Rating AFC North 2021 free agency moves: Browns take field, Steelers make risky decision


Two years ago, the Browns held a triumphant press conference after trading to acquire Odell Beckham Jr. After the trade, Myles Garrett infamously said the Browns were “absolutely” the best team in the AFC North. After a surprising 2018 season in which the Browns won five of their last seven games, it was difficult to argue with the Browns pass rusher.

Things didn’t materialize for the Browns in 2019. On-site dysfunction contributed greatly to Cleveland’s disappointing 6-10 record. To their credit, the Browns bounced back by having a very successful 2020 season that included the franchise’s first playoff win in more than a quarter century. The cherry on top was the fact that the Browns’ playoff victory came against the Steelers, a franchise that has had its way with Cleveland since the 1990s.

While none of their 2020 signings created the buzz that the Beckham trade generated, the Browns made several key acquisitions that contributed to last season’s success. Among those acquisitions are the signings of offensive tackle Jack Conklin, tight end Austin Hooper, linebacker BJ Goodson and safety Karl Joseph. The Browns also found a draft gem in left tackle Jedrick Wills, who became an immediate starter as he helped protect Baker Mayfield’s side of the band.

With the draft still several weeks away, we decided to rate the success of each AFC North team during the first two weeks of free agency. We’ll start with Cleveland, where Browns fans have begun preparing for a possible Super Bowl run.

Brown

Best signing: S John Johnson III

The Browns wanted to strengthen their secondary after finishing 22nd in the league in pass defense in 2020. Cleveland certainly did with the signings of safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill. Former Los Angeles teammates, Johnson and Hill helped the Rams boast the league’s best pass defense in 2020. Johnson can start in any safety position, while Hill will complement Browns starting cornerback Denzel. Ward.

Cleveland also achieved their goal of keeping Rashard Higgins when they signed the veteran wide receiver to a one-year, $ 2.38 million deal. Higgins, the team’s second-leading receiver last season, should continue to find a role in the Browns’ offense even with Beckham returning from last season’s knee injury.

If those moves weren’t enough, the Browns added significant depth with the signings of Takk McKinley, Malik Jackson and Anthony Walker. The Browns recently met with Jadeveon Clowney, who would likely replace Olivier Vernon’s production in 2020. If Cleveland can sign Clowney, the Browns would have achieved a near-perfect free agency.

Grade A

Best signing: OF Trey Hendrickson

Cincinnati parted ways with several major players, including cornerback William Jackson III, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, linebacker Carl Lawson and wide receiver AJ Green. Cincinnati replaced Jackson with former Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and former Steeler Mike Hilton, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. They replaced Lawson with former Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who cashed in on a four-year, $ 60 million contract after posting a career-high 13.5 sacks last season. Time will tell if Hendrickson can continue that production in Cincinnati.

The Bengals have yet to find a veteran receiver who can replace Green, one of the best players in franchise history. Kenny Golladay was reportedly offered a contract offer before Golladay finally signed with the Giants. Cincinnati still has several solid veteran wide receivers they can sign (Sammy Watkins and Antonio Brown are among them) but they will have to move quickly to acquire one.

Cincinnati added to their offensive line, a necessity, with the signing of former Vikings tackle Riley Reiff. And while Reiff is a solid player, the Bengals passed up the opportunity to sign one of the best linemen available in free agency, a roster that includes Trent Williams, Joe Thuney and Alejandro Villanueva. Cincinnati’s rating will go up if they manage to land veteran Washington pass back Ryan Kerrigan, who was reportedly scheduled to rejoin the Bengals.

Grade: C

Major signing: G Kevin Zeitler

Baltimore suffered heavy losses as linebackers Jihad Ward, Yannick Ngakoue, Matthew Judon and center Matt Skura left. Baltimore minimized the damage to linebacker by re-signing Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee. The Ravens were also able to retain defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. Baltimore’s best outside free agent so far is offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, a player the Ravens surely hope can be a better replacement for Marshal Yanda, who retired after the 2019 season.

Like Cincinnati, the Ravens were unable to sign Golladay after meeting with the veteran catcher last week. Baltimore has yet to sign a veteran receiver who can help complement Marquise Brown. Baltimore also couldn’t keep JuJu Smith-Schuster away from Pittsburgh. The Ravens have reportedly turned their attention to Sammy Watkins, who recently helped the Chiefs reach back-to-back Super Bowls.

Look for the Ravens to address Skura’s loss during the first round of the draft, especially if Alabama’s Landon Dickerson and / or Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey are on the board when Baltimore is on the clock. When it comes to the pass rusher, don’t be surprised if Baltimore addresses this need both in free agency and during the draft. Pass backs left in free agency include Jadeveon Clowney, Carlos Dunlap, Justin Houston, Melvin Ingram, Ryan Kerrigan, Aldon Smith and Olivier Vernon.

Grade: C

Steelers

Major signing: Joe haeg

The good news? The Steelers signed JuJu Smith-Schuster for a very affordable $ 8 million. The bad news? Pittsburgh said goodbye to former defensive players Bud Dupree, Tyson Alualu, Vince Williams and Steven Nelson. They also saw Mike Hilton sign with the Bengals. Add in the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey and the Steelers have urgent needs at center, tackle, guard, nose tackle and both linebacker positions.

Along with Smith-Schuster, the Steelers were able to retain some of their insider free agents. The roster includes cornerback Cam Sutton, offensive linemen JC Hassenauer and Zach Banner, linebacker Marcus Allen and defensive end Chris Wormley. Pittsburgh also acquired former Buccaneers lineman Joe Haeg, former Lions linebacker Miles Killebrew and center guard BJ Finney, who spent his first four active seasons with the Steelers.

If he bows, the Steelers still have the option of re-signing starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who remains on the open market. Regardless, expect the Steelers to acquire a new left tackle through the draft. Pittsburgh will also be in the market for a new running back, as James Conner remains unsigned. The Steelers recently contacted Clemson’s Travis Etienne, the top-ranked running back on CBS Sports’ prospect rankings. Another early option as a running back is Najee Harris, who last season helped Alabama capture its sixth national title with coach Nick Saban.

Pittsburgh lost some key players, but they still have Ben Roethlisberger, who next season will be armed with one of the deepest receiving corps in the league. They also have star pass running back TJ Watt, Pro Bowl multiple defensive tackle Cam Heyward, Pro Bowl multiple cornerback Joe Haden and All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. If they can fill in the gaps that were recently created in free agency, the Steelers’ free agency in 2021 will be viewed more favorably this time around next year.

Grade: C +



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