ITEM: Division rivals take an early hit
Within the first 24 hours after free agency opened, each of the Steelers' AFC North Division rivals had lost players – in many cases, starting players – to other teams.
One of the strengths of the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals team that finished 9-7 and qualified for the playoffs as a Wild Card was the depth of the defensive line. Cincinnati was able to utilize any of eight defensive linemen in a rotation for a particular game, and that group – Domata Peko, Robert Geathers, Carlos Dunlap, Pat Sims, Geno Atkins, Jonathan Fanene, Frostee Rucker and Michael Johnson – was a key to a defense that finished No. 7 in the NFL in yards allowed and No. 9 in points allowed.
But alas, those eight have already dwindled to six. New England signed Fanene to a three-year contract, and the Browns pilfered Rucker from their in-state rivals.
The Baltimore Ravens defense lost a starter when Jarrett Johnson signed with the San Diego Chargers. Johnson, 30, had 56 tackles and 2.5 sacks for the Ravens in 2011. In his nine seasons, all with the Ravens, Johnson had 20 sacks.
The Cleveland Browns lost Peyton Hillis to the Kansas City Chiefs, who reportedly signed the 26-year-old running back to a one-year contract worth $3 million. Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards with a 4.4 average and 11 touchdowns for the Browns in 2010 when Brian Daboll was the team's offensive coordinator. Daboll now holds the same position for the Chiefs.
ITEM: NFL sets 2012 salary cap at $120.6 million
As free agency opened on March 13, the Cincinnati Bengals had the most available room of any of the teams in the AFC North Division. According to figures available on NFL.com, the Bengals began the free agency period $49.9 million under the cap, while the Cleveland Browns were $17.4 million under. The Baltimore Ravens were next at $14.45 million under, and the Steelers opened at $10.5 million under.
ITEM: Teams designate franchise players
In conjunction with the release of the 2012 salary cap figure, the NFL also set the prices for the franchise player tags. Those figures (in millions of dollars) are as follows: QBs $14.436; RBs $7.742; WRs $9.515; OL $9.383; DEs $10.605; DTs $7.96; LBs $8.856; CBs $10.281; S $6.212; and K/P $2.654.
The Ravens placed their franchise tag on running back Ray Rice, while the Browns and Bengals both used theirs on kickers – Cincinnati on Mike Nugent and Cleveland on Phil Dawson.
ITEM: Teams tender restricted free agents
March 13 also was the date when teams were to issue tenders to their restricted free agents, and tied to those offers was the applicable draft pick compensation the original team would receive should the player sign with another club. Any player receiving a $2.742 million tender will require a first-round pick in the 2012 draft as compensation; a $1.927 million tender comes with a second-round pick as compensation; and a $1.26 million tender provides the original round pick, or a right-of-first-refusal if the player entered the league as an undrafted rookie.
The Ravens tendered three restricted free agents – CBs Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams, and linebacker Daniel Ellerbe. Baltimore slapped a first-round tender on Webb, 26, a starter who blossomed in the second half of 2011 to finish tied for third in the AFC with five interceptions, and the team put second-round tenders on both Williams and Ellerbe.
Williams, 27, was a reserve in 2010 and worked himself into a starter for all 16 in 2011, rising from a reserve role to start every game. He finished the season with 78 tackles and 18 passes defensed. Ellerbe, 26, was hampered by injuries in 2011, when he ended up playing in just nine games with three starts. He has seven starts in three seasons since making the team as an undrafted free agent from Georgia in 2009.
The Ravens did not tender running back Matt Lawrence or linebacker Chavis Williams, which means those players are unrestricted free agents who can sign with any team at any time.
The Bengals tendered both of their restricted free agents – long-snapper Clark Harris and linebacker Dan Skuta. The compensation for Harris is a seventh-round pick, which is how he entered the league from Rutgers, and it's right-of-first-refusal for Skuta, a former undrafted rookie from Grand Valley State.
The Browns did not tender their only player who could have been a restricted free agent – linebacker Titus Brown from Mississippi State.
ITEM: Plain Dealer reports Browns not interested in Flynn
According to a report by Mary Kay Cabot, the Cleveland Browns have not pursued unrestricted free agent quarterback Matt Flynn and are not set to make the former backup to Aaron Rodgers a contract offer.
Browns General Manager Tom Heckert had said that the team would most likely not find its quarterback in free agency. The Browns have the fourth overall pick in the 2012, with Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III expected to be selected 1-2 by the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins.
ITEM: Bengals lead division with most UFAs
Cincinnati had 19 unrestricted free agents when free agency began, the most of any team in the AFC North. Among the Bengals' 19 were seven players who were starters at the end of last season – RB Cedric Benson, CB Kelly Jennings, LB Manny Lawson, G Nate Livings, S Reggie Nelson, WR Jerome Simpson and G Bobbie Williams. In addition, WR Andre Caldwell and DT Pat Sims were regulars in the rotation on game days. With Benson not expected to be re-signed, the Bengals scheduled visits with two free agent running backs – New England's BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Oakland's Michael Bush.
The Ravens were second to the Bengals with 12 UFAs, including three interior offensive linemen who played a lot for the team in 2011. C Matt Birk, G Ben Grubbs and G Andre Gurode all hit free agency, as did starting LB Jameel McClain.
The Browns have only eight unrestricted free agents, the most notable of which are starting safety Mike Adams and punter Brad Maynard.