Four out of five football fans agree that Cincinnati's defense will once again be the team's strong suit next season. It's a young group of grinders who will theoretically improve as they gain experience together. They are coached well by Mike Zimmer and staff, and each player seems to have acknowledged and accepted his role in the system. Yet with all the praise and accolades this defense has earned, like the beast in the quiet jungle, a harrowing concern remains: are they deep enough?
Everyone from the AFC North loves to go on about the physical toughness and brute strength of their division. The Steelers made it that way, the Ravens followed suit, and the Bengals finally found their own success last season playing a similar brand of the game. Even though the Ravens and Steelers have both become more of the passing variety, Cincinnati drifts toward the other end of the spectrum and shows no reason to change any of that now.
So if the Bengals are going to be the roughneck sluggers from the rust-belt division, they need to have the manpower to sustain the collateral damage that style of play demands—especially defensively.
Along the line, the defense has some depth. With four serviceable ends, and three quality tackles, the defensive front is solid and getting better. The linebackers, however, still aren't that good after their top four, and with Dhani Jones getting older and appearing progressively more comfortable on television, the time for his replacement may be in the works soon.
Last season I suggested that Dhani seemed like the ideal candidate to be a surprise cut-day casualty. He of course went on to have yet another 100-tackle season and remained healthy all season. My criticisms, though, remain in place.
The scouting report for Dhani is pretty simple; he's a heady hipster who plays very well inside the hash marks, but becomes an immediate liability in coverage on the outside. He provides leadership to a fairly young linebacker corps and keeps in shape—even if that means flying around the damn world and kicking other people. I no longer think the Bengals can afford to let him go, but they can begin to develop a draft pick to take his place in the near future.
Before we get into inside linebacker prospects, let's first try out this idea: move Rey Maualuga to the inside and draft an outside backer instead. Rey-Rey does have the speed to cover and took some terrific angles to force runners out of bounds countless times last season. We know he can do it; he won defensive player of the year in the middle spot his senior season at USC. Moving Maualuga to the inside allows the Bengals to draft a pass-rushing outside linebacker like Brandon Graham if he's still on the board at 21. A converted defensive end may also be a liability in coverage, but the idea would be to rush him as much as possible and let him do what he does best—wreak havoc.
Instead of drafting Taylor Mays, a safety who has similarities to Roy Williams and who Mike Zimmer could turn into a pro-bowler very soon, scoring a Graham here makes more sense.
The defense still needs to put more pressure on quarterbacks. The rotation of Maualuga, Keith Rivers, Brandon Johnson, Dhani Jones, and Brandon Graham sounds as solid as a tree trunk, and would soften the blow of a big injury to any one of those guys. With Roy Williams back—bionic arm and all—the safety spot isn't the glaring eyesore it would be without him. Instead of filling the gaps and getting a player who is physically similar to two existing Bengal safeties, the brain-trust might really want to go abstract and give Mike Zimmer a new prototype of linebacker to work with.
Yes, Graham is a better fit in a 3-4 scheme, but that isn't to say that he couldn't be effective in a 4-3. The modern trend of hybrid players is here to stay as athletes become progressively larger and faster; it's up to the coaches to learn how to use these types now before someone else does it first. Plus, if you wanted to go even deeper, a move like that could allow the Bengals to think about making the switch to a 3-4 someday, or even cooler to think about, is they play a mix of the two schemes like the Ravens used to before fully committing to their current 3-4 set. The point is,the Bengals should think about swaying outside of conventional thinking when it comes to the draft and the team's future.
That being said, if guard Mike Iupati is still there at 21, I still would take him before any one else.
If Maualuga does stay on the outside, then the Bengals should take a look at some middle linebackers. Alabama's Ronaldo McClain is the clear cut favorite in this year's crop but he is sure to be gone by the time Cincinnati makes their pick. Since Dhani is still capable of patrolling the inside, reaching for an interior linebacker certainly isn't necessary.
There will be some quality players left on the second day of the draft. One of those guys may be a linebacker from Iowa named Pat Angerer. Outside of his imposing name—more than anger—this guy put up some impressive numbers with the Hawkeyes. In two seasons, Angerer posted over 250 tackles, 11 of which were for a loss, six interceptions and two forced fumbles. After running a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, and weighing in under 240 pounds, many scouts don't project Angerer turning into much of a pro. He could become a guy like Caleb Miller who never found much footing in the NFL, or he could be a London Fletcher-like guy who simply understands what it takes to find the ball carrier and take him down. Using a fourth or fifth round selection on a tough guy with something to prove—and who gave a major college program two stellar years of linebacker play—seems well worth the risk; primarily since it would provide depth to a frighteningly shallow position that takes a gruesome beating through the course of a season.
It doesn't have to be today, but sooner rather than later, Dhani Jones will need replaced. If that time comes, and the Bengals are forced to find someone new to take over right away, it could spell trouble to the entire defense if that person finds difficulty adjusting to his new system. If they find someone this offseason to learn the ropes and take the helm comfortably when it becomes time, a smoother transition would likely remain in place, and the defense can continue to grow undeterred.
Mojokong—one eye on the screen; the other eye on the future.