|Darron Cummings/Associated Press|
|Still just 25 years old, Ben Tate is due to hit free agency as a hot commodity with strong feature-back potential.|
Not every need can be met via the draft. So what's a team to do? Thankfully, the free agency period will be here soon. To help get you ready for the opening of the NFL's annual talent marketplace on March 11, Elliot Harrison is taking a division-by-division look at all 32 squads' biggest priorities, continuing with the AFC North below.
As always, be sure to hit him up with your thoughts @HarrisonNFL.
Top priority in free agency: Wide receiver.
Joe Flacco might not be perfect. He might not be the top-flight quarterback he seemed to be in the 2012 playoffs, when he helped guide the Ravens to a second Lombardi Trophy on the strength of an 11:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Yet, it's hard to judge him fairly, seeing as how he hasn't gotten any help lately. Baltimore's running game sucked in 2013, while the receiving corps leaves much to be desired. Although the Ravens have locked up tight end Dennis Pitta, general manager Ozzie Newsome must find another receiver to pair with Torrey Smith -- and no, retaining Jacoby Jones is not the answer. Sure, Marlon Brown could still develop, but if this team is to become a contender again, the offense needs some knights and rooks, not just pawns. That said, the Ravens have plenty of their own to re-sign, so it remains to be seen how much extra spending money they'll end up with. Making a play for Julian Edelman would make sense, as Baltimore must get its hands on a possession receiver.
Other areas of interest: Defensive line, offensive tackle, inside linebacker.
Top priority in free agency: Cornerback.
Imagine just how good the Bengals' defense, which ranked as the NFL's third-best last season, could be with a true difference-maker at corner or safety. Cincy hasn't had a primetime talent at safety since David Fulcher was roaming around in the early '90s. Yes, Reggie Nelson has played admirably and George Iloka is OK, but basically, the safety position could be upgraded. Ultimately, though, cornerback is the bigger priority. Leon Hall, who is getting on in years (29), is recovering from his second season-ending Achilles injury in the past three campaigns. Terence Newman is old (35), as is Adam Jones (30). That leaves Dre Kirkpatrick, who could yet turn out to be a player in his third NFL season. Still, picking up another corner would make the defense that much stronger, especially considering the strength of the front seven. The Bengals should have the cap space to do some damage in the marketplace, and they should start with improving the defensive backfield.
Other areas of interest: Outside linebacker, safety, offensive line.
Top priority in free agency: Running back.
Let's be honest here: Cleveland has a slew of needs across the board -- and the franchise should also have more than $50 million to spend. That's not to imply that the club doesn't have a nice nucleus of talent -- what with guys like Josh Gordon, Joe Thomas and Joe Haden -- I'm just saying that almost every position group could stand to be fortified. Quarterback might seem like the obvious choice, but signing a guy like Josh McCown is not the answer, especially since Cleveland essentially has a younger version of McCown under contract for 2014 in Brian Hoyer. Yes, Hoyer is coming off a major knee injury, but he sure looked good last season when given the opportunity, breathing some life into the passing game. Ben Tate could do the same for the entire offense in 2014. Is he the be-all, end-all? Of course not. But he will be arguably the best free-agent running back out there. Knowshon Moreno, who still appears to have ample tread on the proverbial tires despite having five NFL seasons under his belt, might be a slightly cheaper alternative. The Browns need to 86 the running back-by-committee approach they went with last year ... you know, the group that averaged 86 rushing yards per game.
Other areas of interest: Quarterback, wide receiver, safety.
Top priority in free agency: Safety.
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The aging Steelers are staring down the barrel of a very difficult offseason. Even with the expected salary-cap increase, Pittsburgh will feel the crunch. That's why the futures of LaMarr Woodley and Ike Taylor are in doubt. (With Woodley due $8 million in base salary in 2014 and Taylor due $7 million, the crystal ball says both will be gone.) Meanwhile, it's darn near impossible to imagine the Steelers sans Troy Polamalu, but his age continues to go up as his performance goes down. With a hefty $8.25 million price tag for 2014, Polamalu's future with the team has been a hot topic of discussion in the Steel City. OK, so ownership wants him to stay in Pittsburgh for the rest of his playing days, and he's obviously an iconic player for this franchise. Fine. But regardless of what happens to Polamalu, fellow safety Ryan Clark is set to hit free agency. Thus, the position must be addressed with what little funds can be siphoned off.
UPDATE: The Steelers signed Polamalu to a two-year contract extension on Wednesday, making it more likely the safety might indeed end his career in Pittsburgh. Taylor tweeted on the eve of the free agency period that he'll be staying in Pittsburgh. Earlier Monday, Woodley was informed he'll be released.
Other areas of interest: Cornerback, defensive line, wide receiver.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.