Welcome to the AFC North Edition of my free agent target series. The last conference we covered was the AFC South. The AFC North is possibly seeing a change within as the Browns finally look legitimate. Let’s see who gets picked up.
The AFC North has been one of the stronger divisions in the NFL for a while now. It always seemed like it was a battle at the top between the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers. If three teams from the division made the playoffs (which did happen in 2011) nobody would be surprised. Looking at the division now, things may be shifting.
The Browns finally fired Hue Jackson and finished the 2018 season on a high note. The roster has a plethora of talent on it and seem to be a trending free agent destination. They also have the fourth most cap space in the NFL this offseason. As a matter of fact outside of the Steelers, the rest of the division seems to look good in their cap situation as well. With needs to be addressed for every team on the defensive side of the ball, and key free agents to be retained, some chunks of cash could be spent.
Needs: Defensive End, Outside Linebacker, Cornerback
Notable Free Agents: Brent Urban, Michael Pierce (RFA), Terrell Suggs, Za’darius Smith, C.J. Mosley, Patrick Onwuasor (RFA)
Cap Space:$34,608,619 (16th most in the NFL)
The Ravens have some key pieces to their defense in the free agent pool this offseason. C.J. Mosley is their best player and he is unrestricted. Mosley’s running mate in the middle is a restricted free agent as well. Both starting outside linebackers are also free agents.
Had the Ravens failed at the end of the season rather than rally behind Lamar Jackson, I could see the flight risks of all these players elevated. Truth be told though, now with the future looking bright, retaining who they want may be easier now. I feel Patrick Onwuasor will be the casualty as the Ravens have Kenny Young waiting behind him who played admirably for Mosley last season.
Who Will They Sign?
1) C.J. Mosley- Linebacker
C.J. Mosley was my biggest flight risk for the Ravens when they were struggling mid way through the season. I actually had an article where I had him leaving in free agency. Then Lamar Jackson Took over as the starting QB and then went on the make the playoffs only to lose by a last second fumble.
Mosley is the most important part of this defense being the leader in the middle. He reads offenses well, makes adjustments and lets lineman know where they need to be. His play on Baker Mayfield during the last game of the regular season clinched the Ravens playoff spot.
C.J. Mosley with a huge interception. Locked up a playoff spot for the Ravens https://t.co/zaKbM8VCza— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) December 31, 2018
Mosley fits the mold of your typical Ravens player, tough game changing defensive menace. He should be sticking around in Baltimore for a long time. Mosley led the team in tackles without playing a full sixteen games in 2018 and should lead the team again in 2019.
2) Za’Darius Smith– Outside Linebacker
Smith had a real solid year for the Ravens and is another important part of this defense that they need to retain. He led the team in sacks with 8.5 to go along with 48 total tackles.
Both Smith and Terrell Suggs are free agents which makes them very thin at outside linebacker. Smith may cost a good chunk of change but they do have the money to retain him…which they should. He gets to the quarterback with great use of his hands at the line to get inside lineman, then uses his burst to attack the QB quickly.
Just catching this Ravens/Titans game because I respect myself.— Tyler Morales (@_TMorales) October 18, 2018
Za'Darius Smith went bananas against this Titans "offensive line" pic.twitter.com/BosGJBBSBU
Smith is the number two top priority to keep this strong defense together for another run with a full year behind Lamar Jackson.
3) Zach Kerr– 3-4 Defensive End
The Ravens best starting defensive end Brent Urban is a free agent this season and the Ravens have already dumped some cash on the likes of Mosley and Smith. Now is where they try to find their value free agents.
Being in this defense you do not need to be a star, the defense plays as a unit really well. Playing defensive end in a 3-4 scheme is not a sexy position by any means and you do not see much production from it.
Zach Kerr was a bit player for the Broncos in 2018 playing only about 36% of all defensive snaps. Though his playing time was limited he still produced 33 total tackles, two tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, and a pass defensed. He has never been a starter but has shown flashes by being a shifty yet strong defensive end.
Kerr could come at a low price tag, something that the Ravens should be looking for. Still 28 years old with pretty fresh legs, he could fit into this defense nicely.
Needs: Inside Linebacker and Cornerback
Notable Free Agents: Anthony Chickillo, L.J. Fort, Coty Sensabaugh
Cap Space: $12,157,191 (27th most in the NFL)
The Steelers are in an interesting position with the standing of their team. A lot of what happens in free agency has to do with what happens with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. On the defensive side of the ball there are two obvious need for the team.
With Ryan Shazier‘s freak injury, the inside linebacker job is in need of an upgrade. Artie Burns is treading towards bust territory and the team needs to bring in some talent to at least compete on the opposite side of Joe Haden. With limited cap space the team will have to find value veterans and youngsters on prove it deals.
Who Will They Sign?
1) Neville Hewitt– Inside Linebacker
Neville Hewitt was a backup inside linebacker with the New York Jets in 2018. He did not really get much run with the team until Darron Lee was suspended. In the three games he started he put up solid numbers.
During that span he tallied 21 tackles (13 solo), one tackle for a loss, and 1.5 sacks. The sacks are what jump out the most, to be able to blitz well while leading your team in tackles, which he did in weeks 15 and 17, is impressive. He was able to take down Aaron Rodgers with a well timed blitz here:
Hewitt is only 25 years old and after how he finished the season should garner some interest in a cheap starting role. It was only two years ago where he played for the Dolphins where he started five games. In that season he only played 30% of his teams snaps and still accrued 57 tackles (35 solo) four tackles for a loss, one pass defensed, and one sack.
Hewitt may not be the star that teams are looking for but is in upgrade over anybody the Steelers have at that position except maybe Vince Williams.
2) Tony Lippett- Cornerback
Tony Lippett is not your top of the line cornerback. What he is though is somebody you can add to compete. Lippett has been a starting corner in the league before starting 13 of 16 games as recent as 2016. Lippett is also only 26 years old with fresh legs underneath him as the Giants chose to go with B.W. Webb over him once Eli Apple was traded. If it were me I would have seen what I had in Lippett before going to Webb, but nobody said the Giants are bright.
In that 2016 season Lippett was a very serviceable corner. His stat totals were 68 tackles (45 solo), one tackle for a loss, 10 passes defensed and four interceptions. The four interceptions are what catch my eye and as a defensive coordinator I want a guy who can force turnovers on my team.
Tony Lippett showed that he can play in both zone coverage or man. Here he plays the under but recovers to drop and make the pick:
Tony Lippett INT pic.twitter.com/NRybtIo8CG— Eric Elizondo (@EIizondo) September 2, 2016
Here he shows great awareness by being able to stay with his man step for step to turn at the last minute to make a beautiful play on the ball:
Only five players in the NFL have more interceptions than Dolphins CB Tony Lippett. This one was the best pick I've seen in years. pic.twitter.com/pRlaMVUJRo— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) December 20, 2016
Based off his age and early career production, the Steelers may be able to come up with a steal for cheap by grabbing Lippett and starting him opposite of Haden.
3) Bene Benwikere– Cornerback/Safety
Bene Benwikere has been a sort of journeyman in his five year career as he has played for four teams. The amount of teams surprises me as he has not been terrible. He played three seasons with the Panthers to start his career where he put up 104 tackles (78 solo), five for a loss, one sack, 20 passes defensed, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles.
He only played four games his last season with Carolina and then moved on to Dallas where he never started. Arizona picked him up in the offseason and he played admirably for the Cardinals.
Benwikere started nine games for the Cardinals from week 4 to week 12. He totaled 43 tackles in that time with an interception, a forced fumble, and three passes defensed. Then was released again to join the Raiders.
He spent time at both safety and cornerback, primarily cornerback, and could be a wonderful and cheap addition to the weak Pittsburgh secondary.
Needs: Inside Linebacker and Cornerback
Notable Free Agents: Michael Johnson, Preston Brown, Vincent Rey, and Darqueze Dennard
Cap Space: $49,813,487 (9th most in the NFL)
The Bengals defense was an utter mess in 2018. Between the massive amount of injuries and disappointment through the middle of the field, the Bengals exposed their soft spots. Luckily for them they have a solid chunk of cap to work with and a new coaching staff coming in…finally.
The Bengals are noticeably thin a the linebacker position. Vontaze Burfict‘s career is in jeopardy after suffering another concussion towards the end of last season. Even if he is able to return he just did not seem like himself in 2018 losing snaps to the likes of Jordan Evans and Hardy Nickerson JR. Speaking of those two, they were also frustrating and mediocre.
They had signed Preston Brown in the offseason in hope s to be a tackling presence in the middle but that didn’t pan out as his performance was underwhelming. They need to add some starting caliber inside linebackers and badly.
Who Will They Sign?
1) Patrick Onwuasor- Inside Linebacker
Here is a nice injection of youth with a healthy dose of potential. Onwuasor had an up an down 2017 when the Ravens tried giving him the starting linebacker job next to C.J. Mosley causing him to move in and out of the lineup. In 2018 he started slow yet again but was able to turn up his production at the end of the season finally looking comfortable.
In his last six games her had 28 tackles (20 solo), four tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, one pass defensed, and two forced fumbles. This compared to his first ten games where he totaled 31 tackles (17 solo), four tackles for a loss, two sacks, one pass defensed, and one interception.
Onwuasor is a solid blitzer and can get you a chunk of sacks from the linebacker position, something only Burfict has been able to do for this squad in the recent history. His timing is good but his speed burst is impressive as you can see here:
Patrick Onwuasor comes up with the SACK on Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill. pic.twitter.com/UiWqFzTbWC— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) August 25, 2018
Forcing fumbles is a trait that Onwuasor is very good at. He uses his hands beautifully and does not always look to just make the tackle. Always having active hands and hard hitting he comes up with many strips. Here you see his hard hitting and not stopping til the play is over forcing the fumble:
Patrick. Onwuasor. Play. Maker. pic.twitter.com/yp16NQRB57— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) August 27, 2017
Here you see his ability not to only come up with the sack but attacking the football:
With the ability to force turnovers and make plays in the middle of the field, Onwuasor would be a welcome addition. The Bengals were one of the worst teams forcing turnovers and had a combined 1.5 sacks from their group of inside linebackers. Onwuasor had 5.5 himself last season.
2) Manti Te’o– Inside Linebacker
Manti Te’o was highly touted coming out of Notre Dame in college as the best linebacker and defensive player in 2013. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind only Johnny Manziel. Since he entered the NFL his career has not taken off as most assumed it would. His career started solid with the Chargers but injuries prevented him from ever playing an entire 16 game season.
In his four years with the Chargers he played in 38 of a possible 64 games. While he played he did make an impact though. His best season was 2015 in which he played 12 games. In those games he had 82 tackles (62 solo), four tackles for a loss, 0.5 sack, two passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble. The Chargers had then hoped this would carry over to 2016 but he tore his Achille’s tendon and was out the rest of the season.
He then landed with the Saints as they hoped he would lead their group of linebackers but had an underwhelming 2017 after returning from injury. He then could not beat out the likes of A.J. Klein, Demario Davis, and Alex Anzalone as he only played 13.7% of all the Saints defensive snaps in 2018.
He is now a free agent and is hoping to relocate for another chance. He still has great instincts for the position and reads defenses well as shown here where he reads the screen:
*Manti Te'o makes a tackle*— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) September 16, 2018
Chris Myers: "That was not an imaginary tackle"
Though Te’o did not play much in 2018, Pro Football Focus still gave him a 80.4 rating, a good rating, for him. With hat the Bengals have in the middle it is worth seeing what Te’o has left in the tank.
3) P.J. Williams– Cornerback
P.J. Williams played himself into a solid contract this season with the Saints. Pro Football Focus rated him as average but made enough plays defensively to get another contract this summer. Ken Crawley had a tough time holding on to the starting position in New Orleans and P.J. Williams took advantage.
He is not the best at anything but is pretty solid at most. Last season he had a sack, an interception, two forced fumbles and a Touchdown to go with his nine passes defensed. This shows he is capable of making plays, something the Bengals defense lacks on the outside. William Jackson is a rock solid corner, some say shut down, but they need depth at the position. With Dre Kirkpatrick coming back from injury he should start but I earlier had Darqueze Dennard leaving the Bengals for the Dolphins this summer. This leaves them in need of depth and P.J. Williams adds to that group with experience starting.
Williams is a good tackler as he only had nine assists to his total of 53 tackles. His aggressive nature will sometimes get him into trouble but also helps aid in forcing turnovers like the hit he made here:
Williams has also shown good ability to read routes, which made him the 3rd round pick he was:
With Williams physical nature and size of 6’0 and 196 lbs. he can fill in the slot, a spot vacated by Dennard. With 18 passes degfensed in his last two seasons, Williams could make the loss of Dennard easier and maybe even play up to Dennard’s grade.
Needs: Defensive Tackle, Defensive End, Cornerback
Notable Free Agents: E.J. Gaines, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and Ray Ray Armstrong
Cap Space: $75,317,961 (4th Most in the NFL)
The Cleveland Browns are in a great position for the upcoming season. They won five of their last seven games losing only to two playoff teams in the Texans and the Ravens. They only lost to the Ravens by two points in which they were driving towards field goal range until C.J. Mosley made a great interception on Baker Mayfield.
The Browns have a solid group of players on defense. Their linebacker group is incredibly strong employing the likes of Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey, and Jamie Collins. Myles Garrett was the first overall pick in 2017 and has shown why. Denzel Ward has shown shutdown corner ability, the number five pick this past draft. Damarius Randall and Jabrill Peppers make a promising saftery tandem. They also have a nice young defensive tackle in Larry Ogunjobi.
With all that talent their are still some holes that need to be filled. With Cleveland now looking like a free agent destination and the team have boat loads of cash, this could be a major offseason for the Browns.
Who Will They Sign?
1) Ezekiel Ansah– Defensive End
Ziggy Ansah had a discouraging year for the Lions with his bout with injuries. He could never really get healthy this season only playing in seven total games. He only played on 15% of the teams snaps and was still able to get four sacks this season. When healthy Ziggy is a terror to block. If you try to line a tight end on him, that is your mistake:
Ansah uses a wide variety of moves, from spins, hand fighting and stabs, to stunts:
Not 1… not 2… but 3 sacks for Ziggy Ansah! pic.twitter.com/H9rMis0U16— Lions Insider (@Lions_Insider) August 20, 2018
Ansah has an unheralded combination of size, strength and speed. This has allowed him to total 48 sacks in 80 games. He has the strength to move lineman:
He also has a speed burst that could surprise even the likes of Russell Wilson:
ZIGGY ANSAH IS REAL pic.twitter.com/XWPdyE3ES5— The Blue Brethren (@BlueBrethren) October 6, 2015
Throwing Ansah on the opposite side of Myles Garrett will be scary for every other AFC North quarterback. Lining up opposite a stud pass rusher like Garrett will benefit Ansah’s health as well. Less attention will be put on him as he is now the number two pass rush option. This allowing him less stress and more focus on the QB.
2) Rodney Gunter– Defensive Tackle
Rodney Gunter does not seem like a flashy signing but he did just finish a solid 2018 season. He finished the season with 44 tackles (32 solo),11 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, a pass defensed and two forced fumbles. This was all accomplished in just 57.5% of his teams snaps. Gunter in a driving force in the middle and could fit perfectly next to Larry Ogunjobi.
Rodney Gunter is quick enough to use stunt moves and strong enough for the bull rush. Here you see him work the stunt move and get to Russell Wilson:
Allowing Gunter to line up next to Larry Ogunjobi, there would be great pressure up the middle, forcing plays to develop outside. If Ansah does in fact sign, this is now difficult for opposing teams as this now means going outside is going at either Myles Garrett of Ziggy Ansah. This would make quite the disruptive defensive line.
3) Bryce Callahan– Cornerback
Bryce Callahan really seemed to come into his own this season. He saw his snap percentage jump from about 48% to almost 67% of the teams total snaps and he even missed the last two games with a broken foot. His stat totals were solid from the slot, finishing with 45 tackles (39 solo), six tackles for a loss, two sacks, six passes defensed, and two interceptions.
The Browns have a good group of cornerbacks with Denzel Ward, Terrance Mithcell, and T.J. Carrie. They are missing one thing though in that group, a physical hard hitting corner. Callahan plays with a mean streak as he tackles with force. Callahan is also a very good blitzing corner as u see him attack the blind side here:
Bear Up. Bryce Callahan pic.twitter.com/K6m0eD80xs— Bears Barroom (@BearsBarroom) October 28, 2018
Not only does he tackle well but his coverage is actually very good as well. He can make plays from all over the field. Here you see him make a great play lining up on the outside:
Watch here as he lines up more in the slot and make to play on on the out route:
The INT was awesome and I’ll talk about that in my film breakdown for @TheLoopSports tomorrow, but this was Bryce Callahan’s best play of the Lions game (he’s in the slot, right in front of the big 30). (1/2) pic.twitter.com/7pec2KT8B0— Jack Soble (@jacksoble56) November 13, 2018
Callahan is a play maker all over the field. He would be yet another great addition to this defense. His ability to play multiple corner positions could have him compete for a starting job with both T.J. Carrie in the slot and Terrance Mitchell on the outside. Callahan is always capable of the highlight play as I am going to leave you with this:
The AFC North should stay an incredibly talented and competitive division. With how the teams stand I could see the Bengals finishing at the bottom and any of the other three teams at the top. I think the Browns do the best work in the offseason to get better and may have the most talent on both sides of the ball. Could 2019 be the year of the Browns???
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