While the rest of the AFC North is set to start preparing for the offseason, the Steelers are facing a tall task in the form of the Denver Broncos. Cleveland is giving "Money Ball" a shot in the NFL. Baltimore is looking to retain a major contributor.
The Pittsburgh Steelers at the Denver Broncos: Sunday 4:40 P.M. EST
The Steelers are in a good news, bad news situation with Ben Roethlisberger. It turns out there isn't any structural damage to his shoulder, but it will be painful for him to throw the ball. Roethlisberger has a history playing through pain, he did it this season after an ankle injury, but this could have an effect against a defense that is littered with ball hawks in the secondary. If he can't put as much on his throws as he is used to, or if the Steelers can't throw the ball as much it could have a huge effect on the game Sunday.
There are a few key factors that will decide who wins when the Steelers visit Denver. The first is obviously the Steelers' health. Antonio Brown at this point is looking doubtful to play, and the Steelers are looking for DeAngelo Williams to return this week to help balance out the offense with Roethlisberger's injury. The biggest factor will probably be Peyton Manning's play. If he comes out and plays like he did earlier in the season, the Broncos will have a tough time. The Broncos can't afford to lose the turnover battle, very few NFL teams can, but if Manning can come out and at the very least keep the offense moving, it favors the Broncos. The Broncos will have opportunities to take the ball away from Roethlisberger who has been generous with how often he throws into coverage. Points off turnovers will decide this game, and Manning will be a factor in that.
The Baltimore Ravens
Don't expect the Ravens to make any big splashes in free agency. They don't have a whole lot of cap room due to Joe Flacco's cap allotment, but they do have a top 10 pick. The remaining time before the draft will probably be spent retaining role players and making tough cap decisions. Kicker Justin Tucker could be a casualty of that. They may look at Tucker as a chance to make up some room in the cap by not spending any to resign him and instead letting him hit the open market and get what would be a sizable deal elsewhere. Baltimore's best chance is to lock him up before he can hear better offers, but we all know how valuable a kicker like Tucker could be. Unfortunately, don't expect the Bengals to be in play for the kicker if he its the open market as they'll spend most of their time retaining free agents as well.
The Ravens went into the season hoping Breshad Perriman and Steve Smith Sr. could fuel the passing game, but instead, they ended the year finding a diamond in the rough in Kamar Aiken. The plan looks to be the same for the next season, but they're hoping Aiken and the others can gel together with Joe Flacco. Perriman going through almost an entire season of a will-he-or-won't-he sort of injury report caused quite a bit of frustration. Especially after Smith went down for the year and the offense was losing receiver after receiver. The Ravens will need to find out what they have in Perriman because Smith isn't getting any younger, and next year might be the year father time finally catches him.
The Cleveland Browns
The Browns aren't viewed as the ideal landing spot for many (if any) coaches. Between not having the final say in the roster and a meddling owner, there are plenty of reasons to steer clear of Cleveland, but there are a few reasons a coach might want the job. First is the ability to be involved in the GM search, something that is essentially unheard of. Another positive is having that second overall pick.
If a coach really likes a young guy coming out for the draft this season, then Cleveland might end up being the destination, especially if it's a quarterback considering the Titans have Marcus Mariota already and have the No. 1 pick.
The final thing is the desire for a challenge. If a coach wants the opportunity to say he went into a struggling franchise and turned it all around, Cleveland is the prime location. Finally it appears like Hue Jackson is their top choice for the job, and it makes sense. Jackson has head coaching experience and more importantly experience with turning around a struggling franchise, he led Oakland to an (8-8) record back in 2011. He is innovative offensively, and players love him. Whether Jackson wants the job or not may depend on if the Browns are willing to give him say on the roster. Jackson seems to be many team's top choice so we may be talking about how the Browns are onto their next top choice by next week.
Well this a moment that will be looked back upon for the Browns. This will either be a great or horrible decision. They now officially have two people in charge of their team who have never dealt with NFL personnel before. The idea of moneyball is to get the most bang for your buck. In other words as a team you don't have to go out and overpay a bunch of great players, but go out and find the bargain players that fit what you do.
The one problem is, it may not end up working in Cleveland. Teams like Patriots started doing this years ago during their dynasty days. They drafted well and brought in role players from other teams and just let them do whatever they did best. Other teams like the Packers and Bengals have adopted a different concept, but it works along the same lines of drafting well and drafting anticipating future needs, not necessarily immediate ones, coupled with retaining key individuals and letting good players walk if need be. The Browns, however, may not be able to pull off the "Moneyball" model because nobody actively seeks out going to Cleveland. A similar problem occurred with the Raiders in recent seasons as they actively tried to bring in big name free agents, but ultimately lost out to better teams offering less money. The Browns simply can't afford to think they can bring guys in for less than market price. They may have to over pay until free agents look at them as a team that has a shot.