There has been very little splashing in the AFC North puddle this season. In fact, one might look closely at its ripples and think it hasn't changed much at all. The annual free-agency grades have made their rounds, and the greater public of analysts feel underwhelmed by the lack of moves in the division. Teams have formed a holding pattern and it hasn't made for good copy. Nonetheless, a larger picture is taking shape, even by the minimal changes, and we can now get the first sense of what kind of team to expect in uniform this season.
By and large, the cards—and the wallets—have been kept close to the chest. Old-schoolers like Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior were thrown into the volcano of cap-space, and others like Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding floated away to other divisions in the free-agent sea. The Browns picked up a couple of random defensive ends and Ricky Williams retired again.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh are finally facing the facts of human aging and their superhero defenses are now showing more rust than can be ignored. Both teams are shedding the old husks for the youth next in line. Each may have improved their long-term future by such a pruning, but the transition may be bumpy early on.
Cleveland is relying on a young team to get better on their own without much veteran assistance. The perpetual youth movement in Cleveland could gain at least some traction with two more first-round picks in this upcoming draft, but for now, the Browns remain soft and mostly harmless.
In Cincinnati, however, a more tangible improvement can be sensed. The most frequent criticism of their free-agency so far is that they didn't spend enough money. Leading the league in cap-space, the Bengals could have splurged all over the high-profile names in this year's class, but guys like the hotheaded Courtland Finnegan and the the big-ticketed Carl Nicks were largely ignored. Instead of adding the big piece, the Bengals kept the guys they liked, then hit up the thrift store and picked up a few items on the cheap.
Keeping Reggie Nelson was important. The safety position is one of concern and would have become downright frightening had Nelson scored a contract elsewhere. Manny Lawson's return also helps with consistency, depth and familiarity purposes. Adam Jones was given a little less than a mil for one more chance to regain relevancy in what seems like a fair deal for both sides.
The new guys, on the other hand, read like an odds-and-ends list.
First is a pair of busted first-round defensive ends who once flashed with football brilliance but failed to keep it together enough to live up to the hype. Jamaal Anderson and Derrick Harvey are DIY reclamation projects that could be cleaned up real nice if Zimmer can do it just right. Anderson looked good at times last year with the Colts and seems more "ready" than does Harvey. Each signed low-risk contracts for the Bengals so if they don't pan out, the team isn't tied to them. Mike Brown loves him a scratch-and-dent sale and these two are fresh off the heap.
Also purchased from the has-been section, are a couple of corners added to the collection of average defensive backs the Bengals currently employ. Terence Newman has yet to sign, but I am rather certain this will happen soon and reunite with his old bossman Zim.. Newman is older, perhaps past his prime, but not completely useless yet. I think he can cover better than Nate Clements or Kelly Jennings, and, again, has some previous knowledge of the system. The other is Jason Allen who I remember being roasted in Miami and thinking the guy didn't look like an NFL player at all. He was traded to Houston and redeemed himself some there, but terrible first impressions are hard to shake. It seems he's okay in zone and is a decent tackler, but any one-on-one match-up scares me with Allen out there.
Even if these guys are just filler, teams need filler and there is certainly deeper and dirtier stuff one can scrape from the bottom of the barrel than this group.
The biggest boost for the Bengals though, is on the other side of the ball. I don't know much about Trevelle Wharton, but I do know that they have ran the ball well in Carolina for many seasons now. I also know how unimpressed I was with Nate Livings the last two seasons, so Wharton is a welcomed fat body for better depth alone at the guard position. With no smoke signals coming out of the Bobby Williams camp about his limited football future, the Bengals simply need guys to fill the position; signing Wharton may quietly prove to be one of the more important moves of the off-season for the Stripes.
The biggest splash in the AFC North, however, is adding the Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. When I first heard of the signing I thought, "that's weird". Like many, I was attracted to the 245 lbs. of Michael Bush, but Marvin Lewis and Jay Gruden wanted to go the other direction.
The move makes sense when you think about what Marvin values. Green-Ellis has never fumbled, that still astounds me. He gets low to pick up the tough yards. Marvin loves low pad level, and how frustrating has it been to watch Cedric Benson hop side-to-side on short yardage runs the last two years, forcing a deflating punt of field-goal try? Benson's best attribute was his longevity—the guy did not tire easily—but his skill set doesn't lend itself to getting the tough yards up the gut, and even though Law Firm weighs less, he is more of a straight ahead runner than is Benson.
With Green-Ellis, the Bengals can expand the scope of their offense to incorporate more snaps to the other backs and throw more short-yardage stuff out of the backfield, paramount in a west-coast offense. Brian Leonard and Bernard Scott each have unique abilities that do not fit into the traditional halfback prototype. Before, Benson dominated the ball and complained about any variation of him getting the vast majority, if not every, carry. Now the other two can blend more seamlessly with Green-Ellis and be part of the overall offense instead of a jarring in-game shift of style and form. I understand the pang of disappointment many of us felt by choosing Law Firm over Bush, but schematically, I think the Bengals made the right choice and that the improvement will become immediately visible in games.
There is still plenty of coin left in the coffers and the Bengals are just weird enough to try and pull off some kind of late blockbuster deal like heisting Mike Wallace from Pittsburgh, but ultimately, I think the team wants to keep as much cash as possible around to sign their young studs to forever contracts. With the pair of first-round picks coming in April and once-quality starters like Leon Hall and Keith Rivers on the mend, things are coming up roses so far in Cincy, even if it isn't making too many waves in the puddle. A real foundation is concreting within this team and they appear to be stockpiled enough to become both a short-term and long-term threat to their divisional foes. Detractors beware.