By: Tony Meale
NFL Free Agency has begun ( check out our Free Agency Tracker here ) and we’re taking a look at which players each team and division needs to pick up to improve in the 2012 season.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The crusade for cap space continues in Pittsburgh, as the Steelers have released Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Chris Kemoeatu and Arnaz Battle, among others.
Mike Wallace may be the next casualty – and if he is, he’ll likely remain in the AFC, which would be a crushing blow to the Steelers. Antonio Brown is a stud-in-the-making, but he can’t do it alone. Re-signing Wallace is pivotal to Pittsburgh’s 2012 hopes.
With Rashard Mendenhall’s availability in question for next season, the Steelers should be eying Trent Richardson and Lamar Miller, among others, come April.
Defensively, the Steelers could use help at linebacker. Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower would be an ideal candidate, as would Boston College standout Luke Kuechly. More depth in the secondary would also be good (hey, we all saw what happened when Ryan Clark was inactive against Denver).
The Steelers are the Steelers and will probably once again be the team to beat in the AFC by the time the playoffs roll around, but they enter the season with far more uncertainty than in years past – making Big Ben’s relationship with Todd Haley all the more important.
Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Call me crazy, but if I’m a GM, and if I could have any running back in football on my team, I’m taking Ray Rice. Adrian Peterson has a bum knee, and Arian Foster is injury-prone. Rice is durable, he scored 15 touchdowns last year and he’s had 2,000+ total yards in two of the last three seasons.
In short, the Ravens were smart to franchise tag him, assuming Rice doesn’t hold out for more money.
Now, about that passing game. . .
Joe Flacco isn’t a top-five quarterback, but he’s a darn good one. He just needs some weapons. Last season, he had Ray Rice catching balls out of the back field, he had Torrey Smith running streaks 40 yards down field, and he had Anquan Boldin working the intermediate routes. Outside of that, he didn’t have much. Baltimore is a grind-it-out team, but even grind-it-out teams could use some explosive receivers. Michael Floyd and Alshon Jeffrey are two to target in April, while top free agents include Brandon Lloyd, Mario Manningham and Laurent Robinson.
Baltimore should also re-sign offensive guard Ben Grubbs and look for help at offensive tackle, particularly in Buffalo’s Demetrius Bell and the Giants’ Kareem McKenzie. Ohio State’s Mike Adams is another option.
As for the defense, yes, it’s another year older, but it’s still getting the job done. Besides, if the Ravens can put more points on the board via the passing game, a lights-out defense isn’t necessary, especially since the Ravens were one Lee Evans dropped pass away from the Super Bowl just two months ago.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)
Last year, Cincinnati was perhaps the most surprising team in the AFC, if not all of football. Picked to win three or four games by many pundits, the Bengals, with a rookie quarterback and a rookie wide receiver, won nine games and made the playoffs.
In fact, Andy Dalton became the first rookie quarterback in league history to throw for 20+ touchdowns and win at least eight games as a starter. He did have some growing pains against division stalwarts Pittsburgh and Baltimore – he went 0-4 with a 4:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, as compared to 9-3 and 16:8 against everyone else – but the Bengals have reason to hope, especially with a pair of first-round picks in their back pocket.
After (foolishly) letting Johnathan Joseph walk after the 2010 season, the Bengals should look for a cornerback with pick 17 – either Dre Kirkpatrick or Janoris Jenkins. That said, if Trent Richardson is available, the Bengals will pounce, as Cedric Benson has been plodding each of the last two years. If Richardson is gone, the Bengals should consider Lamar Miller at pick 21.
Also, if the Steelers cannot re-sign Mike Wallace, Cincinnati must pursue him aggressively. That would give the Bengals an extremely talented core of position players – Dalton, Wallace, A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham – all 26 or younger.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore remain the class of the division, but Cincinnati has easily the brightest future.
Cleveland Browns (4-12)
The Browns, well, they need offense. Desperately.
Cleveland averaged just 13.6 points per game last year – only Kansas City and St. Louis averaged fewer – and scored 20+ points all of two times. If the Browns can trade up to draft Robert Griffin, they should. If they can’t, they should take Justin Blackmon, who is without question the top wideout available.
Cleveland could opt for cornerback Morris Claiborne instead, but why? Claiborne is a stud, but the Browns quietly had the second best pass defense in all of football last year. Pairing the LSU product with Joe Haden would be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks, but an elite pass defense didn’t prevent Cleveland from losing its final six games last year. This team simply has too many holes on offense to not look for playmakers early and often come draft day.
Tony Meale is a freelance writer for MLB.com, cincinnati.com and ffjungle.com, among others. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on several radio outlets, including ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. He has a Master’s in Journalism from Ohio University and has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding work. A Cincinnati native, he is currently writing a book on one of the great sports stories never told. Follow Tony Meale on Twitter @tonymeale.