Free Agency Needs: AFC North

With the 2020 NFL season finally over, the preparation for the 2021 season has finally begun. Given that the 2021 NFL salary cap will likely end up in the $182-183 million range, teams will likely be signing players to 1-year contracts to be able to fit players under the cap. Read to see which positions each team should target and what free agents are affordable and can fit that role. We will analyze AFC North in the second edition of Free Agency Needs. Cincinnati Bengals Protect Joe Burrow. That should be priority one, two, and three this offseason. Before going down to a torn ACL, Burrow was one of the most pressured QBs in the league and the Bengals ranked 29th in pass block win rate according to ESPN. The Bengals need to allocate a majority of their resources towards the offensive line to prevent a repeat disaster of Joe Burrow’s season-ending injury. Joe Thuney has Cincinnati roots so a home reunion would work well for both parties. Most of the Bengals starters in 2020 got hurt so it is tough to evaluate what positions they need to improve. At the edge position, Carl Lawson was the Bengals best player and he is a free agent that will likely earn a solid payday for his performance last season. Pittsburgh Steelers With Pouncey retiring and LT Villanueva and LG Feiler hitting free agency, the Steelers will potentially need to rework the entire left side of their OLine. Not only that but their performance this past season was subpar. The whole unit ranked 28th in pass-block win rate and 24th in rush-block win rate according to ESPN. I expect Villanueva back in black and gold, but they will need an upgrade at LG and C. Running back was another difficult position last year. The Steelers were one-dimensional last year and it showed. They had an EPA/Rush last year of -0.146 which ranked 29th in the league last year and ranked last in the league in rushing yards as an entire team. Adding to their offensive line need, it is important to mention that their star tackle, Alejandro Villanueva will be hitting free agency along with Zach Banner, Jerald Hawkins, and Derwin Gray. The Steeler should make it an absolute priority to re-sign Villanueva or address this issue in free agency with someone else. Cleveland Browns Olivier Vernon is a pending FA and he tore his achilles towards the end of the season. The Browns should look to pair Myles Garrett with another young pass rusher to really improve this defense. Starting LB BJ Goodson is a FA and Malcolm Smith is a FA as well. While the Browns could look to bring one back, they could also spend some money in FA to land a big-time LB who could be the signal-caller in their defense and give them a veteran presence in the middle of the field. While Odell Beckham Jr. is still expected to be on the team, Rashard Higgins is a FA, and the Browns can use a third receiver to take the pressure off Beckham and Jarvis Landry. A speedster would make the most sense in this scenario given how Landry and Beckham are both routes running technicians. Baltimore Ravens The Ravens have neglected the WR for too long and it is a reason why they can’t comeback in games where they are down double-digit points in the second half. They have no WR who can consistently win their matchups, but luckily, this is a loaded FA WR class and the Ravens are still playing under Lamar Jackson’s rookie contract so they have money to spend. Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue are both FA, and while the Ravens could franchise tag either of them, it might make more sense to let them both walk and to sign a cheap veteran in FA. Given that the Ravens blitzed at one of the highest rates in the league last year, they don’t rely too much on their edge defenders winning 1 on 1 matchup. Orlando Brown has asked for a trade request, meaning there is a hole to fill at RT. When healthy, LT Ronnie Stanley is one of the best in the game, but the Ravens need good tackles because they run the ball at a very high rate. Contributors: Arjun Menon, Ray Matera, Anthony Molina, and Sam Mattson.

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