NFL Free Agency Grades: The AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron (5) looks to pass under pressure from Chicago Bears linebacker Lamarr Houston (99) in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)

Fresh faces coming to Cleveland

Our free agency grading continues!

NFC West

AFC West

Baltimore Ravens

Lost:  C Ryan Jensen

Signed:  WR Michael Crabtree, WR John Brown

Still unsigned:  WR Mike Wallace, CB Brandon Boykin

Baltimore didn’t have a lot on their slate this year with free agency.  They only had a select few players hit the market, and largely as a result they do not have a lot of salary cap space with which to work.

With little to work with, Baltimore still got something accomplished, bringing in Michael Crabtree and John Brown to provide some pass targets for quarterback Joe Flacco.  The Ravens ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yardage last season, and in a passer’s league that simply isn’t going to cut it.  Passing offense was a large part of the reason Baltimore went 9-7 last year and missed the AFC playoffs.  If they could move the ball more easily, the Ravens could find themselves contenders in a hurry.

This all puts the Ravens in a strange position this offseason.  It’s a team that wants to improve and needs to do so to get back to the playoffs, but with long term contracts it’s finding trouble with improvement.  They’ll need to look at the draft to improve their team.

Grade:  C – Baltimore hasn’t done all that much this offseason, but they haven’t been able to do much.  Just grading them on the free agency period, there isn’t much to evaluate good or bad.

Cincinnati Bengals

Lost:  DE Chris Smith, QB A.J. McCarron, RB Jeremy Hill

Signed:  DT Chris Baker, QB Matt Barkley, ILB Preston Brown

Still unsigned:  CB Adam “Pacman” Jones

The Cincinnati Bengals almost got a favorable package for backup quarterback A.J. McCarron last season.  At the trade deadline, they seemed to have a deal in place with the Cleveland Browns to move McCarron.

Cincinnati would have received second and third round picks in the upcoming NFL Draft in exchange for the signal-caller.  The Browns are desperately in need of somebody who can stand in under center, and with some people saying McCarron deserves an opportunity to lead a team Cleveland wished to jump on it.

The deal fell through not because either team backed out, but because the Browns were reportedly too busy celebrating the completed deal to send in the paperwork, Cleveland missed the deadline and missed out on the quarterback.

While the Browns seemed to have lost out on the deal at the time, it turns out that nobody was hurt harder than the Bengals.  Cincinnati lost McCarron in free agency to the Buffalo Bills.  They were able to replace him with a capable backup in Matt Barkley, but missing out on the two draft picks they would have received will hurt a team that might be starting to look at a closing window to compete for a championship.

The addition of Chris Baker is a bit questionable, given his 0.5 sack performance last season in Tampa.

Grade:  D – The Bengals’ biggest loss came at the trade deadline, but they’re stuck between competing and rebuilding and this offseason has done nothing so far to answer which way they’ll go.  Good luck with Chris Baker

Cleveland Browns

Lost:  RB Isaiah Crowell, ILB Josh Keyes, CB B.W. Webb

Signed:  RT Chris Hubbard, CB Travis Carrie, RB Carlos Hyde, TE Darren Fells

Still unsigned:  DE Lavar Edwards

With an abundance of cap space and a need to do something—anything—to get better at NFL football in the short term, the Browns had a lot of work ahead of them this year.  They have been among the busiest teams in free agency so far.  Chris Hubbard will help an offensive line featuring the great Joe Thomas to finally provide him some support.  This will, in turn, help new running back Carlos Hyde.

Carrie comes to the Browns from Oakland, where he proved himself a capable defensive back.  His presence will be badly needed for a team that was last in the NFL in interceptions in 2017.

Of course, the Browns’ emphasis will be the NFL Draft.  Cleveland has the first and fourth overall pick, and a long way to climb out of their 0-16 hole.  The Browns’ free agency push was largely to fill roster spots, and to hopefully bring in some players who can win the team a game or two in 2018.  Cleveland is, after all, nine games away from tying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ record for the longest losing streak in NFL history.

Grade:  B – The Browns aren’t going to turn things around through free agency, but they can set themselves up to improve.  They seemed to do that this March.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Lost:  RT Chris Hubbard

Signed:  SS Morgan Burnett, ILB Jon Bostic

Still unsigned:  FS Mike Mitchell

Pittsburgh is in a similar situation to the Ravens this offseason.  With very little cap space to give, the Steelers could hardly afford to improve their team in a significant way.  What’s more, the members of the team hitting free agency were not exactly the core of the offensive or defensive units.

With little room, the Steelers managed to make some moves to improve their defense.  Burnett will come in and start, Bostic will see a fair amount of time on the football field in 2018 as well.

Statistically, the Pittsburgh defense was a top ten NFL unit in 2017, but there is a school of thought that teams can never have too much defense.  Burnett could help the Steelers limit the 20 passing touchdowns they surrendered last season, which is critical in a passer’s league and especially so in the conference with Tom Brady.

Grade:  B+ – While the Steelers did not have much room to add players, they did what they could with what they had and brought in a couple of defensive contributors.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.