Based on his production in 2011, as well as his strengths as a strong-side linebacker, it would make sense for the Cincinnati Bengals to invite Manny Lawson back for another season. Though he only took part in 529 defensive snaps last year, he generated a tackle every 6.8 snaps, registering 1.5 quarterback sacks and three passes defensed -- the snap/tackle ratio and quarterback sacks generated is better than Thomas Howard. Additionally Lawson scored the third-highest score (8.1) against the run according to Pro Football Focus, best amongst all linebackers. Lawson also finished the season ranked as the defense's third-most productive player behind Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
So it's fairly obvious that the Bengals aren't likely to re-sign Lawson, right?
During the 2011 NFL Draft, the team selected Dontay Moch in the third round, hoping to convert the defensive end into a linebacker that primarily rushed the passer. This was one year after the team selected Texas linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Before both players suffered extensive injuries during training camp, with Muckelroy losing the entire season, these young linebackers were projected to become huge influences within the overall defense with Muckelroy's high-tackle track record and Moch with his pass rushing history.
Instead both players suffered extensive injuries, forcing the team to sign veterans in Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson, compounded by the mysterious nature of Keith Rivers' wrist injury that reportedly required reconstructive surgery. Like Muckelroy, Rivers was lost for the entire season.
Do the Bengals bring Lawson back for another year, or move on with their planned youth movement one year later? Is Lawson's Cincinnati future tied into Keith Rivers and whether the team decides to move on after the linebacker, though a solid tackler and good against the run, generated mostly negative reviews for his lack of big-plays? And then what of Brandon Johnson?