Playing the hypothetical free agent guessing game

Remember when there was actual football — at least shorts and helmets football — at this time of year?

Yeah, I do, too.

We’re used to the NFL staying in the news with a free-agent spending bonanza in March preceding the April draft. Due to the lockout, that didn’t happen this year, meaning lots of guys are not only locked out but technically unemployed, and lots of teams are left plenty of time to stare at depth charts that look a little bare.

With that in mind let’s take some guesses — three for each AFC North team — about which players might be targeted whenever business resumes and the NFL gets back to work.

All of these scenarios are strictly hypothetical; we don’t know which players will even hit the open market, and with the old collective bargaining agreement expired, we can’t yet classify which players will garner full unrestricted free agency. None of these scenarios will include players who will eventually re-sign with their current teams. We’ll explore all the re-signing possibilities in this space once we know which players are unrestricted and which ones can be signed to matchable offer sheets.

Til then, we guess.

Today, we look at the Browns and Steelers. Tomorrow, the Bengals and Ravens.

The Browns need help — and lots of it — for a totally reshaped defense. They cut all their aging defensive linemen and 3-4 linebackers, and they also have long-term issues to address in the secondary. The wide receiver position could use some speed and experience, too, making this a list that’s very difficult to cut to three.

1. Jason Babin, DE — His 12.5 sacks last year with Tennessee will make him some money, but there’s a bit of concern he was a one-year wonder. Babin spent 2009 in Philadelphia, which was Tom Heckert’s final season there as GM. He brings experience and much-needed pass-rush ability and, because he turns 31 next week, won’t demand the monster money some other defensive ends on the market will. Though the Titans reportedly want to re-sign him as soon as they’re permitted to do so, look for the Browns to place a call if the opportunity presents itself. The Browns ultimately plan to build through the draft, but an NFL survivor like Babin as a stop-gap and tutor makes a lot of sense.

2. Donte Whitner, S — Cleveland native and former high first-round pick has already campaigned publicly for a reunion with new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and a chance to revive his career in his hometown. The first concern is he hasn’t lived up to his draft status, and the second is he’s a lot like T.J. Ward and the Browns need more of a center field-type safety. What the Browns really need is guys who want to get better and thrive with this fresh start, and Whitner fits that bill. The Browns wouldn’t pay him top dollar, but they would provide Whitner, who turns 26 this summer, with a nice opportunity.

3. Barry Cofield, DT — Another Cleveland native is a 4-3 defensive tackle, and the Browns drafting of Phil Taylor makes that less a position of need. But Cofield has been a productive guy, and until the Browns know Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin aren’t two guys best fit for the same position, they certainly can’t be done addressing the position. The 27-year-old Cofield is coming off his most productive year and will garner lots of interest; if the hometown team calls, doesn’t he at least have to listen?

The Steelers aren’t usually a team that looks to make a big splash in free agency, but they are a team that could use some veteran insurance in both the secondary and on the offensive line. They’ve restocked well at wide receiver and on the defensive front in the last couple drafts and like their veteran core, so look for the Steelers to make a handful of signings — at most — and for the ones they make to be of the experienced bargain variety.

1. Derrick Dockery, OG — Dockery brings size, experience and position versatility. In other words, he’d be a great fit for a line that’s still a bit in flux. Only the Steelers’ decision-makers know exactly how they see things shaking out up front, but at the very least they could use some insurance as they look to keep Ben Roethlisberger better protected.

2. Richard Marshall, CB — Marshall has been a productive player in Carolina and has seven interceptions over the last two years as a full-time starter. With a new coaching staff coming in, Marshall may be free to seek other employment, and it’s clear the Steelers need better cornerback play even if they are able to re-sign Ike Taylor. Marshall is just 26 and should get a decent contract based on the lack of available great corners. If the Steelers think he can help, they’ll at least take a look.

3. Matt Prater, K — Prater has been pretty good in Denver over the last three years, but with a new regime in place it could be time to move on. It was somewhat of a surprise the Steelers didn’t use a late-round pick on a kicker after what they went through last year, and a guy with a big leg like Prater could be a weapon in the nasty weather of the AFC North late in the season.

— Zac Jackson