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State of AFC North: Erving changing roles, Bell contract talk continues

The Browns are trying to find a fit for Cameron Erving on the offensive line. What does a realistic long-term contract look like for Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers? Where does Joe Flacco’s contract rank among quarterbacks following Derek Carr’s monster deal?

NFL: Preseason-Cleveland Browns at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’re still waiting for training camps to start up, but the AFC North is staying active. We take a look at what a long term deal for Le’Veon Bell could look like, while the Browns try out Cameron Erving at a new spot along the offensive line. And, the Ravens need their young players to take that step forward if they want to make it back to the playoffs. Let’s review that and more in this week’s review of the Cincinnati Bengals’ competitors in the AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens

Ravens young players must step up

The Ravens are coming off a disappointing season like every other team who missed out on the playoffs. During this offseason, they spent a ton of attention on the defensive side of the ball. They added young players in the draft as well as Tony Jefferson at safety. Still, the Ravens’ troubles mostly came from the offensive side of the ball in 2016, and some of that was due to young players not stepping up. That can’t happen again in 2017.

Players like tight end Crockett Gillmore, wide receiver Michael Campanaro, wide receiver Breshad Perriman and guard John Urschel need to take that next step to become contributors for Baltimore. Gillmore has had a hard time finding the field consistently, and when he has been out there, he hasn’t been productive enough to take time away from the other tight ends on the roster. Now that Dennis Pitta is out of the picture, Gillmore needs to use this training camp and preseason to prove he deserves to fill that role over tight ends like Benjamin Watson, Nick Boyle and Darren Waller.

Campanaro and Perriman have had a rough time taking that next step mostly due to injuries. They need to step up, and become viable weapons in the Ravens’ offense for Joe Flacco. Flacco isn’t the kind of quarterback who is going to make guys better, but he can put on a show if there is enough talent surrounding him. Campanaro could become a useful slot receiver now that Pitta’s short and intermediate targets are up for grabs. The pressure on Perriman has been reduced with the signing of Jeremy Maclin, but he still needs to show why the Ravens selected him in the first round. He flashed some of his talent last year, but he should become a starter this season despite Maclin and Mike Wallace being in place to compete with him.

Whether the Ravens take a step forward this season could have a lot to do with whether these young players make noise.

Where Flacco’s contract stands among other quarterbacks

It wasn’t too long ago that Flacco won the biggest bet of all time, on himself. He went into the 2012 season on the last year of his rookie deal, and decided to wait until after the season to negotiate an extension with the Ravens. Baltimore ended up winning the Super Bowl, and it netted Flacco and his agent the biggest bargaining chip ever. Flacco became the highest paid player in NFL history that offseason, but that wasn’t the end of it.

Flacco signed a three-year extension in 2016 to save the Ravens cap space. He received a $40 million signing bonus on top of $66.4 million during the three new years. It was a monster extension, and it helped keep Flacco at the top of the list of quarterback contracts.

Now with Derek Carr becoming the highest paid player in the NFL, where does Flacco’s contract stand? Carr’s deal comes in as a five-year, $125 million contract with $70 million guaranteed. That $25 million average per year is the highest in the NFL. Flacco is currently fifth in that ranking with $22.1 million per year. Ahead of him on the list are Carr, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, and Kirk Cousins who is franchise tagged (in that order). For the record, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton makes the 20th most average money per year among NFL quarterbacks. That’s a ridiculous steal for Cincinnati.

The most interesting part about this is where these teams with highly paid quarterbacks stand. Aside from the Raiders, who are new to this list, none of those teams made the playoffs last season. One could argue that while some of them are closer to the making the playoffs this season, none seem to be contenders for the Super Bowl as of today.

Having an extremely high paid player can put a lot of pressure on the cap, but it shouldn’t hurt the team that much if the players are able to live up to their deals. This trend probably goes to show teams are afraid to let go of talented quarterbacks, and are willing to overpay to keep them. Who can blame them? How close are some of these teams to being the Browns if they didn’t have their franchise quarterback?

Cleveland Browns

Erving switching to right tackle

One of the last first round picks made by the past regime in Cleveland seems to be getting one last shot at a new start with the Browns. Cameron Erving was the No. 19 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and is now being moved to right tackle after playing center and guard for the team. There is a reason he is on the move again. The Browns went out and signed JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler to boost the offensive line.

Last season it was clear the offensive line wasn’t up to snuff. Quarterbacks were running for their lives, and it is one big reason the position was such a carousel. Erving was a huge part of this. He played center for most of last season, and teams consistently got pressure inside because of him.

He hasn’t yet shown improvement during his time in the NFL, and putting him at right tackle will allow him to get beat by the likes of Carlos Dunlap instead of Geno Atkins. The one positive from moving him outside is the Browns can have a running back or tight end help chip the pass rusher he is trying to stop. This seems to be a last ditch effort and Erving likely doesn’t have much more time to prove himself after this season.

Offset language holding up contract with Peppers

Jabril Peppers and the Browns could be on their way to a holdout. Peppers actually has the same agent as Joey Bosa. Last offseason, Bosa was the first player to have an extended holdout after the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement changed the structure of rookie contracts.

Something the most recent NFL CBA seemingly put a halt to was rookie holdouts. It wasn’t uncommon for first round draft picks to hold out until camp or even into the season before 2011. This new CBA put into place a rookie wage scale. which ended holdouts, but what the NFL really wanted was to put an end to the huge contracts first overall picks were receiving.

Bosa and the Chargers famously had a dispute over offset language last season, and it seems like Peppers could be headed down that same route.

“An offset clause allows a team to reduce the guaranteed money owed to a player when he is released by the amount of his new deal with another team,” says Joel Corry of CBS Sports. “The player receives his salary from the team that released him in addition to the full salary from his new contract with another club when there isn't an offset. This is also known as "double dipping."

It makes sense for players to want this as guaranteed money should be just that: guaranteed. Players want to make as much as possible just in case they do get released, but it probably isn’t worth holding out into the season or training camp for, especially since the team holds all the power.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Brown helps out at Kirkpatrick’s football camp

The past few installments of the Bengals-Steelers rivalry have been tense. Cheap shots have come from both sides, but somehow the Bengals receive most of the blame from the national media. Now, a possible olive branch has been extended.

Dre Kirkpatrick held his youth football camp at his high school in Alabama, and he brought along not only A.J. Green but also Antonio Brown. Brown is obviously a surprising addition after all the drama that has occurred between him and Kirkpatrick on the field, but Kirkpatrick says that is where the drama begins and ends.

“Me and him (Brown) have had fist fights and all types of stuff. He just aggravates me on the field; he gets under my skin,” Kirkpatrick told the Gasden Times. “He knows what he’s doing. But off the field, he’s a true competitor and he’s my friend. We hang out. We train together. But at the end of the day, that guy is a beast.”

Maybe it’s nothing, but wouldn’t it be nice if this was the start of this rivalry getting back to football instead of skirmishes?

What kind of contract could Bell get?

Most of the news out of Pittsburgh has been about Bell’s holdout. He currently hasn’t signed his franchise tag, which would pay him $12 million for the season in hopes of getting a long term deal done in 2018.

Obviously when players start holding out for deals, people will start to question what the player can actually net if a new deal were to be constructed. In this case, there have been reports of Bell requesting $12 million a year, but that is absurd for a few reasons.

Bell has had issues with the NFL’s substance abuse policy, and he has also struggled to stay healthy toward the end of seasons. Not to mention, $12 million a year would be setting a whole new running back market. Currently the highest paid running back, LeSean McCoy, makes roughly $8 million per season.

You could make an argument that Bell is not only one of the best running backs in the NFL, but he is also one of the most valuable considering how much he provides in his team’s passing game, too. Still a 50 percent increase from the highest paid running back is a bit outrageous for someone with Bell’s past. It is more likely he gets a similar deal to McCoy, surpassing him slightly.

It will be interesting to see if the Steelers and Bell can agree on a long term deal, and if they don’t, things will get very interesting next season if Bell gets close to hitting the open market.

July 17 is the last day for players who have been tagged to negotiate long-term deals before the tag must be signed and discussions tabled until next offseason.