With free agency now down to a slew of bargain-bin additions with the frenzy well over, it’s time to take grade how each team did in free agency by taking a look at the moves they made, the moves they opted not to make, their assertiveness, and the money they spent. Our next stop is the AFC North, where the Baltimore Ravens were incredibly busy and the Cincinnati Bengals were on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Cincinnati Bengals D+
I usually don’t like giving contenders low grades after a quiet free agency, but their only big move was to re-sign Vincent Rey, who broke out last season during Rey Maualuga‘s injury. It’s hard to not love Rey and the Bengals ability to lock him up, but their only other significant moves were the re-signing of Taylor Mays and the addition of Jason Campbell as Andy Dalton‘s backup (look for them to draft a mid-round QB as well). While those were both quality signings, they don’t make up for the fact that the Bengals lost out on Anthony Collins. Losing Andrew Hawkins didn’t help either, but I’m not really going to dock them for that. Michael Johnson was always going to be out the door, so there’s no sense in ever criticizing the Bengals for not keeping him around. They never had to make any big moves, but I’m surprised they didn’t at least try to get some decent, cheaper upgrades. Maybe they’ll scoop up some bargain-bin guys, so we’ll see.
Pittsburgh Steelers B
I thought the Pittsburgh Steelers put together a solid offseason, and their grade will certainly go up if they reunite with James Harrison on a cheap, one-year deal. Speaking of the team’s situation at outside linebacker, keeping Jason Worilds and cutting ties with LaMarr Woodley was an obvious decision for the team and one that everyone is glad they made. Slapping Worilds with the transition tag was unconventional and may not have been the best decision, but they get a free pass from me here. Because if they lost Worilds, then they might have been stuck with Woodley and couldn’t risk losing one of their best players on defense. Maybe Worilds is a one-hit wonder, but he would have been paid handsomely on the open market after his production last year.
Mike Mitchell was much better than Ryan Clark last year, but he also isn’t a true free safety despite his ability to play at either FS or SS. He had a big breakout year for the Carolina Panthers last year, but he is at risk of being a let-down player. I did like the move overall, though, since there weren’t better options, and Mitchell’s price was driven up by significant interest in him. Adding Lance Moore also helps, and I think he’s at least as good as Jerricho Cotchery despite their differences in production last season. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Cotchery only produced more because he was given a vastly disproportionate amount of opportunities to produce.
The Steelers didn’t put together the best offseason, but Kevin Colbert did a very nice job of navigating through a rough cap situation while still making the team better. They will wish that they signed an affordable CB, and they look poised to snag an elite corner in round one (Jason Gilbert is usually the pick) to fill their biggest need.
Baltimore Ravens A+
I can’t praise the Ravens success in free agency enough, and I can’t believe Ozzie Newsome managed to keep his top three free agents this offseason. Dennis Pitta, Eugene Monroe, and Daryl Smith would have been arguably the best players at their respective positions on the free agent market, and Newsome somehow managed to make the right cuts, negotiate the right paycuts, and find enough cap space to keep all of them. That’s a massive win in itself, and they still have so much depth in the front seven that they didn’t need to keep Arthur Jones around and could afford to cut Jameel McClain with young gun Arthur Brown poised to take over.
The Ravens also kept ace returner and depth receiver Jacoby Jones in Baltimore, and they added another top target for Joe Flacco by scooping up Steve Smith on the cheap. He and Torrey Smith will give Flacco an excellent WR duo, but the biggest pass-catching move was keeping the reliable Pitta around.
Next up in the Ravens master plan is adding a starting tackle opposite of Monroe, as well as snagging a centerfield-type free safety to combine with the promising Matt Elam, who figures to be much better at strong safety. That’s Elam’s natural position, and he has the talent to be a very good starting SS in this league.
Cleveland Browns A
The Cleveland Browns also deserve high marks in free agency, as Ray Farmer did an excellent job of running the ship during the craziest weeks of March. While I wish they paid Donte Whitner less and keeping T.J. Ward would have been ideal, nobody would have been a better replacement at SS for Ward. There’s no doubt in my mind that Ward is a terrific safety and a better overall player than Whitner, and the financial details don’t add up. But even though Whitner isn’t as good in run defense, he’s still very good in that regard. Ward does a really nice job of covering underneath routes, but Whitner has shown that he’s an even better player in coverage after making tremendous strides last season. There are a lot of false narratives about how Whitner is a dirty player, because his hits are a work of art that only get penalized due to how hard he hits.
Farmer and the Browns also get plenty of praise for keeping star center Alex Mack around, and poaching Andrew Hawkins is a bit of a financial gamble that could pay off for a team that needed a consistent WR to help Josh Gordon out. Ben Tate was always expected to sign with the Browns, and that’s obviously an excellent move. If Tate can hold up, then he will be a very good feature back for this team, and the Browns could have a strong running game if they get a “hit” in the draft. And if Tate doesn’t hold up, the deal has safeguards against injury that protect the Browns.
I also loved the Browns decision to sign Karlos Dansby, and he gives them a nice upgrade over D’Qwell Jackson. While Jackson is overrated and received too much money from the Indianapolis Colts after being a cap casualty from the Browns, they have a new leader at ILB. Dansby is better in coverage, much better against the run, blitzes better, and clearly fits the team’s scheme better. Jackson was a good all-around linebacker for the Browns in the 4-3, but Dansby will be great for them in the 3-4.