Free agent outside linebacker Manny Lawson decided, after two-plus weeks of touring the free agency landscape, to return to Cincinnati for another season this week. Reports surfaced of his return on Tuesday, followed with Thomas Howard's enthusiastic tweet that Lawson told him he's coming back. With Lawson returning, it gives the team nine linebackers signed for the 2012 season, begging the question: What about Keith Rivers?
+ Now there's one thing to point out here, and it's a trivial technicality which we don't think will make that big of a difference in the overall scheme of things. Lawson is a strong-side backer whereas Rivers has only played Will since joining the Bengals with the ninth overall selection of the 2008 NFL Draft. Does Lawson's return really affect Rivers' future that much? However we'd be fools not to recognize that the two positions do warrant noticeable differences that play to that player's specific strengths.
+ THOMAS HOWARD HAS TAKEN OVER. Not only did Thomas Howard become the starting weak-side linebacker after Keith Rivers showed up with a wrist injury during last year's training camp, Howard became the team's most consistent linebacker. Period. He led all linebackers with 1,058 defensive snaps and played well against the run while serviceable in pass coverage.
However Howard's performances last year will make it incredibly difficult for Rivers to reclaim his starting job. Not only does he face an uphill battle on whatever injury he's faced with, he has to do it against the team's most productive linebacker from last season.
Perhaps Rivers surprises us all and becomes the play-maker we expected as the ninth overall selection in 2008. If so, that would be great. But we have to wonder if we haven't already seen the peak of Rivers' career in Cincinnati.
+ YOUNG LINEBACKERS IN WAITING. Though Dontay Moch's migraines are a concern and Roddrick Muckelroy is recovering from an Achilles injury suffered during last year's training camp, these are two young linebackers that the team wants groomed into significant producers. Remember that Manny Lawson was signed in response to Muckelroy's Achilles tendon rupture, not because the team viewed Lawson as the better long-term solution.
A year later and things have shifted. Rivers is an unknown with his wrist and Rey Maualuga could face a multiple-game suspension. And in truth Lawson had a great season last year, rated as the team's best linebacker according to Pro Football Focus, so the Bengals made the right decision bringing Lawson back. You can't predict how Muckelroy's Achilles will react and Moch's migraines are debilitating enough that his rookie season was a throw-away (and that was after suffering a foot injury during the preseason opener last year).
What does this mean for Rivers? Depends on those two young linebackers. If the team is ready to give those guys their opportunities this year, Rivers could be the odd-man out. If they're worried about depth, then Rivers stays. It could be as simple as that.
+ MORE INJURIES AND DURABILITY CONCERNS. We know that Rivers has a not-degenerative wrist injury, and whatever injury Rivers is dealing with that we're forced to speculate on, we're not sure if the team will keep Rivers for depth purposes, release him with an injury settlement or trade him for a late-round pick, as Evan Silva suggests.
Rivers has yet to play a full 16-game schedule in his NFL career, missing nine games during his rookie season (broken jaw) and the entire season in 2011 (wrist injury).
+ RIVERS BECOMES THE NEW BRANDON JOHNSON? Another question we feel should be examined is if Rivers would be willing to play special teams at this stage in his career. Now admittedly Rivers has played on punt and kickoff teams, so it's not an entirely foreign concept. However is he's replaced as a starter with limited playing time on defense, the need to play special teams increases exponentially.
Consider this. Brandon Johnson played 621 defensive snaps in 2011, arguably as the team's best special teams player. Additionally Johnson was voted as the special teams captain in 2010. With Johnson remaining as a free agent as of this posting, there's a need that needs to be filled.
If Rivers returns, we could see him becoming the new Brandon Johnson (which may be one reason we haven't heard his name yet during the offseason).