Thursday, February 29, 2024

Free Agency Moves – AFC North

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The Cincinnati Bengals are the standard of the AFC North and enter the NFL betting markets for the upcoming season as the team to beat in this division. Their biggest rivals and the next-best bet are the Baltimore Ravens, even though they are dealing with a Lamar Jackson existential crisis and it’s impossible to know what to expect from them.

The Cleveland Browns ring in as the third-best bet, despite the many question marks that hang over them after a half-baked run with Deshaun Watson, who missed the bulk of the 2022-23 NFL season due to an 11-game suspension. Finally, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have never had a losing season in 15 years under Mike Tomlin, prop up the betting as the longshots for the AFC North title.

Early NFL odds are just that – an early serving of odds based on the latest information to hand. They’re not set in stone. As free agency continues and the NFL Draft fast approaches, there are a lot of deals still to be made, departures to deal with and selections to be taken that will enhance (or detract, even) from these teams and their betting online value.

In this column, we look at the free agency comings and goings and the impact on the AFC North betting landscape. Who are the key players that were re-signed, big free agents coups and key players lost in the market frenzy.

NFL Odds – To Win AFC North

  • Cincinnati Bengals +125
  • Baltimore Ravens +250
  • Cleveland Browns +375
  • Pittsburgh Steelers +525

1. Bengals +125

  • Key acquisitions: LT Orlando Brown Jr, S Nick Scott, G Cody Ford
  • Key re-signings: LB Germaine Pratt, S Michael Thomas, CB Jalen Davis, LB Joe Bachie, RB Trayveon Williams, WR Trent Taylor,
  • Key losses: S Jessie Bates (Falcons); S Vonn Bell (Panthers); TE Hayden Hurst (Panthers); RB Samaje Perine (Broncos)

Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals have established themselves as an AFC force in the space of two seasons, reaching Super Bowl 56 (l. to Los Angeles Rams) and then their second straight AFC Championship game last year (l. to Kansas City Chiefs). Their most ardent fans would argue that they were robbed. That they were only a controversial penalty call away from making it to back-to-back Super Bowls.

The Bengals are in an excellent position to make it to The Big Game again, especially with a young core group that is growing in confidence and developing into elite-level players in their own right. Cincy’s front office conducted an overhaul of its O-line last season, following their 23-20 loss to the Rams in SBLVI. But there is always room for more improvement and signing former Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown was the first step to making additional changes to the O-line.

The work of countering their losses is still ongoing and there have been a fair few significant departures. The Bengals have lost tight end Hayden Hurst (Panthers) and Samaje Perine (Broncos). But more importantly, they’ve seen S Jessie Bates leave via free agency to the Atlanta Falcons and safety Von Bell to the Carolina Panthers through the same route. Signing S Nick Scott will help cushion the blow to the defense, along with Cody Ford, who is versatile and can play in various positions on the line.

2. Ravens +250

  • Key acquisitions: TBD
  • Key re-signings: QB Lamar Jackson (franchise tag), CB Trayvon Mullen, RB Justice Hill, S Geno Stone, RB Justice Hill, LS Nick Moore
  • Key losses: TBD

The Baltimore Ravens are between a rock and a hard place, their hands tied with the ongoing negotiations with quarterback Lamar Jackson, which have yet to see both sides come to an amicable agreement and are stalling everything else as a result.

For the time being, Baltimore has placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson, which means that he’ll take up $32.4 million of their cap space this year. The franchise tag is an opportunity for both the team and Jackson to temper his value (or lack thereof) in the eyes of the free agency market.

Whether they come to an agreement or not remains to be seen. In the interim, as per the NFL news wire, the Ravens are exploring alternative backup quarterback options for the coming season. It’s a prudent decision because every team needs a reliable backup quarterback. What the Ravens don’t want is for this to be misinterpreted as another slight against Jackson.

3. Browns +375

  • Key acquisitions: DE Obo Okoronkwo (Texans), DT Dalvin Tomllinson (Vikings), S Juan Thornhill (Chiefs), DL Maurice Hurst (49ers), TE Jordan Akins (Texans), WR Elijah Moore (Jets, via trade).
  • Key re-signings: C Ethan Pocic
  • Key losses: DE Jadeveon Clowney

Whether the Browns deserve to be considered as the third best-bet in this division is debatable. Fans were treated to a very rusty Deshaun Watson in Cleveland’s final six games of last season. And on that teeny weeny cross-section of games, the sports betting markets are asking bettors to hang their hats on? Really?

Cleveland will finally find out if trading for Watson last year was worth it or not as the controversial quarterback prepares for the start of his first full NFL season with the Browns. After pulling out all the stops last year to get their chosen quarterback, this offseason is going to be about shoring up his weaponry and addressing other areas of need.

Towards that end, they restructured Watson’s $230 million contract to free up some much-needed cap space. They also snapped up speedster Elijah Moore via a trade with the New York Jets. The wide receiver will complement an already solid receiving corps that includes Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones and tight end David Njoku.

Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was released, sparking a retooling of the defense by adding defensive end Obo Okoronkwo, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, defensive lineman MauriceHurst and safety Juan Thornhill.

4. Steelers +525

  • Key acquisitions: CB Patrick Peterson (Vikings), G Nate Herbig (Jets), LB Cole Holcomb (Commanders), LB Elandon Roberts (Dolphins), G Isaac Seumalo (Eagles)
  • Key re-signings: DL Larry Ogunjobi, S Damontae Kazee
  • Key losses: CB Cameron Sutton, LB Robert Spillane, LB Devin Bush, LB Myles Jack

Few expected the Pittsburgh Steelers would finish with a positive record in 2022, but they defied the NFL odds and punched above their weight class to deliver Mike Tomlin with his record-setting 15th season with a .500 record or better.

This is year two of the Steelers’ post-Ben Roethlisberger rebuild. Quarterback Kenny Pickett has shown some promise, but the offense around him needs to be shored up from a protection and attacking standpoint. Guards Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo are solid signings that will help Pickett sleep much better.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers lost cornerback Cameron Sutton to the Detroit Lions. In his stead, they found a solid replacement in Patrick Peterson from the Minnesota Vikings. More importantly, the linebacker position needed a bit of an overhaul. Pittsburgh let Robert Spillane and Devon Bush go in free agency. They also released Myles Jack.

To counter this exodus, they signed linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, both of which are typical under-the-radar moves for the Steelers. In the case of Holcomb, it is a bit of a risk given he is coming off a foot injury.

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