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AFC North Roundup: Bengals' Coaching Changes, Flacco's Contract Status, Steelers' Secondary Questions

In this week's AFC North Roundup, the Cincinnati Bengals shake up the coaching staff, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco discusses contract restructuring and the Steelers have questions to answer in the secondary during the offseason

In a development that should surprise no one with familiarity with the situation, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is willing to restructure his contract for the 2016 through 2018 seasons. Flacco confirmed this to WBAL Radio on Thursday (as reported by ESPN’s Jamison Hensley).

Flacco was signed to a six-year, $120.6 million contract in March 2013 after helping lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory. But one look at the way the deal was structured and it was clear that reworking down the line was inevitable. Flacco’s total salary cap hit for 2015 was $14.55 million; that number jumps to an untenable $28.55 million for 2016, $31.15 million for 2017 and $24.75 million in 2018. From the moment Flacco signed the deal, it was apparent that the final three years of the deal would likely be extended to at least six, with each year’s cap hit reduced as a result.

Flacco said on Thursday that, “I want to win, so I want to do everything we can to get something done. I don't know exactly what that is or exactly what that's going to be because we haven't talked about it yet. But I know that that's a huge number and it's not really realistic.” This approach isn’t much affected by the ACL and MCL tears he suffered during the season, the first significant injuries of his career. Hensley reports that the restructuring should be able to free up $8 to 9 million in salary cap room per year, allowing the Ravens to re-sign other in-house free agents, pay those brought in from the open market and keep their cap situation manageable. Baltimore is coming off of a 5-11 season and need all the cash resources available to make them competitive again. Negotiations should occur and wrap before the start of the 2016 free agency period, which begins March 9.

Flacco says he intends to be in Baltimore “for a while,” adding, “I want play football here. That's what it's all about.” And he also expects to be ready for the Ravens’ season opener in the fall. Rehabilitation on his injured knee is “going really well,” and that, “I don't think there is any way I'm not going out there ready to go right away. Don't quote me. But that's just me. I have no timetable. I'm really taking it day by day and getting better and better each week.” Not only will Flacco be helping his team by being ready to play in Week 1 of the 2016 season, but he’ll also be assisting their financial bottom line—something guaranteed when he signed his current deal nearly three years ago.

Cincinnati Bengals: Bengals Make Coaching Changes

The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t need to just replace offensive coordinator Hue Jackson when he left to take the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching job—there were other coordinators and assistants who needed replacing, as well. And as of this week, they have completed that process.

Aside from Jackson, the Bengals also needed a new defensive backs coach and linebackers coach, with Vance Joseph and Matt Burke both leaving for the same jobs with the Miami Dolphins. Last Friday, the Bengals promoted quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese to offensive coordinator, filling that vacancy. At linebackers coach, head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther tapped former New Orleans Saints head coach Jim Haslett for the job. Former defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle, who served from 2001 through 2011 before heading to the Dolphins, returned to handle his old position. And another former Dolphins coach, Bill Lazor, is aboard as the team’s new quarterback coach.

The Bengals also let defensive line coach Jonathan Hayes and co-secondary coach Mark Carrier to move on. Jacob Burney has been named to the former position and Joseph may now handle the entire secondary with Carrier gone. Cincinnati is no stranger to having to rework coaching positions. Two years ago, they lost offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to head coaching jobs with Washington and Minnesota. With winning records year after year and impressive performances on both offense and defense, it’s not surprising that the Bengals would be tapped for their coaching talent. Given the years of experience they have added by replacing those who moved onto other positions, Cincinnati shouldn’t have too much trouble picking up where they left off.

Bengals players are pleased about the Zampese promotion, because it will allow for continuity in the offense. As Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton said, “To have a guy like Zamp who’s been here for a long time and has been in this offense ever since I’ve been in it is great. He understands our players, he understands me. I think it’s a perfect transition for us.” Zampese’s playbook should be quite similar to Jackson’s and the West Coast verbiage will remain in place. Like Jackson (and Gruden), Zampese will serve as play-caller. And, Jackson’s imprint will still be felt, with Dalton adding, “The kind of mentality Hue brought to the team and to the offense, I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere. I think the two years we had with Hue are going to carry over to what we do.”

Pittsburgh Steelers: Steelers Have Decisions to Make at Defensive Back

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ season ended last weekend with a Divisional Round playoff loss to the Denver Broncos, which means it’s now time to start thinking about the offseason business that needs attending to. And that begins with the decisions that loom in the secondary in free agency.

As ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler points out, three of the Steelers’ top four cornerbacks and two of their top three safeties are unrestricted free agents this spring. Cornerbacks William Gay, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin could all leave, as could safeties Will Allen and Robert Golden, leaving the team with just Cortez Allen and Mike Mitchell as the team’s only experienced cornerback and safety, along with exclusive-rights free agent corner Ross Cockrell, who is also likely to stay. Shamarko Thomas would also remain at the safety position, but his inability to beat out Will Allen (and Golden) for Troy Polamalu’s former job makes him a question mark going forward.

Re-signing Gay to a two-year deal looks like a possibility for the Steelers this offseason, and retaining Golden may become a priority given that Will Allen isn’t likely to get a new deal. There are also young cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant to consider; if either or both seem ready for larger roles (especially Golson, who missed his entire rookie year with a shoulder injury) then designating Cortez Allen for a post-June 1 roster cut could be in the cards, something that could also save the Steelers over $4 million in salary cap space.

Regardless of what the Steelers decide, it’s clear that they have difficult decisions to make to determine the future of their secondary. Whether they re-sign their own free agents, bring in outside veterans or again take to the draft, who stays, who goes and who plays will be a major offseason focus for Pittsburgh.

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