap space ranking: 17th
It is difficult to understand that the majority of the Bengals payroll is spent on the offensive side of the ball considering the club ranked 26th in total offense. However, both offensive tackle Gordy Glenn ($9.5 million) and quarterback Andy Dalton ($17 million) might be cut or traded and help alleviate some of the wasted money on this side of the ball.
The Bengals will be major players in the free agent market. Both positions on the defensive line are in need of an upgrade. One of the best defensive ends is Chris Jones of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. He will probably become a transition tag for the Chiefs, but if he is able to test the open market Cincinnati already has its sights set on him.
EDGE rusher Jadeveon Clowney of the Seattle Seahawks is another name associated with the Bengals. He is ranked as the 7th biggest free agent and put up sensational numbers this past season with a grade of 87.3, his best ranking yet. Clowney would bring to Cincinnati a top run defender with solid pass rush abilities.
The Bengals have been tied to offensive guard Joe Thuney of the New England Patriots as well as Green Bay Packers’ right tackle Brian Bulaga. A good portion of the offensive woes has been tied to a sub-par offensive line and these two men would mend some pretty big holes. Other names of interest are Browns ILB Joe Schobert and defensive end Derek Wolfe of the Denver Broncos.
Cap space: $61,612,177
Cap space ranking: 10th
The Browns’ money is pretty well split between the offense and defense. With this much cap space, expect GM Berry to go after either a right or left offensive tackle, a safety and perhaps a defensive lineman or two. Targeted safeties include Justin Simmons, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Anthony Harris.
It will be interesting to see how many key players Berry will bring in. Very soon, he will have to consume his time on new contracts for DE Myles Garrett and RB Nick Chubb who each will expect big paydays.
If a quality EDGE rusher is signed, Berry may decide to cut ties with Olivier Vernon, the Browns highest paid player with a cap hit of $15.5 million. Cutting right tackle Chris Hubbard would also free up another $7.2 million.
Do not be surprised to see the Browns go after cornerbacks Byron Jones (Dallas) and Chris Harris, Jr. (Denver). Veteran Denzel Ward should be safe, but had an off year. Last year’s rookie Greedy Williams had many issues of his own, so an experienced CB could be one of Berry’s main targets. Jones and Harris are ranked 4 and 5, respectively, of the Top 100 free agents this year. Both can play single coverage on the outside at a very high level and are good tacklers. That alone would be an upgrade on Williams, who missed just as many tackles as he made.
Cap space: $1,781,333
Cap space ranking: 31st
Obviously, the Steelers are in cap Hell. The main reason is that so much is wrapped into QB Ben Roethlisberger’s $33.5 million a year cap hit. Do not be surprised to see Pittsburgh do some wholesale cuts just like the Vikings are doing with quite a few of their better players.
The good news on that front may be available the services of guard Ramon Foster and tight end Vance McDonald. Linebacker Mark Barron may also be available to which all three players would be an asset to Cleveland.
Pittsburgh spent over $100 million on an offense that sputtered last year and finished 30th in total offense. If there is any good news it is the Steelers don’t pick until number 49 in the second-round and will not have to deal financially with a first-round pick this year.
They have a lot of needs including wide receiver, cornerback, offensive tackle and guard, plus both positions on the defensive line. It is doubtful this franchise will go after anyone in free agency other than cheap depth at key positions. If Pittsburgh could see some way to cut or trade Roethlisberger (they won’t) that would certainly free up quite a bit of money.