In past years, the AFC sent multiple teams to the NFL playoffs. However, 2019 marked the second consecutive season where only the Baltimore Ravens made the cut. However, the Tennessee Titans recently eliminated the Ravens from Super Bowl contention. Now, the whole AFC North can plan for the offseason.
The draft and free agency are the most covered events of the offseason. Both offer chances for teams to improve and for players to secure once in a lifetime opportunities. However, free agency can also damage teams if players choose to sign with other franchises.
While free agency won’t cause much trouble for the AFC North, there are several players set to become free agents this offseason. Each franchise can lose at least one cornerstone player along with a litany of other contributors. This article offers an early free agency breakdown for the AFC North.
Biggest free agent- Matt Judon OLB (UFA)
The Ravens finished first in the AFC this season, and their team is set up well for a repeat performance in 2020. The team’s most significant losses can come on the defensive side of the ball, including Judon. The Pro Bowl linebacker’s rookie contract expires after the current season.
The Ravens drafted Judon in the fifth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft, so his rookie deal only ran for four years. With defensive leaders like C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs leaving last offseason, Judon filled a major role this season. He led the Ravens with 9.5 sacks, 33 quarterback hits, and 14 tackles for loss.
Besides Judon, Josh Bynes, Pernell McPhee, Patrick Onwuasor, Michael Pierce, and Jimmy Smith are the most prominent unrestricted free agents (UFAs) Baltimore could lose. Bynes started seven games at inside linebacker for the Ravens this season, recording 45 tackles and intercepting two passes.
McPhee started the first seven games of the season for Baltimore before landing on injures reserve with a torn triceps. McPhee registered three sacks during his shortened season. The Ravens originally drafted McPhee in 2011, and he won a Super Bowl with the team during his rookie contract.
Onwuasor only started six games for the Ravens this season, but he started 25 games in the previous two years. Despite his reduced role, Onwuasor finished third on the team in tackles. The Ravens signed Pierce as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He started 14 games for the franchise this season and posted 151 tackles during his four years with the franchise.
While Baltimore’s two Pro Bowl cornerbacks now overshadow Smith, he is still an influential leader on the team. Like Lardarius Webb before him, Smith never went to a Pro Bowl, but the career-Raven loyally served the franchise for nine seasons. He is coming off of an injury-shortened season, and the 2011 first-round pick may need a team for the 2020 season.
While that ends the list of notable UFAs, the Ravens still have other business to take care of. The franchise has a team option on aging cornerback, Brandon Carr. Presumably, the team will also retain exclusive rights free agent (ERFA), Gus Edwards. Edwards ran for 711 yards in 2019.
Biggest free agent- A.J. Green WR (UFA)
The Bengals won the Joe Burrow sweepstakes, finishing with the worst record in the NFL this season. With head coach Zac Taylor entering his second season, the team starts a total rebuild that may begin without Green. The injury-prone seven-time Pro Bowler is heading for free agency.
Barring the allure of Burrow bringing Green back to Cincinnati, the former fourth overall pick is moving to another team. Green sat out the entire 2019 season with injuries. Cincinnati’s poor play may have played a role in him deciding to avoid returning to the field as well. Green is second in franchise history in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.
Besides their star receiver, the Bengals could lose a handful of defensive contributors and another injury-prone offensive weapon.
The Bengals drafted defensive tackle, Andrew Billings in the fourth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Billings made his pro debut in 2017, starting seven games. Since then, he has appeared in all 32 games for the team and started 30 games. The massive interior lineman set a new single-season high with 35 tackles this past season. Fellow defensive tackle, Josh Tupou is a restricted free agent (RFA).
Cincinnati had high hopes for Darqueze Dennard when the franchise drafted him 24th overall in 2014. However, the Michigan St. product disappointed. In six seasons, Dennard started just 24 games and only intercepted three passes. He appeared in nine games and made five starts this year.
A third-round pick in 2016, Nick Vigil became a starter for Cincinnati in his second season. The linebacker finished second on the team in tackles this season with 111. His 84 tackles in 11 games in 2018 ranked third on the team. While not a star player, Vigil played a significant role on the team in recent years.
When Tyler Eifert went to the Pro Bowl after the 2015 season, the Bengals believed they’d found their tight end of the future. However, Eifert’s future unraveled quickly. Injuries tore down his early success, and he landed on injured reserve (IR) in 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Eifert did appear in all 16 of Cincinnati’s games this season, and he contributed 43 receptions for 436 yards and three touchdowns. However, the rebuilding Bengals may not believe that production is worthy of a new deal.
Biggest free agent- Joe Schobert ILB (UFA)
The Browns are anything but consistent. However, Schobert is a solid middle linebacker that many NFL fans don’t know about. Originally a fourth-round pick in 2016, Schobert became Cleveland’s full-time starter in 2017 and made the Pro Bowl.
Over the past three seasons, Schobert has played in 45 games and posted 380 tackles, eight sacks, six interceptions, and seven forced fumbles. At 26 years old, Schobert is looking for a more lucrative deal than his rookie four-year, $2,973,956 contract. Some team will reward him this offseason.
Juston Burris started nine games as a defensive back for the Browns this season. He intercepted two passes and defensed seven others. He also forced a fumble and recorded a sack. Cleveland acquired Burris off waivers before the 2019 season.
Kareem Hunt makes a lot of people feel a lot of different ways. The Kansas City Chiefs cut Hunt last season after footage surfaced of him and a woman getting into an altercation. The NFL later suspended Hunt for the first eight games of the 2019 season.
After his season in exile, Hunt could become a team’s starting running back in 2020. While he won’t sign the lucrative deal he seemed on pace for after his rookie season, there are plenty of teams looking for a star running back. With Nick Chubb playing so well, it makes no sense for Cleveland to retain Hunt. The 2017 rushing title winner will go job hunting this offseason.
The Green Bay Packers drafted Damarious Randall with the 30th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He started 30 games in three years with Green Bay before the Packers traded him to Cleveland before the 2018 season. The Browns exercised Randall’s fifth-year option, making 2019 the final year of his rookie contract.
While he didn’t intercept any passes in 2019, Randall picked off four balls in 2018. During his two seasons with Cleveland, the safety appeared in and started 26 games, defensed 15 passes, recorded 2.5 sacks, and made 146 tackles.
Backup tight end, Ricky Seals-Jones is an RFA. Seals-Jones started three games in place of David Njoku this season. He caught 14 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns. With Njoku healthy, Seals-Jones’ value decreases exponentially.
Biggest free agent- Bud Dupree OLB (UFA)
The Steelers drafted Dupree with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. While the team avoided another bust like Jarvis Jones, Dupree didn’t live up to his first-round expectations for years. However, the Steelers still exercised his fifth-year option, and the move paid off.
In 2019, Dupree set career-highs with 11.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, 68 tackles, and 17 quarterback hits. Unfortunately, that means he will command a lot of money on the free agent market. The Steelers are cap-strapped and will need to make a lot of moves if they want Dupree back in 2020.
Pittsburgh took cornerback Artie Burns with the 25th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Instead of helping rebuild the defensive backfield, Burns became a liability and detractor from the group. He started just one game in 2019 and will hit the market after four seasons with the Steelers.
Sean Davis started 40 games during his first three seasons with the Steelers, including 31 between 2017 and 2018. The hard-hitting safety played well during that time, but he wasn’t exactly a standout difference-maker. Davis missed all but one game in 2019, and Pittsburgh traded for All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick. Football can be cruel like that.
While Javon Hargrave initially played fewer snaps when Cameron Heyward moved inside to defensive tackle, he still made an impact over the past two seasons. The four-year starter broke out in 2018, posting 6.5 sacks and 39 tackles. He played well again in 2019, adding four more sacks and 60 tackles to his resume. However, that may not be enough for a new deal in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers hold a team option for Vance McDonald. If Pittsburgh picks up the option, there’s another team option for the 2020 season. McDonald became a fan favorite last season because of his blocking and trucking ability. However, his yardage production got halved in 2019. The cap-strapped Steelers may let McDonald walk so they can resign more essential players.
Ryan Shazier’s deal officially ends after this season. Shazier was on track for All-Pro honors before a horrific in-game spinal injury nearly paralyzed the former first-round pick. While Shazier’s recovery and return to walking is an emotional story, his career as a speedy inside linebacker is over. He will likely stay with the team as a linebackers coach.
Pittsburgh traded for tight end Nick Vannett three weeks into the 2019 season. The run-blocking tight end helped the running game, making six started and appearing in all 13 games with the Steelers. However, the former Seattle Seahawk doesn’t add anything in the passing game. Jesse James was a better pass catcher and route runner.
Both right tackle Matt Feiler and cornerback Mike Hilton are RFAs. I cannot stress how important it is for Pittsburgh to keep these two players. Feiler played decent in ten games as a starter in 2018, but he played exceptionally well in 2019. There isn’t a right tackle in free agency or the draft who could outplay Feiler.
Hilton played a significant role in Pittsburgh’s defensive turnaround. While Joe Haden and Steve Nelson get more credit for their roles as starters, Hilton gives the Steelers a reliable third cornerback. That depth is invaluable. The former undrafted free agent is a crucial piece of Pittsburgh’s secondary and needs to be back in 2020.