AFC North 2021 Review Free Agency Moves: Browns Lead, Steelers Make Risky Decisions

Two years ago, the Browns held a triumphant press conference after negotiating a deal to sell Odell Beckham Jr. to take over. After the transaction, Myles Garrett infamously said the Browns were “the absolute” best team in the AFC North. After a surprising 2018 season in which the Browns won five of their last seven games, it has been difficult to argue with the Browns’ pass rusher.

It didn’t come out for the Browns in 2019. Malfunction within the facility largely contributed to Cleveland’s very disappointing 6-10 record. To their credit, the Browns rebounded by having a very successful 2020 season with the franchise’s first playoff win in more than a quarter of a century. The icing on the cake was the fact that the Browns’ playoff victory fell against the Steelers, a franchise that has had its way with Cleveland since the 1990s.

While none of their 2020 signings caused the buzz the Beckham trade was doing, the Browns have made several significant acquisitions that contributed to last season’s success. Among those acquisitions were the signing of offensive tackle Jack Conklin, tight Austin Hooper, linebacker BJ Goodson and security Karl Joseph. The Browns also found a draw in left-wing tackle Jedrick Wills, who became an immediate starter while helping to protect Baker Mayfield’s band side.

With the concept still weeks away, we decided to assess the success of each AFC North team during the first two weeks of free agency. We kick off with Cleveland, where Browns fans brace for a possible Super Bowl run.


Best Signing: S John Johnson III

The Browns were looking to bolster their secondary position after finishing 22nd in the league in pass defense in 2020. Cleveland certainly did with the signings of security John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill. Johnson and Hill, formerly teammates in Los Angeles, helped the Rams with the league’s best-placed pass defense in 2020. Johnson can start in either safety position, while Hill will complement fellow Browns’ starting cornerback Denzel Ward.

Cleveland also achieved its goal of keeping Rashard Higgins when they signed the veteran receiver to a $ 2.38 million one-year deal. Higgins, the team’s second leader last season, should continue to play a part in the Browns’ attack even as Beckham returns from last season’s knee injury.

If that wasn’t enough, the Browns added a lot of depth with signings from Takk McKinley, Malik Jackson and Anthony Walker. The Browns recently met Jadeveon Clowney, who would likely replace Olivier Vernon’s 2020 production. If Cleveland were able to sign Clowney, the Browns would have put up a near-perfect free agency.

Class A.

Best Signing: DE Trey Hendrickson

Cincinnati said goodbye to several key players, including corner-back William Jackson III, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, linebacker Carl Lawson and receiver AJ Green. Cincinnati replaced Jackson with former Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and former Steeler Mike Hilton, one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks. They have replaced Lawson with the former defensive end of Saints Trey Hendrickson, who landed a $ 60 million deal last season on a $ 60 million deal in his career. Time will tell if Hendrickson can continue that production in Cincinnati.

The Bengals have yet to find an experienced receiver to replace Green, one of the best players in franchise history. They reportedly offered Kenny Golladay a contract offer before Golladay finally signed with the Giants. Cincinnati still has some solid veteran wideouts they can sign (Sammy Watkins and Antonio Brown are among them), but they’ll have to act quickly to get their hands on one.

Cincinnati added to their offensive line — a must – with the signing of former Vikings tackling Riley Reiff. And while Reiff is a solid player, the Bengals gave the chance to sign one of the best linemen available in free agency, a list of players including Trent Williams, Joe Thuney and Alejandro Villanueva. Cincinnati’s figure will soar if they are able to get a lengthy Washington pass, Ryan Kerrigan passes, who was reportedly scheduled to meet the Bengals.

Grade: C.

Largest signature: G Kevin Zeitler

Baltimore suffered big losses with the departures of linebackers Jihad Ward, Yannick Ngakoue, Matthew Judon and center Matt Skura. Baltimore minimized linebacker damage by re-signing Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee. The Ravens were also able to keep Derek Wolfe’s defensive gear. Baltimore’s best outside free agent to sign to date is offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, a player the Ravens no doubt hope can be a better replacement for Marshal Yanda, who retired after the 2019 season.

Like Cincinnati, the Ravens missed Golladay’s signing after meeting the veteran recipient last week. Baltimore has yet to sign an experienced receiver that Marquise Brown can help replenish. Baltimore was also unable to lure JuJu Smith-Schuster away from Pittsburgh. The Ravens have reportedly turned their attention to Sammy Watkins, who recently helped the Chiefs reach consecutive Super Bowls.

Look for the Ravens to deal with Skura’s loss on 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. As for pass rusher, don’t be surprised if Baltimore addresses this need both in free agency and during design. The best remaining pass rushers in free agency include Jadeveon Clowney, Carlos Dunlap, Justin Houston, Melvin Ingram, Ryan Kerrigan, Aldon Smith and Olivier Vernon.

Grade: C.


Largest signature: Joe Haeg

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

Together with Smith-Schuster, the Steelers were able to keep some of their free agents at home. The list 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 they are inclined, the Steelers still have the option to re-sign long-term starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who remains in the open market. Anyway, look for the Steelers to get your hands on new left gear through the draft. Pittsburgh will also be in the market for a new running back as James Conner remains unsigned. The Steelers recently reached out to Clemson’s Travis Etienne, the top-ranked runner in CBS Sports’ prospect rankings. Another early option to run back is Najee Harris, who helped Alabama capture their sixth league title last season under coach Nick Saban.

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

Grade: C +