The free agent market opens exactly a month from tomorrow and the Ravens face the prospects of having to re-sign or replace five players who started extensively during the 2016 season, along with several key reserves.
The Ravens’ unrestricted free agent class is headed by nose tackle Brandon Williams, right tackle Rick Wagner and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Other Ravens headed to the open market include quarterback Ryan Mallett, wide receiver Kamar Aiken, offensive guard Vladimir Ducasse, defensive end Lawrence Guy and defensive backs Jerraud Powers, Matt Elam, Anthony Levine Sr. and Chris Lewis-Harris.
Williams and Wagner are being ranked by most pundits as top-25 free agents. The two, along with Juszczyk, are arguably the top free agents available at their respective positions, so the Ravens certainly face a daunting task if they are determined to keep them.
None is bigger than the Steelers’ quest to re-sign star running back Le’Veon Bell. Nobody expects the Steelers to allow Bell to head out of town, but it’s certainly going to take a significant financial commitment -- possibly the franchise tag if a deal isn't reached -- to keep one of the NFL’s most dynamic players.
Beyond Bell, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, one of the Steelers’ top defensive players and leaders, is also in line to hit free agency. Timmons, a player the Ravens have a ton of respect for, led Pittsburgh last year with 114 tackles to go along with 2 ½ sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. He’s 30 years old, but he’ll have a market for sure.
The Steelers' ageless sack leader, James Harrison, is also an unrestricted free agent, as is their 2014 first-round pick, linebacker Jarvis Jones, part-time starting safety Shamarko Thomas, valuable reserve running back DeAngelo Williams and wide receiver Markus Wheaton. In Pittsburgh’s favor is the fact that the annually cap-strapped team is expected to have more financial flexibility this offseason than in past ones.
Whitworth is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and he’s started all 16 games in seven of the past eight seasons. He’s 35 years old, but the need for quality offensive tackles league-wide is high, so Whitworth would surely garner interest if he doesn’t return to Cincinnati for a 12th season.
Zeitler, meanwhile, is 26 and he’ll arguably be the top free agent guard available. He may not get Kelechi Osemele money but Zeitler has a huge payday coming his way, if not from the Bengals than from somebody else.
Coming off a solid 2016 season, Dre Kirkpatrick is set to cash in a market that will inevitably treat cornerbacks well. Other key Bengals free agents include long-time run stuffer Domata Peko, wide receiver Brandon LaFell and running back Rex Burkhead.
Like the Ravens and Steelers, the Bengals will have plenty of work to do in free agency.