AFC North grades through initial wave of free agency

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Assessing how each AFC North team has addressed their needs through the first week of the new league year.

Even though the new league year is less than a week old, there has already been a lot of turnover throughout the league. There are man faces in new places including several players that stayed within the same division but opted to join rival teams.

All four teams in the AFC North have deployed different strategies in an effort to improve their respective rosters. While there’s been a bigger influx of talent via trades and outside unrestricted free agents than others, some of the best moves were when teams opted to allocate more resources toward retaining their own free agents.

Here is how each team in the division fared through the initial wave of free agency:

Baltimore Ravens

Notable additions: RB Derrick Henry

Notable loses: Tyus Bowser (released), Morgan Moses (traded), OG Kevin Zeitler, RB Gus Edwards, DB Geno Stone, WR Devin Duvernay, CB Ronald Darby, LS Tyler Ott, OG John Simpson, LB Del’Shawn Phillips, LB Patrick Queen, QB Tyler Huntley

Notable retentions: WR Nelson Agholor, DT Justin Madubuike (extension), OLB Malik Harrison, DL Brent Urban, QB Josh Johnson, DB Ar’Darius Washington

The reigning division champions are rarely among the most active teams during the first and sometimes second waves of free agency when it comes to signing outside talent. Occasionally, the Ravens will take a big swing to upgrade a position they believe will take a unit over the top. However, their primary focus and organizational philosophy is to draft, develop, and retain if possible — or flip for a compensatory pick if not.

By signing Madubuike to a long-term extension the Friday before the new league year began, General Manager Eric DeCosta did more than just lock up one of the best defensive players in the league for the foreseeable future. The salary cap restraints they would’ve been under had Madubuike stayed on the franchise tag were greatly reduced. That gave DeCosta the financial flexibility to target and land Henry in the first wave of free agency as well as bring back some key depth pieces.

With the two of them in tow, the Ravens have upgraded their backfield with one of the most feared and respected running backs in the league while returning all five members of their stout interior defensive line. Re-signing Johnson ensures that the Ravens will have an experienced veteran to push second-year pro Malik Cunningham for the primary backup job this summer. He’ll likely serve as the emergency third quarterback if the team doesn’t take a flier on one in the later rounds of the draft.

Grade: A-

Cleveland Browns

Notable additions: QB Jameis Winston, LB Jordan Hicks, Jerry Jeudy (trade), QB Tyler Huntley, RB Nyheim Hines, OT Hakeem Adeniji, LB Devin Bush,

Notable loses: QB Joe Flacco, LB Sione Takitaki, LB Anthony Walker Jr., DT Jordan Elliott, TE Harrison Bryant, OL Nick Harris, CB Mike Ford

Notable retentions: DE Za’Darius Smith. DT Shelby Harris, DT Maurice Hurst, P Corey Bojorquez, OL Michael Dunn, DB Rodney McLeod, WR James Proche

The 2023 division runner-ups had a solid first week of free agency. Their best moves were the re-signing of three key members of the a defensive line that was among the league’s elite and helped propel Myles Garrett to become Defensive Player of the Year. They replaced a pair of linebackers with at least one upgrade in Hicks and bolstered their offensive backfield and added another return specialist by picking up Hines.

After injuries ravaged their quarterback depth chart last season, the Browns loaded up at the most important position in all of professional sports by adding a pair of former Pro Bowlers in Winston and former Ravens’ backup Tyler Huntley. Given they signed Jeudy to a three-year, $58 million extension with $41 million fully guaranteed, its safe to assume he’s already supplanted Elijah Moore as the No. 3 option in the passing game behind Pro Bowlers Amari Cooper and David Njoku.

Grade: B

Pittsburgh Steelers

Notable additions: WR Van Jefferson, DB DeShon Elliott, LB Patrick Queen, P Cameron Johnston, QB Russell Wilson, CB Donte Jackson (trade), QB Justin Fields (trade)

Notable loses: QB Kenny Pickett (trade), Diontae Johnson (trade), DL Armon Watts, QB Mason Rudolph, OL Chukwuma Okorafor (released), S Keanu Neal (released), CB Patrick Peterson (released), WR Allen Robinson (released), IOL Mason Cole (released)

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Notable retentions: DT Montravius Adams, LS Christian Kuntz, S/ST Miles Killebrew

The 2023 third-place finishers definitely made some of the boldest moves not just in the division but the entire league thus far, and did so without having to expend a lot of cap space or draft capital. They remade their entire quarterback room for pennies on the dollar by signing Wilson, a nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, to a deal that’s barely above the veteran minimum to be their new starter. Then, they traded what essentially amounts to a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft to acquire Fields, a former first-rounder who has shown flashes of electrifying potential despite being in one the worst situations in the league to start his career.

Despite the addition of Jefferson, who is coming off the least productive season of his career but is only two years removed from recording 800+ receiving yards, they got worse at wide receiver. They got mildly better at cornerback with the trade that sent Johnson to the Carolina Panthers and brought Jackson to Pittsburgh. Fortunately for their fans, the Steelers are the best in the league when it comes to hitting home runs and finding corners who can contribute right away after the first round of the draft.

The Steelers also reinforced and upgraded the spine of their defense with a pair of former Ravens in Queen and Elliott, who played for the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions in the two years since leaving Baltimore. They both were signed to below-market value deals and will likely outperform them before the year is out. Queen will be able to build off his breakout 2023 season in an even more prominent role behind a strong defensive line that will keep him clean and allow him to fly around from sideline to sideline. Meanwhile, Elliott will be paired on the backend with one of the best free safeties in the league, Minkah Fitzpatrick.

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Grade: B+

Cincinnati Bengals

Notable additions: DB Geno Stone, TE Mike Gesicki, RB Zack Moss, DT Sheldon Rankins, DB Vonn Bell, OT Trent Brown

Notable loses: DB Nick Scott (released), OT Jonah Williams, RB Joe Mixon (traded), DT DJ Reader, TE Irv Smith Jr., CB Chidobe Awuzie

Notable retentions: WR Trenton Irwin, TE Tanner Hudson, OL Cody Ford, TE Drew Sample, RB Trayveon Williams, LB Akeem Davis-Gaither, WR Tee Higgins (franchise tagged), QB Jake Browning, LS Cal Adomitis

The 2023 last-place finishers are already poised to bounce back in a big way with their offseason haul thus far and the draft is still over a month away. Without having to overpay or break the bank, they upgraded at arguably every position where a notable player was either lost. They still have ample time, cap space, and draft capital to make even more improvements on both sides of the ball, too.

After their secondary gave up the fifth-most yards through the air and was a glaring weakness on a previously-stout unit under Defensive Coordinator Lou Anarumo, the Bengals reinvested in the safety position. They were able to re-sign Von Bell on a cheap deal and got the 2023 AFC leader in interceptions to cross enemy lines by signing Stone to a moderate deal that is still in the seven-figure margin.

Gesicki is an upgrade over Smith at tight end, Brown is a better and cheaper stopgap at right tackle than Williams, and Moss will form a nice complementary tandem with second-year pro Chase Brown now that Mixon is gone. Higgins will be back barring a draft day trade and bringing back Jake Browning was ideal given how well he performed in Joe Burrow’s absence. While Rankins isn’t the same elite run defender as Reader was, he brings more to the table as an interior pass rusher having just recorded the second most sacks in his career last year (six) for the Houston Texans.

Grade: A+

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