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Early free agency doesn't budge AFC North needle


 The re-signing of left guard Clint Boling helped the Bengals keep pace as the AFC North contenders dealt with free agency.

After he signed his deal Wednesday to return to the Bengals, left guard Clint Boling noted how free agency had stripped the AFC North of highly-regarded defensive linemen like Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee in Baltimore, and Jabaal Sheard in Cleveland.

But he shook his head, no, when someone joked, "Easy division now." It never is because it seems like the North always comes up with defense and everything else even though the Bengals, Steelers, and Ravens have a laissez-faire approach to free agency.

"We all build through the draft," says head coach Marvin Lewis of teams that all made the postseason last year. "And, believe me; what happened in the first couple of days of free agency didn't surprise any of those teams. It's not a one-year plan. It's a couple of years plan."

Take a swing through the division after the first 50 hours or so of free agency and it's clear the needle hasn't moved all that much in the AFC North, which shows you the season is a marathon and not a sprint.  And that's the way these teams like it. But the Bengals are a couple of paces ahead in the first few miles by not losing anybody they targeted.

BENGALS (10-5-1): Adds: Packers LB A.J. Hawk. Re-signings: MLB Rey Maualuga, LG Clint Boling, K Mike Nugent, RT Eric Winston. Losses: T Marshall Newhouse (Giants).

The Bengals don't have as much work to do as Pittsburgh and Baltimore to fill out their rosters. Like Lewis says, their players are still young. But they won't be next year when the contracts for the draft class of 2012 come up, as well as the deal for A.J. Green, their best player.

They targeted four players to get done early in free agency and got them all and while they'll most likely lose tight end Jermaine Gresham, it's not a surprise. They've prepared for it and they'll continue to wait for a veteran tight end that can block to emerge on the market.

 Apparently veteran Anthony Fasano wasn't the answer because he visited last week and there has been no deal. If a tight end that can block doesn't get released before the draft, it could mean they have to ratchet up their draft priorities and put tight end in a higher round.

But they also believe they've got a solid tight end in Ryan Hewitt to team with pass catcher Tyler Eifert, so what they're looking for is basically a second-third tight end and if that's all you're missing right now, you're in better shape than the North's three other clubs. (Gresham was their second-leading receiver three times, including last year, but when everyone was healthy in 2013 he was the fifth.)

Of course, they'd love a pass rusher and have their eyes on old friend Michael Johnson. If not Johnson, then they're looking at a re-set to see what they do with that final $3 million or so they've budgeted for free agency. They're also looking for defensive tackle depth and visited with the Lions' Nick Fairley on Wednesday. Given his injury history and off-field problems, that sounds like an incentive-laden deal later on at best.

STEELERS (11-5):  Losses: DE Brett Keisel (released); CB Brice McCain (Miami);  OLB Jason Worilds (retired).

The Steelers wanted Worilds back when he tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks after they tagged him for nearly $10 million in 2014. But they were going to let him go on the market to see what he got, so they knew they might lose him. They re-signed Arthur Moats, who had four sacks last year, and former No. 1 pick Jarvis Jones has three sacks in the last 21 games. So they'll be looking on the secondary market, but the Steelers rarely sign free-agent starters.

McCain started 10 games last season because of injury and the struggles of Cortez Allen. With Ike Taylor seemingly not in their plans, they'll draft a guy and the cupboard isn't bare with William Gay and Antwon Blake. Strong safety Troy Polamalu isn't expected back, either, but they've been grooming 2013 fourth-rounder Shamarko Thomas for the job.

With Keisel gone, 2014 second-rounder Stephon Tuitt is lined up.

The Steelers plan to host running back DeAngelo Williams, even though he turns 32 next month, as they look to sign a backup for Le'Veon Bell that may start two games if Bell gets suspended for his marijuana incident.

They're not as good as they were at linebacker and at corner, and for the first time in 11 seasons Dick LeBeau isn't their coordinator. But that's for the time being. They've still got the guts of the team that won the division.

RAVENS (10-6): Re-signed: RB Justin Forsett. Traded: DT Haloti Ngata to the Lions for fourth- and fifth-round picks. Lost: WR Torrey Smith (49ers), TE Owen Daniels (Denver), OLB Pernell McPhee (Bears). Released: WR/KR Jacoby Jones and DE Chris Canty.

 The Ravens lost their No. 2 (Smith) and No. 3 (Daniels) leading receivers, a 7.5-sack man (McPhee) and shipped out their five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle to Detroit. And the populace remains unnerved with "In Ozzie We Trust."

With six post-season appearances in the seven years of head coach John Harbaugh, general manager Ozzie Newsome isn't shocked by what happened this week. As Lewis says, when a player leaves you can't call it a loss if he wasn't among the priorities.

Canty turns 33 this season, Jones 31, and the Ravens have been bracing for the departure of Ngata with the drafting of Timmy Jernigan last year in the second round and Brandon Williams in the third round in 2013. And while McPhee was a luxury as an outside rusher, the Ravens still have the combined 29 sacks of Elvis Dumervil (17) and Terrell Suggs (12) and 2012 second-rounder Courtney Upshaw in reserve.

The Ravens do have some work to do at wide receiver (how long can 36-year-old Steve Smith Sr., go?)  and tight end (Dennis Pitta has been banged up the last couple of years), but they have stockpiled wide receiver Marlon Brown, a third-year rookie free agent, and tight end Crockett Gilmore, a third-rounder from last season.

The Ravens have been nicked, but, like the Bengals, they do a good job in the secondary market that is beginning to develop now and run up until the draft. But, like the Bengals, Newsome and the Ravens live on the draft. They're not going anywhere, but they've got more work to do than the Bengals.

BROWNS (7-9): Adds: Buccaneers QB Josh McCown. Dolphins WR Brian Hartline. Losses: TE Jordan Cameron (Dolphins). QB Brian Hoyer (Texans). CB Buster Skrine (Jets). DE Jabaal Sheard (Patriots).

If there's one AFC North team that slid in the past 50 hours, it is the Browns, topped off by multiple reports on Thursday that Cameron was re-signing but then some how ended up in Miami.

Hartline is a solid pickup as a No. 2 receiver. Once they draft that first-round wide receiver, they'll be able to move old friend Andrew Hawkins into the slot.

But it doesn't help that they replaced Hoyer with McCown, a guy that is 17-32 starting for four different teams. Sheard is a good player and didn't have a great year, but combine that with the expected loss of tackle Ahtyba Rubin and it's a blow. The one guy they wanted to keep was Skrine, but just as a slot cornerback and the bidding got too high. Still, he never missed a game in his four seasons and the secondary is still dicey after No. 1 pick Justin Gilbert's rocky rookie season on the corner.

The loss of three solid players on defense along with their most dangerous skill player in Cameron and the continuing quarterback soap opera has them still at the starting line of this marathon.

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