Forecasting The Growing Speculation With Bengals Linebackers

With all the rumors swirling around the new CBA, it'll take time to get a handle on what the rules for free agency will be. We don't really know how long the free agency period will be, or even who will be available. Players with four or five years of experience, not just the usual six, would be eligible for free agency, similar to before the uncapped season in 2010. There also remains two players trying to cut their own deals before ditching the lawsuit that's holding up the new labor deal. It's starting to appear that when it's all said and done everyone's going to be a free agent except Andre Smith. 

In the meantime, Jonathan Comey over at Cold Hard Football Facts put together a list of ideal, "non-incumbent player for each team that would fit their needs and budget to a T." As I scrolled down to find the Bengals part of the list, I found myself looking for recognizable names that have been tossed around for weeks now: Jim Sorgi, DeAngelo Williams, Matt Hasselbeck, or at least a re-signing of Cedric Benson or Jonathan Joseph. A quick scan produced Joseph's name, but Comey's got him hooked up with Oakland as a replacement for Nnamdi Asomugha. "Hmmmm...." I says to myself and gave it another look, expecting to locate a Bruce Gradkowski or a Ronnie Brown. Nope. Alright, third time through I'll stop being lazy and look for team names -- turns out it's in alphabetical order (d'uh). So, for "Cincinnati" we have listed...MLB Stephen Tulloch? For real, yo? How you figure?

In addition to needing new management, a change of culture and Harvey Keitel’s "The Wolf" character from "Pulp Fiction," the Bengals need talent. They used 33-year-old Dhani Jones almost exclusively as their MLB, and he was a big reason Cincinnati fell to 23rd on the Defensive Hog Index from 11th in 2009. Getting younger and better with the 26-year-old Tulloch makes plenty of sense, which means the Bengals certainly won’t do it.

That's kind of funny, but what's he talking about?

There's overwhelming speculation that the team wants to slide Maualuga to the middle if (and maybe not even if) free agent Dhani Jones signs on somewhere else. With Keith Rivers on the weak-side, that leaves a gap on the strong-side. The team could re-sign free agent Brandon Johnson who, as Joe suggests in his scouting report, might have "arguably been the Bengals best overall linebacker over the past three years and still we've seen his snaps reduced every year." Johnson has some experience at outside linebacker, though not as much on the strong-side. If Johnson leaves, the team might be content to with second-year player Roddrick Muckelroy, who showed some flash in limited playing time last season. Dan Skuta is another possibility.

The team could also take a look at recent draft pick Dontay Moch, who is largely expected to be only a special teams contributor in the beginning. While he played end at Nevada his first three years, Moch transitioned to OLB. His former defensive coordinator thinks he can play the position at the NFL level. And maybe the Bengals do too, bringing him in as a possible replacement for one of the departing linebackers or to push Muckelroy. Maybe the team continues toying with Michael Johnson at the outside, although he does seem more suitable as a defensive end, flushing the QB towards guys like Carlos Dunlap. Yes, there's a lot of inexperience there, but they're all talented guys and it's time to see what they can do. Another option is simply for the team to re-sign Jones, who would like to be back in Cincinnati.

With all those options it's hard to see a linebacker as the team's biggest need, or signing Tulloch as the thing that will bring it all together in 2011. But to be fair, we should look at this through Comey's criteria, which is a unique player for each team not already associated with the team ("non-incumbent") that fits a need and a budget, thus Asomugha and Joseph would be out. And although published today, this list was likely put together pre-Benson arrest and Adam Jones absurdity. Maybe the Bengals could use a stronger, or at least younger, leader in the middle. I mean, it's hard to argue that the defense took a step back last season, although I think that has more to do with Carson Palmer's penchant for throwing interceptions than anything Dhani Jones did as the defensive captain.

But I guess you could say that Jones, while smart and interesting, hasn't been a difference maker on this team. He's been solid, but not spectacular, despite his tongue-in-cheek evaluation of himself. Ostensibly, Tulloch and Jones are pretty similar guys, logging similar stats in a quiet, workman-like fashion. As Brian Billick, who rated Tulloch as the ninth-best free agent LB, puts it: "Tulloch is not a flashy player...He is a consistent presence in the rush defense and always seem to be in the right position to make a play on the ball." But right now, Tulloch has a higher upside. For instance, Jones doesn't even make the list of Pat Kirwan's list of best linebackers, while Tulloch is an honorable mention in the second-tier group. And according to ESPN, Tulloch logged 160 total tackles last season, good for second in the NFL, with a sack and an interception. With back-to-back impressive seasons, Tulloch might be coming into his own right now after being a fourth round pick who worked his way into a starting role via special teams. In this scenario then, the Bengals would be swopping Jones (33) for the younger, though likely more expensive, Tulloch (26), who would be a better long-term signing. And while the team gets younger at MLB if Maualuga takes over, it's not certain Rey's up to the challenge. Somewhat underwhelming based on his post-draft hype as a bone-crushing player, Maualuga seems to disappear at times, something defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has called him out on, despite some defensive metrics that rank Maualuga as the team's best linebacker. It seems like Maualuga is where Tulloch was two years ago, but with Tulloch there's a proven commodity.

Anyway, that's my effort to defend Comey's choice.

There are some other surprising (and inspired) selections on this list. In his ideal possible world, Comey has the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets signing T. J. Houshmandzadeh as a bargain basement replacement for either Braylon Edwards or Santonio Holmes (who he has going to San Diego), both of whom are scheduled to hit free agency. The most vindicating name of the list for Bengals fans is Evan Mathis, who Comey suggests would be a good fit in hard-nosed Pittsburgh:

The Steelers are in a rough spot. They have a lot of money committed to 2011 salaries, and while they are set for the future at almost every position, their Offensive Hogs are in sketchy shape. Not only did the Steelers finish a mediocre 14th on our Hog Index last year, but top tackle Willie Colon (injured much of last year) is going to be unrestricted.

They may have the juice to get Colon back, but they could probably use more help – and a good low-budget option is Mathis, who was in and out of the lineup in Cincinnati. Bengals observers always maintained that Mathis was good enough to be a regular starter, and having seen him twice a year for a half-decade the Steelers know it.

Ok, so maybe Comey has been reading CJ, where the drum has been banging for Mathis a long time, most recently in Joe's scouting report on Mathis.

So, what do y'all think? Let's assume the departures of Joseph and Jones -- who would be the best fit for the money on this team? Let's hear some names.

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