Let's continue recapping the offseasons around the NFL by working our way to the AFC North, a division that includes one of the more fascinating springs in recent memory by one team and another that learned a much-needed new trick at just the right time. Remember that these grades are based on a team's options heading into the offseason, so if an organization had an ugly cap situation or was missing draft picks heading into February, we're going to judge them based upon what they did with what they had left.
And with that in mind, we'll begin in Baltimore, where the Ravens went through a season horrifically scarred by injuries to nearly every one of their key players. They'll be better in 2016 by being healthier alone, but did they do enough to shore up the sore spots on their roster to make it back to the postseason?
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What went right
They generated extra capital during the draft. You can argue that Baltimore should have drafted Laremy Tunsil if he was higher on its board than Ronnie Stanley, as has been suggested after the draft, but you also can understand why the Ravens might be averse to personnel risks in a way that they weren't two years ago. It would be ridiculous and insulting to compare the Ray Rice incident with Tunsil smoking a bong attached to a gas mask, but the Ravens very well might remember how horrifically they mismanaged the press during the Rice story and doubt their ability to do the same with Tunsil.
After the Stanley selection, the Ravens traded down and generated some valuable extra picks in the process. When the Jags wanted Myles Jack, the Ravens nabbed a fifth-round pick for moving down two spots. Then, when the Dolphins insisted on trading up for Xavien Howard, Baltimore moved down four more spots and got a fourth-rounder for its troubles. In all, the Ravens got picks 42, 107 and 146 for the 36th pick. By Chase Stuart's empirically derived draft value chart, that's getting $1.57 on the dollar for their pick.
They added real talent to a questionable receiving corps. The issue was fueled by injuries, but by the time the Ravens made it to the end of the 2015 season, they were trotting out the most anonymous group of wide receivers in recent memory. When Kamar Aiken and rookie tight end Maxx Williams are the most pedigreed players in your lineup, that's a serious problem. The Ravens probably didn't foresee their season ending with Ryan Mallett throwing passes to Chris Givens and Chris Matthews, but that's where they ended up.
It would have been foolish for the Ravens to head into 2016 and just assume they would be fine with the players they had. Steve Smith Sr. was on his way to retirement and tore his Achilles at age 35. Dennis Pitta has a career-threatening recurring hip injury. Breshad Perriman was raw coming out of college and is still really a rookie after missing his entire debut season with a PCL injury. Those players are all question marks.
It was smart, then, for the Ravens to add veteran help. Benjamin Watson is coming off of a career season that he's incredibly unlikely to repeat, but he should still be a good in-line blocker and comes with only a $3 million cap hit. Mike Wallace never lived up to his big-money deal in Miami, but he's a year removed from an 862-yard, 10-touchdown season and spent last year with a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater who doesn't fit his skill set. Wallace had his best run with Ben Roethlisberger, a passer who stuck around in the pocket until the last moment and launched bombs downfield. Joe Flacco is the closest guy to Roethlisberger who Wallace will have played with. Getting Watson and Wallace for a combined $6.5 million in cap space should be valuable, meaningful depth for a Ravens receiving corps that suddenly looks very interesting.
What went wrong
Their cap situation is a mess. The six-year deal Baltimore gave Flacco after the Super Bowl was basically a three-year deal with a guaranteed extension afterward because Flacco's cap hit was jumping from $14.6 million to $28.6 million as part of the deal. The Ravens didn't have much choice, given how much leverage Flacco had after winning the Super Bowl and what little space Baltimore had to work with at the time, but it's a painful contract to deal with now.
Since the Ravens' Super Bowl win, Flacco's numbers haven't exactly been overwhelming. He's 24th in Total QBR over the past three years, and his interception rate is up nearly 50 percent versus his three-season run ending with the Super Bowl year:
Few teams would look at that sort of stagnant-at-best production, combine it with a torn ACL, and hand out a contract extension with $44 million in guaranteed money, but the Ravens didn't really have a choice. By giving Flacco a three-year deal, they managed to lower his cap hit to $22.5 million, clearing out the $6 million or so in cap space Baltimore then used to sign those veterans above. The Ravens are basically now tied to Flacco as their starter for the next three years, with 2019 really the first season where Baltimore could cut Flacco as a post-June 1 release without swallowing an exorbitant amount of dead money.
It's not just Flacco, either. The Ravens have made a series of bad bets on veterans who haven't lived up to expectations. Jimmy Smith was injured and then disappointing last season; it was no surprise to hear that he'll undergo a second procedure on the foot that initially put him on the shelf this month. Lardarius Webb was a mess before being moved to safety for the final game of the year, and he might very well start there on a regular basis in 2016. Pitta has suffered through two hip injuries. Eugene Monroe's contract is underwater. In addition to Flacco's deal, the Ravens had to restructure the deals of Smith and Marshal Yanda to create cap space. That's only going to create more cap problems down the line for a team currently experiencing the pain of kicking cap problems into the future.
They lost Kelechi Osemele. Because of the cap woes, Baltimore wasn't able to hold onto its most eligible young free agent for yet another offseason. Osemele matured into one of the best guards in football up front for the Ravens and even moved out to left tackle, where he was totally credible, for the final few games of the 2016 season. Osemele would have been an upgrade on Monroe and allowed the Ravens to look elsewhere for the No. 6 pick, but there was no way they would have been able to compete with the five-year, $58 million deal Osemele received from the Raiders.
Baltimore will get a third-round compensatory pick as part of the deal, which does cushion the blow, but Osemele goes alongside players such as Torrey Smith and Pernell McPhee as homegrown talents the Ravens weren't able to re-sign before they hit the free market. You could have made a case that Smith hadn't developed into a star or that the Ravens were covered for McPhee's loss by the presence of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, but Osemele was genuinely one of the best guards in football and a very viable left tackle. He was much tougher to let go, and unless the Ravens keep Monroe and move Stanley inside to guard to start his career, they didn't really acquire a replacement either.
Go shopping for bargains. Just like your friend who buys all the half-price candy day after Halloween, the Ravens love a good bargain when they find one. They prioritize adding compensatory picks, which is why May 12 will be an interesting date for them. Free agents signed after May 12 don't count against the formula that determines a team's compensatory picks, a date moved up from June 1 in previous years.
The Ravens aren't likely to spend a lot -- they have only $1.6 million or so in cap room before making any moves -- but this is the space in which they've gotten bargains such as Daryl Smith in years past. Somebody like former Bengals cornerback Leon Hall could be a logical pickup in this window.
What went right
They stayed the course. The Bengals aren't exactly the most exciting team in football when it comes to the offseason, which is why this section will be very short, but what they do works. They hold onto their draft picks, re-sign the players they want to keep and otherwise almost entirely stay out of free agency altogether. The free agents they do add are low-cost veterans who won't cost them compensatory picks because they were released by their former teams, like Michael Johnson a year ago and Karlos Dansby this season. It's a strategy that has worked sufficiently well for them for so long that it would be wrong to question it at this point.
They didn't overpay to retain their wide receivers. It would have been nice to bring back one or both of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, but the more you look at those deals, the more you realize they were extravagant. At best third options in this offense behind A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, Jones and Sanu were the best available wideouts in free agency and ended up getting paid like borderline No. 1 targets. Jones got a five-year, $40-million deal from the Lions, while Sanu picked up $32.5 million over five years from the Falcons. That's just out of line with their value on the field. You could make a case that the Bengals could have gone after a second-tier wideout like Jermaine Kearse or Mike Wallace as a replacement, but they should be fine after drafting Tyler Boyd in the second round. The Bengals also will pocket fourth-round compensatory picks for losing their two wideouts and should expect the maximum of four compensatory selections to come their way in 2017.
What went wrong
They lost Hue Jackson. There's not much the Bengals could have done to keep their offensive coordinator, but Jackson was a wildly underrated force in terms of his schematic creativity and ability to fit his offense around his players' strengths. Quarterback Andy Dalton took a major leap forward under Jackson, finishing fifth in Total QBR last season before suffering what ended up as a season-ending thumb injury. Jackson will be replaced by longtime Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, so there shouldn't be a dramatic shift in terms of the team's offensive language, but it will be tough to live up to what Jackson accomplished during his two-year run in Cincinnati.
Re-sign Kevin Zeitler and Dre Kirkpatrick. Cincinnati's two first-round picks from the 2012 draft each had their fifth-year options picked up before last season. They've both done enough to justify long-term deals, particularly Zeitler, who is one of the better guards in football. Kirkpatrick struggled at times last year with a shoulder injury, but given the price of even mediocre cornerbacks on the free-agent market, the Bengals would do well to lock him up for the future. They have used first-round picks on Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson III, but in a league where teams use their nickel packages more often than their base alignments, you can never have too many cornerbacks.
What went right
They traded down for massive amounts of draft capital. I've written about Cleveland's strategy at length, both in regards to the Carson Wentz trade and its series of trades during the draft. The Browns rightly believe that teams are overconfident when it comes to scouting and identifying talent and thus quantity of draft picks is more important than quality. They also see future draft picks as an undervalued asset class.
The cumulative return they got for their moves, then, was pretty staggering. Even after making the Wentz deal before the draft, they traded down four times during the draft weekend, taking advantage of teams that felt like they were smarter than the rest of the league. Five times! They ended up making 14 selections, including eight picks across the fourth and fifth rounds, and have a staggering amount of capital set up in the years to come. In 2017, they'll have an extra first-round pick (from the Eagles), second-round pick (Titans), third-round pick (Eagles) and as many as three fourth-round picks as compensation for losing free agents. They're down their own fourth-round pick from the Wentz trade and have essentially swapped seventh-round picks with the Colts, but otherwise, they still have their own 2017 picks to work with and a 2018 second-rounder coming from Philadelphia too.
Since this is an offseason recap, let's put all of these moves together into one big mash of trades. Let's be conservative too. We're going to treat future picks from other teams as if they're the average pick in each round, even if that's a generous interpretation of how good the Titans will be next year, and we'll treat the Browns as if they're the worst team in football and have the first pick in each round. We'll also give the cornerback the Browns acquired from Miami, former second-rounder Jamar Taylor, zero value. Let's see what the Browns have accomplished with their trades:
Per the Chase Stuart draft chart, by even a conservative estimate, the Browns added 32 points of draft capital to their coffers with their trades. To put that in context, the expected return from the No. 1 pick in a typical draft is 34.6 points. Throw in the expected value of the four compensatory picks the Browns will receive after losing free agents, and they're up to 43.9 points of added draft capital this offseason. That's as aggressive of a game plan as any one organization has executed in a single offseason in recent memory.
I've read arguments that the plan is doomed to fail because it's the Browns and Cleveland is inevitably cursed regardless of what it does. That's reductive and silly -- if the Browns are cursed no matter what, why not try the best possible process. Other arguments compare the Browns to the Philadelphia 76ers, another quantitatively inclined team that shed talent and acquired as many draft picks as possible in an attempt to rebuild. The Philadelphia rebuild hasn't worked out as planned, although that may very well look different after the upcoming NBA draft, in which the Sixers could have as many as five first-round picks.
Cleveland's attempt to rebuild by hoarding draft picks isn't foolproof, but no plan for a team this bad is. Spending heavily on free agents isn't a great strategy. Trading all your picks to move up and grab a quarterback hasn't worked out for many teams in the past. There's no guarantee this will work either, but history -- not that of the Sixers, but teams such as the Patriots and Packers -- tells us it's the best way to try to build a team.
Think about it like saving for retirement. The Eagles just put all their money in a fast-rising stock hoping that they hopped on at the right time. The Browns are maxing out their 401(k) every year, investing in index funds and hoping that compound interest and variance does the trick. The market could crash, or there could be an expensive illness in the family, or they could suddenly get undisciplined and chase after the fast-rising stock too. All of those things can happen between now and the point at which the Browns would expect to be good. That doesn't make it the wrong idea, either.
They signed Robert Griffin. One of the few free agents the Browns did sign was Griffin, who came in on a two-year, $15-million deal with no guaranteed money in 2017. If the Browns were going to add a quarterback, as I wrote in March, taking a low-risk flier on a high-upside quarterback like Griffin made the most sense. Signing a short-term steadying hand like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Brian Hoyer (or turning the reins back over to Josh McCown) wouldn't have done a rebuilding team any favors.
Griffin may not work out, but if he fails, all it costs the Browns is $6.8 million, and it pushes them closer to the No. 1 pick in 2017, which they obviously want anyway. And if he does work out, the Browns suddenly acquired a franchise quarterback without even impacting their compensatory picks, because Griffin was cut by Washington and won't result in any compensation from the NFL.
What went wrong
They let a lot of young talent go. I just wrote about how the Browns are smart to gobble up compensatory picks, so I can't be too harsh on them here. You can understand why they would want to move on from Alex Mack after Mack opted out of his deal, given that he's already 30 and got $9 million per year from the Falcons. You can justify moving on from Travis Benjamin, who had one year of effectiveness and was entering a market where wide receivers were going to be grossly overpaid.
Did they have to let all of their free agents go, though? Defensive back Tashaun Gipson is 25 and has averaged more than four interceptions per 16 games. He was a Pro Bowler at 24 last season, and the five-year, $36 million deal he signed with Jacksonville wouldn't have been onerous for the Browns. And Mitchell Schwartz is one of the better right tackles in football. The Raiders helped fuel their rebuild by focusing heavily on the offensive line, and while they did it in free agency, the Browns could have helped Griffin (or whomever their quarterback of the future ends up being) by keeping him upright. Re-signing one or both of them would have made sense.
They didn't trade Joe Thomas. If the Browns are going to tear down everything and rebuild, why not complete the process by trading away their best player? Thomas is a future Hall of Famer at left tackle and a truly valuable asset. He's also 31 and has three years left on his deal at a relatively friendly price of $29.5 million. With the Browns clearly building toward 2018 or 2019, Thomas will either be diminished as a player or on another roster. It's impossible to say what they could have gotten for Thomas, but holding onto their star seems like a strange half-measure given the moves Cleveland made elsewhere.
Signing players after May 12. The Browns still have plenty of holes on their roster and more than $30 million in cap space with which to work. Once they can shop without incurring the risk of losing their compensatory picks, it would behoove the Browns to target some veterans with upside still left in the free-agent market. There aren't exactly a lot of players fitting that definition still around, but even players such as Andrew Quarless and Trumaine McBride could be an upgrade in rotation roles given what's left on this Browns roster.
What went right
They didn't extend Lawrence Timmons. As has been the case for the past couple of seasons, the Steelers entered 2016 in a cap crunch. With what ended up as just under $8 million in dead money on their cap and extensions handed out to deserving players such as Ben Roethlisberger and Cameron Heyward, the Steelers had precious little wiggle room to operate under in the free-agent market. With talented contributors such as Steve McLendon and Kelvin Beachum hitting unrestricted free agency, Pittsburgh had to make some tough decisions.
The path of least resistance would have involved Timmons. One of the league's better inside linebackers, the Steelers already have restructured Timmons' five-year, $48 million deal three times in five years to create cap space. As a result, his cap hit is almost comically out of line with other players at his position. In this, the final year of his deal, Timmons will have a $15.1 million cap hold.
To put that in context, remove Clay Matthews from the equation. At $13.8 million, Matthews is the only linebacker in Timmons' vicinity, but he signed his contract extension as an outside linebacker before moving inside out of sheer desperation for the Packers. In terms of contracts signed to play inside linebacker, Timmons is at $15.1 million, and the next-highest cap hit for an inside linebacker is ... NaVorro Bowman at $9.5 million. Timmons makes nearly 60 percent more than the second-highest paid player at his position. No other player in football comes close to that sort of difference; even the massive relative cap hits of Adrian Peterson and Drew Brees lap their respective positional brethren by 25 percent.
The Steelers could have restructured the 29-year-old Timmons' deal by giving him a three-year extension that dropped his base salary down to $1 million or so while giving him a signing bonus that would have spread the money owed to Timmons over the next several years of their cap. It's a move they have made repeatedly in years past with players such as Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller, creating short-term cap space while kicking the financial can down the line. It's how the Steelers ended up with a $4.5 million charge on their cap for Polamalu last year and will have $3.1 million on their cap for Miller this year after each chose to "retire."
Timmons is a good player being paid an extravagant sum; the Steelers could have restructured his deal and ended up with a replacement-level player being paid a starting sum two or three years from now, as was the case with those other aforementioned veterans. Instead, they appear to have practiced an encouraging bit of financial prudence. Pittsburgh hasn't restructured Timmons' deal. It's a painful move, but it will help the Steelers after this season. Pittsburgh has just $111 million committed to its 2017 cap. Granted, the Steelers will still need to re-sign young stars such as David DeCastro and Le'Veon Bell, but keeping as much of that space clear as possible is the best way to lock up key contributors. The Steelers also can still re-sign Timmons, but they'll be better off doing it without the massive amount of leverage Timmons currently has at the moment.
They went after their needs in the draft. Drafting for need doesn't always solve problems and might encourage teams to reach for players, but what the Steelers did during the draft seemed to hit the logical targets. They used their first two picks on defensive backs, adding cornerback Artie Burns and Sean Davis, who will likely end up at safety, to a secondary that has been stuck rolling out street free agents and replacement-level players for years now. They used their third-round pick on an interior disruptor in Javon Hargrave, which could help shoulder the load after McClendon left for the Jets. Their fourth-round pick was LSU tackle Jerald Hawkins, who should serve as depth at tackle as the Steelers figure out what to do after Beachum left for the Jaguars.
What went wrong
Left tackle is a mess. The Steelers weren't able to re-sign Beachum, even though the structure of the deal he received from the Jaguars would have been relatively friendly. They took a defensible flier on Ryan Harris, but Harris is really a right tackle stretched on the left side. Alejandro Villanueva, a 6-foot-9 Army ranger, wasn't a disaster filling in for Beachum after the latter tore his ACL last year, but he did allow 7.5 sacks while playing an even 70 percent of Pittsburgh's snaps. At best, left tackle is a question mark for Pittsburgh.
They're perilously thin behind Roethlisberger. It's a good problem to have if we're sitting here fretting about the backup quarterback situation in May, but Roethlisberger's style, advancing age and injury history suggest he's more likely to miss time in a given season than just about any other starting quarterback in football.
If any team could justify spending a premium on a backup quarterback, it would be the Steelers, but their cap situation has precluded them from making that position a priority. That's how you end up with Michael Vick and Landry Jones making starts for a playoff team. Pittsburgh did lose Bruce Gradkowski for the season in 2015 and re-signed him to serve as the backup, but Gradkowski hasn't thrown a pass since 2012 and wasn't particularly effective at any point during his professional career.
Martavis Bryant was suspended. It's not the Steelers' fault, but obviously, it hurts.
Re-sign Bell and DeCastro. The Steelers are technically $1.4 million over the cap at the moment with their draft pool, so they have some work to do, but they can lower DeCastro's $8.1 million cap hold as part of a long-term extension, a logical move given how the former Stanford star has played since recovering from a serious knee injury in 2012.
Bell's cap hold is a mere $1.3 million, given that he's in the final year of a rookie second-round deal; the Steelers will likely need to push Bell's raise into the 2017 cap year with a roster bonus. They can wait to see how Bell recovers from his torn MCL and PCL, but they're far more likely to get a discount on a Bell extension now than they would this time next year, given that Bell is coming off of an injury and still a year away from unrestricted free agency.