July 24, 2014

Free Agency Around The AFCN [UPDATE 2]

For the fans of teams like the Seahawks and the Broncos, the start of free agency has been a double-scoop of football goodness. For us Bengals fans, however, it has been about as appetizing as a rice cake with a side of celery. Healthy, disciplined, and boring. Let’s make ourselves feel better by looking around the division at the woes of others.

THE CLEVELAND BROWNS
ADDED
Gary Barnidge [CAR]
Desmond Bryant [OAK]
Quentin Groves [ARI]
Paul Kruger [BAL]
RETAINED
Chris Ogbonnaya
LOST
Kaluka Maiava [OAK]
Frostee Rucker [cut]
Eddie Williams
PENDING
Sheldon Brown
Joshua Cribbs
Phil Dawson
Scott Fujita
Reggie Hodges
Brendon Jackson
Josh Johnson
Mohamed Massaquoi
Juqua Parker
Alex Smith
Ray Ventrone
Benjamin Watson

The Browns have been the only active players in the division during free agency. The additions of Bryant and Kruger are sure to fire up the fans of the Factory of Sadness once again. Both will be good additions, but I am dubious that Kruger will ultimately prove to be worth the amount of money that Cleveland paid him to jump to a division rival. [Browns fans, that is your cue to leave snarky comments about how stupid I am for saying that, much like you did last year when I said that Weeden would not be the savior you thought he would be. Go ahead. I'm looking forward to it. Here is a link to thesaurus.com to help you keep the profanity to a minimum.]

Don’t get me wrong, these are good moves. If they make the transition to a 3-4 defense easy. I am not convinced that they have all the pieces they need for that transition yet. Maybe the draft will get them the rest those pieces. But with more glaring needs on offense, I see this as another building year for the Browns. And that should be OK. Steps forward this year and next should set up the Browns to join the Bengals in exploiting the problems that the salary cap and age will inflict on the Steelers and Ravens in a couple of years, shifting the balance of power within the division to the west.

UPDATE: I am somewhat surprised that the team has not made deals with Scott Fujita or Sheldon Brown. Yes, they are getting old, but both were productive last season and should be open to short-term, affordable deals because of their age. Perhaps the team is afraid of their age, not convinced they work in the new 3-4 defense, or they are targeting LB and CB in the draft. (Could either become depth targets for the Bengals?) Also, the team seems ready to say goodbye to Mohamed Massaquoi, making me wonder if they won’t pull a WR in the first round of the draft.

THE BALTIMORE RAVENS
ADDED
Chris Canty [NYG]
Marcus Spears [DAL]
RETAINED
Morgan Cox
Joe Flacco
Ramon Harewood
James Ihedigbo
Chris Johnson
David Reed
LOST
Matt Birk [ret]
Anquan Boldin [SF]
Danelle Ellerbe [MIA]
Paul Kruger [CLE]
Ray Lewis [ret]
Bernarrd Pollard [cut]
Bobbie Williams [cut]
Cary Williams [PHI]
PENDING
Billy Bajema
Ricky Brown
Sean Considine
Ed Dickson
Arthur Jones
Ma’ake Kemoeatu
Ryan McBean
Bryant McKinnie
Dennis Pitta
Ed Reed

Fans of many teams, not just the Bengals, have begun to discount the Ravens because of the mega-contract that Joe Flacco was able to leverage out of the team. But be careful of thinking that they will suffer in 2013 because of the salary cap. Yes, it kept them from retaining players like Boldin and Ellerbe, which will hurt. Flacco actually has a lower cap hit this year than last year, so the cap will not truly begin to choke the Ravens until 2014 when Flacco’s hit jumps to $14.5M/year. His cap numbers in 2016-2018 are so completely stupid ($25M-$30M) that there is no way he ever sees it. He will be forced to re-negotiate or get cut in three years.

I don’t know the exact number, but the Ravens do not have much cap space other than what they need to sign their draft picks, which is not good news for guys in the “Pending” column not named Pitta. A quick look at their “Lost” column defines what their priorities will be in the draft: Linebackers, Offensive Linemen, a Safety and a Wide Receiver.

THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS
ADDED
William Gay [ARI]
Bruce Gradkowski [CIN]
Matt Spaeth [CHI]
RETAINED
Plaxico Burriss
Jonathan Dwyer
Larry Foote
Ramon Foster
Greg Warren
LOST
Willie Colon [cut]
James Harrison [cut]
Jeremy Kapinos
Keenan Lewis [NO]
Rashard Mendenhall [ARI]
Ryan Mundy [NYG]
Stevenson Sylvester
Mike Wallace [MIA]
PENDING
Will Allen
Charlie Batch
Casey Hampton
Brandon Johnson
David Johnson
Byron Leftwich
Doug Legursky
Steve McLendon
Leonard Pope
Isaac Redman
Emmanuel Sanders
Max Starks

Most Steelers fans refuse to believe that they are riding the cusp of salary cap hell. But they are. Each year they are forced to delay the cap hit of their franchise players just to keep a few free agents. They can only bring in lower tier free agents. The draft is their only means of maintaining their standard of play (which should be the primary means anyway). One bad draft though–or a couple of mediocre ones–could set the franchise back.

When will all of this reach critical mass? My guess is 2016, when Ben Roethlisberger’s contract runs out. By then he will be 34. As his mobility degrades, so will the team. The toll of all those hits are already beginning to show, so we can expect that by then his durability will suffer enough that the team will not want to offer him much of an extension (if any). Not as a starter, anyway. Also by then, the team will have been forced to finally absorb the full impact of his cap hit that they are currently postponing, which will force the jettisoning of more players (ie James Harrison).

UPDATE: I am intrigued by the way the Steelers have been following the Bengals around in free agency. They took Gradkowski. They hosted Chris Wells after the Bengals did (though neither signed him). And now they signed Spaeth after the Bengals hosted him. Are the Bengals too afraid (unlike the cash-strapped Steelers) to pull the trigger on a deal? Or do the Bengals know something we don’t?

THE CINCINNATI BENGALS
ADDED
none
RETAINED
Robert Geathers
Wallace Gilberry
Clark Harris
Kevin Huber
Michael Johnson
Jeromy Miles
Mike Nugent
Cedric Peerman
LOST
Josh Brown [NYG]
Bruce Gradkowski [PIT]
Manny Lawson [BUF]
Pat Sims [OAK]
Dan Skuta [SF]
PENDING
Nate Clements
Chris Crocker
Thomas Howard
Adam Jones
Brian Leonard
Rey Maualuga
Terence Newman
Richard Quinn
Dennis Roland
Bernard Scott
Andre Smith
Brandon Tate

The Bengals said that their priority would be to retain their own players, and that is exactly what they have done. Most of the valuable guys who were free agents have been retained. Re-signing Andre Smith and Adam Jones will round out that group. Keeping Thomas Howard would maintain some veteran depth and continuity at a position that seems to constantly be in flux. Two new starting LBs is not ideal. Keeping Terence Newman would be beneficial, but it depends on what he is asking for. He is not a guy they should overpay to keep, because his value apart from Mike Zimmer is not that great.

I am not sweating anyone in the “Lost” column. I like Pat Sims, but his departure was fated in the last draft when the team took Devon Still and Brandon Thompson. Some of you are not happy that the team kept Mike Nugent over Josh Brown. I appreciate what Brown did in December for the Bengals, but to me it is a wash. Their accuracy is negligibly different (both around 83%). In the face of a tie, going with the younger guy makes sense.

Staring at any empty “Added” column is both predictable and annoying. But it won’t stay that way. They will want to go into the draft with as few “needs” as possible. So in the next couple of days, the front office will start addressing that area, probably once something has happened with Andre Smith and they know exactly how much cash they have to work with. Look for them to bring on a SS, a LB or two, and possibly a RB. Doing this will not alleviate the need to address those same positions early in the draft, but it will give them more flexibility based on the players available at each pick.