Believe it or not, but the AFC North could become the NFL’s most competitive division in 2020. While the Ravens ran away with the North in 2019, it was a different story in 2018, when Baltimore needed a late-season collapse by the Steelers in order to steal the division on the last week of the regular season. And while they failed to live up to high expectations last fall, the Browns, by virtue of their strong start to free agency and the continued development of their younger core, should also be considered as a serious contender this season to win their first division crown in over 30 years.
The Bengals, the division’s cellar-dweller each of the past two seasons, also made several splashes during the first week of free agency. And while they still have some work ahead of them, the Bengals have put themselves in position to be a much more competitive team than the one that won just two games in 2019.
As we begin the second full week of free agency, here is a summary, as well as our team grades, for each AFC North team’s first week of free agency. As you’ll see below, the Ravens, despite decent moves by the other three North teams in free agency, have further distanced themselves from the rest of the field.
The Bengals have made good on their promise to be active in free agency. Last week, they signed former Texans DT D.J. Reader to a four-year, $53 million deal to help strengthen a defensive line that already includes Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. They also came to terms on a three-year, $42 million deal with CB Trae Waynes, whose play helped the Vikings advance to the second round of the playoffs last season.
The Bengals also signed Waynes’ former teammate in Minnesota, CB Mackensie Alexander, to a one-year deal. Alexander, who primarily plays in the slot, is a much more affordable option than former Bengals CB Darqueze Dennard, who signed a three-year, $13.5 million deal with the Jaguars. The Bengals still have needs at linebacker, but strengthening their defensive line and secondary is a good start.
Cincinnati helped shore up their offensive line (their biggest area of need) by signing Xavier Su’a-Filo, who started 12 games for the Cowboys over the past two seasons. The Bengals need to continue to add pieces to their line and will likely do so during next month’s draft. Cincinnati will also have to add to their tight end position after Tyler Eifert signed a two-year deal with the Jaguars.
The Bengals also placed the franchise tag on A.J. Green, who missed the entire 2019 season with an ankle injury. While keeping Green should make (the Bengals’ likely first-round pick) Joe Burrow happy, Green openly stated his desire not to be tagged last year, which could lead to some uncomfortable moments between Green and the front office. That being said, keeping Green in the fold gives the Bengals arguably the AFC North’s best receiving corps, a group that also includes Tyler Boyd, John Ross and Auden Tate.
The Browns didn’t wait until the draft to address their offensive line — arguably the team’s biggest offseason need. Instead, they tackled it head-on in free agency, hitting a home run by signing former Titans OT Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million deal. The Browns also signed a proven backup in Case Keenum, who was immediately welcomed to Cleveland by QB Baker Mayfield.
Cleveland wasn’t done yet, signing former Falcons TE Austin Hooper to a four-year deal that included $23 million guaranteed over the first two years of the deal. These additions should vastly improve a Browns offense that finished 20th in the NFL in scoring last season. Hooper is going to see a lot of playing time in 2020, as Cleveland is looking to run more two TE sets (12 personnel) under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Browns made less flashy but still effective signings. They added needed depth at linebacker with the signing of B.J. Goodson, who can help replace the production left by the offseason departures of Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey. Cleveland also signed strong safety Karl Joseph, a former first-round pick who started to show signs of his potential during his final season with the Raiders before an injury cut his season short.
Expect the Browns to continue adding to their defense as well as their offensive line during the draft.
Baltimore’s main objective at the start of free agency was to make sure one of their top edge rushers would avoid hitting the open market. The Ravens were able to do just that, placing the franchise tag on OLB Matthew Judon, who earned his first Pro Bowl selection after recording a career-high 9.5 sacks last season.
Baltimore was able to significantly improve their defensive line, a position group that allowed Derrick Henry to rush for 195 yards and a score in Baltimore’s first-round playoff loss to the Titans. The Ravens (which came from the trade of TE Hayden Hurst to the Falcons) for DE Calais Campbell who is coming off of his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl selection. The Ravens also signed former Rams‘ DL Michael Brockers to . Baltimore also re-signed fellow defensive linemen Jihad Ward and Justin Ellis along with cornerback Jimmy Smith.
With limited cap space, the Ravens were not able to address all of their current needs, specifically at wide receiver and inside linebacker. And while they were able to retain Judon, the Ravens still need to add another pass rusher to their defense after finishing 22nd in the league in sacks last season. Baltimore also still needs to fill the void left by the recent retirement of eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshall Yanda’s retirement. Expect the Ravens to address these needs during next month’s draft.
Pittsburgh’s first order of business was to keep OLB Bud Dupree from being able to test the open market, something they were able to achieve by placing the franchise tag on him before the deadline. While Dupree will make about $15.89 million under the tag, the Steelers will try to work out a long term deal with him before the July 15 deadline.
In a 24-hour span, the Steelers shed about $35 million in cap space by having QB Ben Roethlisberger, kicker Chris Boswell, cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, and TE Vance McDonald restructure their contracts before the new league year began last Wednesday. With money to spend, the Steelers made an upgrade at the tight end position, Eric Ebron to a two-year, $12 million deal. Pittsburgh’s TE room now consists of Ebron and McDonald after allowing Nick Vannett to test the open market (Vannett this past weekend).
The Steelers have also addressed their needs on the offensive and defensive lines following Ramon Foster’s retirement last week and the free agent losses of OL B.J. Finney (to Seattle) and DL Javon Hargrave (to Philadelphia). They were able to sign former Eagles/Chiefs OL Stefen Wisniewski, a starter on Kansas City’s 2019 Super Bowl championship team, shortly after the start of free agency. Pittsburgh also sent a 2021 fifth-round pick to the Ravens DT Chris Wormley and a 2021 seventh-round pick. The Steelers have also signed veteran fullback Derek Watt — the younger brother of T.J. Watt — two a two-year contract. The addition of Watt should help improve a Steelers’ rushing attack that ranked 31st and 29th in the NFL over the past two seasons. Watt is also expected to be a force on special teams.