The AFC North Is Cleveland’s Division to Lose

The 2019 NFL Free Agency has reached its calm after the storm phase. The NFL has been reshaped by trades and signings as the league’s most coveted free agents have now either found new homes or stayed home, but it’s the trades that have gone down — most notably in the AFC North — that has reshaped the NFL. The off-season has not only reshaped the NFL, but it has also given the AFC North division a new identity, making it Cleveland’s division to lose. Let’s dive into how the 2019 off-season made the 2019 season look quite favorable for the Cleveland Browns’ long desired playoff hopes.

Steelers Underwent Long Anticipated Offensive Roster Turnover

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The Steelers were the team to watch in the North this off-season, with franchise players Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell finally ready to find their new NFL homes amid frustration from both players toward the Steelers organization. Bell sat out the entire 2018 regular season after rejecting a five-year, $70 million contract offer from Pittsburgh, surprising many. What made Bell’s decision to sit out more reasonable was the $10 million in guaranteed money that was included in the Steelers’ offer for him. Some fans online believed that Bell was “playing himself” by testing the free agent market as he was one of the last big name free agents to sign, but that was not at all the case. Bell was undisputedly the best running back available in free agency, maybe even the best offensive player. The 27-year-old running back took his time negotiating his new contract, striking a four-year, $52.5 million dollar agreement with the New York Jets at 12:32 A.M. on Wednesday. The key to Bell’s deal with New York, and why he did not “play himself”, is the amount of guaranteed money in the deal, as that number spiked from what would have been $10 million, up to $35 million. Bell earns $25 million more in guarantees than he would have if he accepted Pittsburgh’s five-year, $70 million offer, an excellent payday for one of the NFL’s best offensive players.

Pittsburgh losing Bell won’t hurt much, as the team and its fans already said their goodbyes to him last year and are ready to commit to James Conner full-time, but Bell was still one of Pittsburgh’s franchise players, and the Steelers wouldn’t lose just one of those this off-season. Superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown sat out Week 17 after tempers flared between him and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a practice session. Brown had no contact with anyone within the organization for months, until he formally requested to be traded. On the Saturday before free agency, Pittsburgh came to an agreement to trade Brown to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for third and fifth-round draft picks, a deal in which they got robbed by Raiders’ rookie GM Mike Mayock. The Brown trade was the finale to a rough calendar year in Pittsburgh, one that saw them part with two of the team’s fan favorites and team greats. The 2019 season will be an interesting one for Steelers fans, as they have some patchwork to do on offense. The team has already gotten started by inking veteran receiver Donte Moncrief to a deal on Thursday, but Moncrief won’t bring nearly as much production and effectiveness as Antonio Brown did. One thing they can look forward to though, is the draft as Pittsburgh has a great track record of nailing draft picks in terms of rookie receivers.

Ravens Form New Identity On Defense

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The 2019 free agency period delivered an incredibly massive blow to the head of the Ravens’ defense. Baltimore failed to come to terms with star linebacker C.J. Mosley, and he inked a five-year, $85 million contract with the New York Jets as a result. The Ravens also saw edge rusher Za’Darius Smith get pried away by the Green Bay Packers and their all-time sack leader Terrell Suggs stolen by the Arizona Cardinals. Smith signed a four-year, $66 million deal with the Packers, while Suggs signed a one-year, $7 million deal in Arizona. While losing Suggs shouldn’t sting too badly for Ravens fans as he’s likely to retire after one year in Arizona, you’d still like to see a player whose been with you for sixteen years not be able to wear another uniform in his career. In addition to the losses of Smith, Suggs and Mosley, Baltimore also terminated the contract of safety Eric Weddle prior to free agency. Weddle was a captain of Baltimore’s defense, but the team made the decision to release him to allocate $7 million in cap dollars. Weddle went on to sign a two-year, $12.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams, leaving the Ravens with glaring needs at inside linebacker, both outside linebacker spots, and free safety.

Baltimore filled the hole at safety on Wednesday by signing former Seahawks safety Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million deal, but they still have a lot of work to do before their defense is back to what we know it to be. The Ravens seem to be resorting to the NFL Draft to address the needs at inside linebacker and edge rusher, but that’s especially surprising at this point in time as they can still acquire free agents that can come in and start at those positions and compete with the rookies. Furthermore, pushing a need that can be addressed in free agency to the draft can prove to be a bold strategy, as there is never a guarantee you’ll be able to select the players at the top of your board without sacrificing assets to enable you to do it. The door is not closed for Baltimore to add some free agent pass rushers, but they should start to pick up the pace before it’s too late. The goal of every organization is to be able to build a team through the draft and acquire assets in future drafts, but the Ravens, under rookie GM Eric DeCosta, are not putting themselves in a position to that as of now.

Bengals Are Being . . . The Bengals

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When the Bengals hired Zac Taylor as their head coach after 16 years of Marvin Lewis in February, many fans thought that the hire of a young, offensive coach was the precursor to a roster overhaul. Instead, you could hear a pin drop in Cincinnati throughout the first few waves of free agency outside of re-signing offensive tackle Bobby Hart, which could be viewed as alarming as it still remains unknown what new coach Zac Taylor wants to do in terms of scheme, culture and identity.

The Bengals have started to wake up for the final few waves of free agency, however, as they re-signed linebacker Preston Brown on Wednesday and have visits scheduled with linebackers Brandon Marshall and Shaquil Barrett, as well as cornerback Brian Poole and guard John Miller. Regardless if any of the visiting players are signed or not, Bengals fans don’t have any new exciting players to look forward to as of yet, as has been the case for a few years. Cincinnati’s roster has grown stale, and it’s confusing as to why they were not more active in the initial free agency waves in trying to upgrade at positions that could surely benefit from improvement. With nearly the same roster that Marvin Lewis could not win with, it’s not safe to assume that first-time head coach Zac Taylor will be able to win with it, either.

Browns Build By Trades, Setting Them Up Quite Nicely

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Cleveland Browns GM John Dorsey deserves all the credit in the world for how good of a job he’s done rebuilding Cleveland’s roster — and how quickly he’s done it. Dorsey took over for the fired Sashi Brown in Week 13 of the Browns’ 0-16 campaign in 2017 and got right to work. In Dorsey’s first off-season as Browns GM, he showed that he was not shy to work the phones and come to trade agreements with other GMs in the blink of an eye. On the Friday before free agency last year, Dorsey made a whopping three trades, and swung a fourth deal on Saturday.

The first of that Friday’s trio of deals was a blockbuster. Dorsey packaged and shipped a fourth-round draft pick in 2018 and a seventh-round pick in 2019 to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for star wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Dorsey then struck a deal with the Buffalo Bills, bringing quarterback Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland in exchange for a third-round draft pick. Finally, Dorsey swapped quarterback DeShone Kizer for Green Bay Packers defensive back Damarious Randall. The very next day, Dorsey sent nose tackle Danny Shelton packing, by trading him to the New England Patriots in exchange for a 2018 fifth-round pick and a 2019 third-round pick.

Skip ahead to April and Dorsey is working the phones again, although this time, he’s making NFL Draft prospects’ dreams come true. Dorsey selected two day one starters within the first five picks of the 2018 draft, choosing Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward first and fourth overall, respectively. Dorsey acquired more valuable contributors on days two and three of the draft, adding Georgia running back Nick Chubb in the second round, Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway in the fourth round, and Memphis linebacker Genard Avery in the fifth round.

Now fast forward to the 2019 off-season, and Dorsey is back at it again swinging blockbuster deals. Dorsey negotiated two huge trades with New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman, one of which was on the same Friday in advance of the free agency period. Dorsey traded offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler to New York in exchange for pass-rusher Olivier Vernon on Friday, and followed it up by an absolute blockbuster that was rumored to have been in the works for months. Dorsey forfeited safety Jabrill Peppers and his first and third-round picks in the 2019 draft to acquire Giants superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.

Cleveland couldn’t have added Beckham Jr. at a more perfect time, as he’s on a fresh five-year contract that begins in 2019. The trade is just perfect all around, as Cleveland gets its true No. 1 outside target for Baker Mayfield, and Beckham gets to reunite with his college teammate and friend Jarvis Landry, and he can also look forward to better quarterback play. Despite bringing in Beckham, Jr. and Vernon, rumor has it that Dorsey is not done wheeling and dealing. Browns defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah is rumored to be on the trading block following the acquisition of Vernon and the free agency signing of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. A potential Ogbah deal could certainly allow Dorsey to recoup at least the third-round pick he lost in the Beckham trade, as Ogbah is still on his rookie contract and offers a lot of promise and upside, making him an enticing trade piece for any teams that may be interested.

No matter how the rest of the off-season plays out, though, John Dorsey is building a winner in Cleveland, having drafted a franchise quarterback adding superstar talent around him, as opposed to the supbar talent that was added around the abundance of quarterbacks in previous regimes. Beyond that, Dorsey is possibly changing the way NFL rosters are built altogether, cementing his legacy and becoming a legend in Cleveland.