The Bengals approached this year's free agency period with yet another a frustratingly uneventful start. Then, a few days into it, the team began a week filled with free agent signings. Two of which were young, athletic outside linebackers in Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer likes the new look of his linebackers for 2011. With the new acquisitions on the defense, he's seeing players that are smart as well as physically gifted. With the loss of former defensive captain, Dhani Jones, intelligence from this new group becomes very important.
Recently speaking with bengals.com writer, Geoff Hobson, Zimmer praised his two new starters as well as addressing the overall depth of the group:
"We brought in some smart linebackers. Thomas Howard is very athletic and he's done a really good job. Manny Lawson is a great kid who wants to learn everything. He has size and smarts. Maualuga has done a good job in the middle. With Brandon Johnson back and some of these guys, we're a little stronger at that position than we were."
Howard and Lawson are poised to start alongside Rey Maualuga as he makes the transition to his natural position of middle linebacker. Zimmer gave some additional praise to Maualuga's progress this year, particularly noting his improvement in pass coverage. He's been impressive this camp, seeming to be everywhere and coming up with a few interceptions.Though starting weak side linebacker, Keith Rivers, is nursing an offseason wrist surgery, this still seems to be a deep position group. More importantly, two of the three starting linebacker positions may have been upgraded this offseason.
Though it's fair to note that Howard and Lawson were brought on board in response to inuries to Rivers and Roddrick Muckelroy, many feel that Howard is just as athletic and capable a linebacker as Rivers. Maualuga was a solid strong side linebacker the last two seasons, but Manny Lawson adds height, speed and excellent pass coverage to that spot and could conceivably improve that position. And, with Maualuga moving to the middle, the Bengals replace the aging Jones and get more speed and athleticism there.
Behind the starters, the Bengals have a speedy pass-rusher in rookie Dontay Moch, as well as the Swiss Army Knife of a linebacker in Brandon Johnson. Barring any major setbacks, the Bengals should also get Rivers back during the season once his wrist heals and that would add to this deep position group.
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