Yesterday I covered the AFC West and possible players that could find themselves being released when the off-season starts.
Today I am going to take a gander at the AFC North, a division that had three playoff teams in 2011. There are going to be many changes that take place in this division when the off-season starts. For example, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in an unfriendly salary cap situation for the first time in recent memory. So, they are going to have to cut some beef from their 53 man roster. The same may ring true for other teams in this ultra-competitive division.
So lets take a look.
WR- Lee Evans: $6.3 million
This really has nothing to do with his dropped pass in the AFC Championship Game. Rather, it is all about performance and salary. I understand that it is a lot to ask a receiver to have a major contribution following a late preseason trade, with no off-season. Most receivers would struggle in that scenario.
However, Evans took struggling to a whole new level. He caught a total of four passes in nine games with the Ravens in 2011. That really isn't going to cut it with the salary he is going to make in 2012. Baltimore also has Torrey Smith, who stepped up big time as a rookie, entrenched as their No. 2 receiver behind Anquan Boldin.
CB- Domonique Foxworth: $8.3 million
While it could be said that the possible release of Lee Evans is as much a performance issues as it is a salary cap issue, the same does not ring true for this veteran corner. Foxworth has been an extremely valuable corner, when healthy. The problem is that he wasn't able to stay on the field in 2011.
Baltimore has a deep core of young corners, which makes Foxworth expendable. The likes of Cary Williams, Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith have all jumped him on their depth chart. Foxworth is also set to count over $8 million against the cap. This really is a no brainer.
OT- Bryant McKinnie: $4.0 million
The former Minnesota Viking' actually played really well for Baltimore after being released due to weight concerns. He was strong in pass protection and opened up holes in the running game. This has more to do with his salary and the Ravens depth at the tackle position.
While $4 million doesn't seem like a large figure for a starting offensive tackle, Baltimore has a cheaper alternative in the form of 2011 3rd round pick, Jah Reid: who was one of my favorite players in that draft.
WR- Hines Ward: $4.6 million
The thought of seeing Hines Ward in a different uniform than the Pittsburgh Steelers makes me cringe and I have no vested interest in the success of either him or the team. Imagine what this possibility feels like for die-hard Steelers fans.
This is a business, however. The emergence of both Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown has dropped Ward down on Pittsburgh's depth chart considerable. At this point he is nothing more than a N0. 3 option for their offense, if that. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ward would consider playing for another team in 2012. And there would be some interest from contending teams like the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots. Either way, he will not return at that $4.6 million cap figure.
NT- Casey Hampton: $8.1 million
Pretty much the same situation as Hines Ward, but with a much larger cap figure. Casey Hampton has seen his playing time and production drop dramatically over the course of the last two seasons. At 34 years old, there is no telling how long this huge body is going to hold up.
The Steelers also have cheaper internal options at the net tackle position, a key part of a 3-4 defensive scheme. Ziggy Hood, who played defensive end this season, is an option. However, he will have to add some weight to that 300 pound frame. The more likely scenario is that Pittsburgh drafts a net tackle of the future in the first or second round. There are some nice options in Dontari Poe and Alameda Ta'amu. There is absolutely no way that Hampton returns at that $8.1 million price tag, especially with the salary cap issues Pittsburgh currently has.
LB- James Farrior: $3.8 million
Some would tend to thing that these moves would be gutting the heart-and-soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. We have to understand that change is the name of the game in the NFL, and era's end. James Farrior has been a major cog in the middle of their defense since coming over from the New York Jets via free agency following the 2001 season.
His production, mostly due to age, has also dropped off a great deal over the course of the last two seasons. For only the second time since joining Pittsburgh, Farrior failed to record 100 tackles in 2011. He struggled in pass defense and looked slow. This isn't surprising considering he was in his 15th season in the NFL. Pittsburgh also has to worry about retaining the services of Lawrence Timmons, who is set to be a free agent this off-season.
LB- Larry Foote: $3.6 million
Foote hasn't been extraordinary since the Pittsburgh Steelers napped him 4th round of the 2002 draft from Michigan. He has been consistently good for a defense that has continually ranked among the best in the league.
That said, this is a player that is expendable by all definitions of the word. His nearly $4 million salary makes it nearly impossible for the cash strapped Steelers to retain his services under those figures. I fully expect them to let Foote go once free agency starts in March.
CB- Nate Clements: $5.5 million
The former San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills corner played extremely well for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011 in a different scheme than he had been used to. With that said, he hasn't really been a "starter caliber" corner since 2004 with the Buffalo Bills. Clements $5.5 million price tag is going to be too much for the Bengals to endure if they plan on adding key free agents to this up-and-coming team.
Cincinnati also has two first round picks in a draft class that is filled with potential stars at this position. I can easily see them spending the second of these picks on a corner that projects to start in the not-so distant future. This could mean that Clements would be the odd man out.
LB- Thomas Howard
I was a huge fan of Thomas Howard when he was with the Oakland Raiders. This is a player that has been under appreciated throughout his entire career. He arguably had the best season of a decent career with the Bengals in 2011, racking up 100 tackles for the fourth time in his career.
However, the Bengals will want to retain the services of Manny Lawson, who is set to become a free agent in March. They also have Dontay Moch, a third round pick in 2011, who projects to be a starter in the near future. This makes Howard expandable and enables the Bengals to look for upgrades elsewhere.
S- Taylor Mays: 1.1 million
Many people were surprised that Taylor Mays fell to the second round of the 2010 draft. After all, he began that season as a projected top ten pick. The surprises continued when the San Francisco 49ers announced, via an email to the league, that they were looking to trade the former USC standout.
Well, all those skeptics that came out of the woodwork prior to the 2010 draft seem to be right. After being traded to the Cincinnati Bengals prior to the start of this season, Mays didn't do anything of substance. Now he is probably going to be looking for a new team in 2012 after the Bengals come to the conclusion that $1.1 million is too much to pay for a player that recorded four tackles in 2011.
WR- Joshua Cribbs: $6.7 million
The NFL's decision to move kickoffs up to the 35 yard line has really hindered the impact that special teams guys like Joshua Cribbs make. Therefore, his nearly $7 million price tag seems unsustainable at this point. Cribbs did catch 41 passes for over 500 yards as a receiver, but isn't nearly consistent enough to be counted on at that position on a weekly basis.
Either he agrees to a pay cut or gets released, it really is that simple. Cleveland could use this money to sign one of the impact wide receivers that are going to be on the free agent market this off-season. The question becomes: $7 million for Cribbs or $11 million for a player like Dwayne Bowe? You already know the answer to that.
CB- Sheldon Brown: $5.4 million
While Brown has been a consistently average corner, he isn't great at one specific thing and struggles in man coverage. As the Browns continue to overhaul their roster with younger talent, players like this become expendable. It is perfectly fine to have a Sheldon Brown on your roster for depth, but not as a starter that is wielding a $5.4 million price tag. He should be a lock to get released in the off-season.
LB- Scott Fujita: $4.4 million
Pretty much in the same boat as Sheldon Brown, Fujita isn't a type of player that a good team wants to see on the field a majority of the plays. Rather, he is a good depth player that comes one when someone else goes down. Cleveland will definitely be looking at a linebacker in the draft, which means that they aren't sold on Fujita playing a key role moving forward.