The lifting of the lockout — and the potential for free agency and trades to commence soon — could help many teams, but the AFC North's Browns and Bengals would be among the primary beneficiaries.
A prolonged lockout would hamper the Browns and Bengals, and perhaps significantly. It would have made the status quo a safe bet in 2011 when handicapping the AFC North race. The division was the domain of the Steelers and Ravens last season, and that likely will be the case this year, too, but if Cleveland and Cincinnati can acquire veteran players to bolster their rosters — and have ample offseason time to do so — they will have a better shot at narrowing the gap on the AFC North's elite.
The Bengals and Browns are making major schematic changes, adding to the challenge of pushing Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the short term. Cleveland is installing new offensive and defensive systems. Cincinnati will transition to a West Coast system on offense — as QB Carson Palmer insists he will never play for the club again.
Bengals president Mike Brown has indicated he does not intend to trade Palmer. Should Brown change his mind, however, the Bengals likely would find a willing trade partner. Also, the opening of the trade and free-agent markets would allow the Bengals to add a veteran passer to compete with or complement a rookie passer selected in the draft.
The Browns would enjoy having the same flexibility addressing their defensive line, which needs help at end and could use another solid starting tackle to join Ahtyba Rubin. Asked recently about the defensive linemen other than Rubin — a surefire starter — Browns general manager Tom Heckert called them "serviceable guys. They really are. Are they elite guys? I don't know if we had elite guys last year and I think we were all right. We will find players."
Help for the line is likely to come in the draft, where the Browns select No. 6 overall. However, Cleveland has discussed trading down, team president Mike Holmgren told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer on Wednesday. Such a maneuver probably would lead to the Browns accumulating more 2011 draft picks — the Browns have one pick in each of the first five rounds — which would aid in their efforts to bolster their front four.
The Bengals, who hold the No. 4 overall pick, also have been speculated as a club that could look to trade down. Should they stay put, wide receiver and quarterback seem to be the positions they would be most likely to address. And should Georgia WR A.J. Green still be on the board at No. 4, the Bengals would be wise to select him. PFW personnel analyst Nolan Nawrocki assigned Green the highest grade (8.20) he has given a WR prospect since Calvin Johnson in 2007 (8.50), and there is no doubting Johnson has become a blue-chip player.
In the event Green were to fall to No. 6, it seems unlikely the Browns — who will get the wide receivers more involved in Pat Shurmur's offense than they did in Brian Daboll's scheme and lack a clear-cut go-to receiver — would pass on Green. He is exactly the sort of field-stretching, game-breaking threat the Browns have lacked. The Steelers and Ravens have strong defenses, but both have had their problems with strong passing games. Earlier in Palmer's career, the Bengals posed a matchup problem for Baltimore and Pittsburgh, with WRs Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the late Chris Henry all tough to cover.
Rest assured, the Ravens and Steelers would prefer that A.J. Green not end up in the division. They are the kings of the AFC North and figure to continue to reign in 2011, but Green would give the rebuilding efforts in Cleveland or Cincinnati a lift.
The resumption of veteran player movement would help those clubs, too, as both have rosters that need reshaping. Consistently competing with Baltimore and Pittsburgh won't be easy, but the task will be a little less daunting if the Browns and Bengals don't have to sit on their hands.