2015 Franchise Tag Candidates: AFC North

The deadline for assigning a franchise or transition tag on a 2015 free-agent-to-be is less than five weeks away, and we’re in the process of taking a look at players who are candidates to be tagged this year. On Tuesday, we examined the AFC East, identifying the Patriots, with safety Devin McCourty and kicker Stephen Gostkowski eligible for free agency, as the most likely team to make use a tag. Today, we’ll shift our focus north, breaking down the franchise and transition tag candidates for the Ravens, Bengals, Browns, and Steelers….

Baltimore Ravens:

  • Candidates: Pernell McPhee, Torrey Smith
  • Odds of being used: Possible
  • McPhee and Smith are both solid contributors, with McPhee in particular providing plenty of value to the Ravens in 2014 — Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him as the league’s second-best 3-4 outside linebacker, behind sack leader Justin Houston. Still, McPhee was only a part-time player, appearing in just 540 defensive snaps, barely over half of what Houston played. For that reason, he may not be the most viable candidate for a tag, but he shouldn’t be ruled out. Smith, on the other hand, can probably be dismissed as an option — his production took a step backward in 2014 after the arrival of Steve Smith, and his 49 receptions and 767 yards were career lows. Kicker Justin Tucker would be a strong candidate if he were eligible for unrestricted free agency rather than restricted.

Cincinnati Bengals:

  • Candidates: None
  • Odds of being used: Zero
  • A few recognizable names, such as Jermaine Gresham and Mike Nugent, are scheduled to hit the open market for the Bengals, but none of the club’s prospective free agents are core players that absolutely must be retained.

Cleveland Browns:

  • Candidates: Brian Hoyer, Jordan Cameron
  • Odds of being used: Unlikely
  • At different points in 2014, the idea of using a tag on Hoyer or Cameron looked entirely reasonable, but both players’ stocks dropped toward the end of the season. If Hoyer is brought back, it would likely be to compete for a starting job, which isn’t worth a franchise salary that could exceed $18MM. The tight end tag will be worth less than half that, but after an injury-plagued and ineffective 2014 campaign, Cameron will almost certainly have to settle for a more modest deal.

Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Candidates: Jason Worilds
  • Odds of being used: Possible
  • The Steelers used the transition tag on Worilds a year ago, and in his first season as a full-time starter in 2014, he was arguably just as good or better, so it’s absolutely within the realm of reason that the team would do it again. Still, tagging a player for a second time means that his salary will increase by at least 20% (in Worilds’ case, that means a raise to at least $11.705MM), and the Steelers have a handful of other contracts to address this offseason, including a potential extension for Ben Roethlisberger. I do expect Pittsburgh to make every effort to retain Worilds, but the club may push a little harder for a long-term deal this time around, which would increase cap flexibility and the ability to spend elsewhere this winter.
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