The Pittsburgh Steelers and the remaining AFC North teams have received mixed reviews from assorted sporting news media since the beginning of the free agency signing period. In this first installment of Checkdown Audible, I’ll dig into what is being talked about most recently around the division, especially during the NFL Owners meetings in Arizona this past week.
The Steelers weren’t expected to make much noise during early part of the free agency signing period and ESPN gave Pittsburgh a ‘C’. Pittsburgh brought in running back DeAngelo Williams and then re-signed outside linebacker James Harrison and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and cornerback Antwon Blake. Pittsburgh has traditionally been a quiet team during free agency periods that utilizes the draft to secure talent, but have made moves that have raised questions over the past two to three seasons.
Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have been making the rounds with other Steelers staffers to several pro days at schools that many draft experts see a draft prospect the team may be placing on the big board. Thursday night, coach Tomlin reportedly had dinner with LSU cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive end Danielle Hunter before their pro day.
After watching his draft stock drop due to a failed drug test, the Steelers are just one stop that Nebraska pass-rusher Randy Gregory will make.
According to Dom Izzo, the Steelers will once again host a small school recruit in FCS standout OLB/DE Kyle Emanuel out of North Dakota State. Emanuel recorded 19.5 sacks in his senior year with the Bisons (2014), receiving All-American honors for his play.
Coach John Harbaugh has a challenge to face on defense after passing off five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and a seventh-rounder to the Detroit Lions for a fourth and fifth round pick in the upcoming draft. From the NFL owners meetings, Harbaugh said he is confident in young defensive linemen Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams to step into Ngata’s space and compete. His confidence is likely boosted by the fact that the Ravens were a better run defense statistically when Ngata was on the sidelines in 2014. Baltimore went 3-1 with Jernigan as the starter, allowing the 10th-fewest rushing yards per game during that time. “I think Timmy Jernigan is a good, young player,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, he has a lot of work to do, and he acknowledges that, which is what I love about him. I have no doubts that he’s going to give it his best shot and he’s going to do well.”
Harbaugh hasn’t shown much emotion in regards to three players who have been arrested during the offseason. In fact, this week Harbaugh told the press, “You’re making too much of it.” Terrence Cody was indicted on animal cruelty charges and Victor Hampton was arrested for driving under the influence. Harbaugh pointed out that Cody was on his way out and Hampton never attended a single practice with the team. Bernard Pierce was released by the team for driving while intoxicated and was realistically the only player that was expected to attend training camp. Interestingly, Harbaugh said that the team does not have a zero-tolerance policy, adding, “I don’t know any organization in the world that has that rule.” Over the last 13 months, nine members of the Ravens organization have been arrested.
ESPN gave the Ravens a “C” grade evaluation for their free agency activity thus far. Baltimore has signed a single outside free agent in safety Kendrick Lewis. The Ravens traditionally do not make big moves in the early moments of the free agency signing period and typically have built their team via the NFL draft and free-agents after March. Areas where the Ravens need to address: wide receiver, tight end and cornerback. The Ravens only have around $8.3 million in cap dollars. Running back Justin Forsett re-signed with the team. Rumors are that Baltimore will approach Michael Crabtree or Greg Jennings at receiver and Zach Miller at tight end. The Ravens have ten picks in the upcoming draft.
The only team in the league that received a “D” grade from ESPN in regards to free agency at this point was the Cleveland Browns. The Browns lost 16 players and signed/re-signed six. The Browns have one of the best cap room situations in the league but have been conservative in doling out the cash. The plan is likely to use the money to secure any core players they are able to gain in the draft.
NFL Commissioner gave an interview during the NFL Owners Meetings regarding the texting situation the Browns were called on last season. When asked how serious he felt the situation was despite an admission by Cleveland, Goodell said, “It affects the integrity of the game and all 32 teams need to be operating under the same rules…so any violation is taken seriously.” Although the texts were allegedly not designed to give the Browns a competitive advantage and were expressed opinions, Goodell reiterated the point that despite the content of the text message, the rule was still broken. At this point Browns insiders are expecting the punishment could be as severe as losing a draft pick, a large fine and possible suspension for general manager Ray Farmer for a period of the 2015 season. Goodell did not offer any information as to whether a specific punishment has been decided upon.
The Bengals haven’t made any big moves during the free agency period but have been efficient in their approach. ESPN gave the Bengals a ‘B’ grade. The Bengals made deals with inside linebacker A.J. Hawk, defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive back Brandon Ghee. Departures included tight end Alex Smith, receiver Brandon Tate, tight end Jermain Gresham and defensive end Robert Geathers. Altogether, 14 players exited the team during this period.
Head coach Marvin Lewis continues to give fans something to complain about with an admission that once again this season he does not want to play his first-round pick in 2015 to play any significant snaps. In 2014, Darqueze Dennard, Margus Hunt and Will Clarke remained behind veterans Terence Newman and Robert Geathers. At the NFL Owners meetings, Lewis said about his number 21 (overall) pick, “I hope he doesn’t have to [take snaps] but I know in the future he will.”
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