Cincy Jungle Mailbag: The State Of The Linebackers And The Post-Free Agency Mock Draft

(Editor's Note: Keep sending tweets and emails my way to have your questions answered on this weekly feature. You can reach me @CUIBengalsFan or bengalanthony@gmail.com. Thanks for reading!)

Our beloved Bengals have kept up their late momentum in free agency over the past week. We've seen them add Pat Sims and Manny Lawson and we might be seeing Terence Newman and Amobi Okoye added to the roster in the near future as well. While they haven't made the splashy moves, they've really bolstered the depth of the roster and left themselves wide open for the draft. While there are some common themes to what many experts think the Bengals will do, I think that there could be a surprise or two that they have up their sleeve. But, we'll get to that later.

First, I was emailed earlier in the week from a fan named Webber, asking me about my knowledge of the Bengals linebackers--most notably the statuses of Keith Rivers and Dontay Moch. Last offseason, the team really addressed the position group by adding Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson, as well as re-signing Brandon Johnson via free agency and adding Moch in the third round of the draft. Howard was signed in response to an injury to Rivers and played very well throughout the year and Lawson played well in a rotation after he was signed as a fallback option because of Roddrick Muckelroy's season-ending Achilles injury.

The group was very deep last year, but has suddenly become a big question mark this season. Moch struggled with migraine issues the entire 2011 season and was inactive for the year. Having him back and healthy would be a big boost for the group, though his impact is questionable at the position as he was a defensive end in college--not a linebacker. Getting Moch back would be akin to having an extra draft pick this season, even if his contributions are limited. He'll likely work in a rotation with Lawson and possibly Muckelroy and he could work in as a third-down pass-rushing specialist. He has the speed (sub-4.5 second 40-yard dash time) to keep up with tight ends, but it remains to be seen if he'll actually have the cover skills necessary for the position and not just the speed. Nevertheless, if he's back it's definitely a positive for the club.

Then there's the situation with Rivers. When he's on the field, he's productive, there's no debating that. But, injuries have sidelined him for close to half of his four-year career and with the emergence of Howard last season, we may have seen the last of the former top-ten pick. Freeing up Rivers' salary could allow the team to bring in more veterans and possibly even swing a trade for a valuable player. Even if Rivers is retained he's not a lock to be a starter. As Josh pointed out earlier Thursday, Rivers may find himself taking on the role of Brandon Johnson--special teams ace and rotational backup.

Two problems arise with this situation: Rivers' pride as a player and his salary. While this role might be best for Rivers on this team, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll accept it. And even if he does, would you want to pay a backup the type of salary that Rivers would command? I wouldn't. Let's also not forget that Marvin Lewis went on the nationally-syndicated "Jim Rome Show" last year and said that Howard was having one of the best years he'd ever seen a linebacker have. And with the versatile Muckelroy and raw, but talented Moch coming back from injuries, Rivers could easily become expendable.

Finally, the man who we all thought would be the linchpin of the defense, Rey Maualuga, has battled injuries, inconsistent play and is now facing a suspension and isn't the player that any of us expected. When they were able to grab him in the second round, I was stunned and extremely pleased. He just hasn't seemed to shake his immaturity issues from college and it's really disappointing to see, given the college career he had. His future with the team is now cloudy and they may be interested in going another direction by drafting a more reliable player.

In summation, I could see Moch and Muckelroy becoming more involved in 2012 with Rivers being shown the door via trade or release. I'm not sure that they'll do the same for Maualuga, mostly because of his more affordable salary than Rivers and Lewis' love for middle linebackers, but I think he's on his last leg here. Because of the depth, I could see them not pursuing Johnson this year and opting to go with what they have. It's all going to depend on how serious the team views the injuries that they accrued at the position last year and we have yet to see anything about that.

This feeds into my next topic of who I believe the team will draft in the first few rounds this year. I realize that mock drafts have been fed to you ad nauseum, but I enjoy comprising them and they always spark a good debate. Plus, the draft is officially a month away and we've gone past the frenzied early period of free agency, so we have a bit of a clearer picture as to what the Bengals are going to do in late April. I did a pre-free agency mock draft a few weeks back, so you can compare and contrast what I did then with what I predict now. And, since I did two versions then, I'll do two here as well.

There seems to be a blueprint in the first three rounds with the Bengals' strategy in recent years. A relatively solid player in the first round, a major risk/reward in the second, and a relatively raw but really athletic player in the third. Since 2008, their first rounders have included Rivers, Jermaine Gresham and A.J. Green. Their risky second rounders have included Jerome Simpson, Maualuga, and Carlos Dunlap. Their raw third round athletes have included Chase Coffman, Michael Johnson, and Moch. This formula played into my predictions.

Here are two scenarios that I see playing out:

Round 1, Pick 17: Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina: The Bengals probably love this kid and he's been rising up draft boards over the past few weeks and has cemented himself as the No.2 corner in this draft. The Bengals have stockpiled the position this offseason by signing Jason Allen and re-signing Adam Jones, and there have also been rumblings of Terence Newman joining the team. Along with Nate Clements and Brandon Ghee, no player at the position aside from Leon Hall is signed after 2013. Did I mention that Hall is nursing a major Achilles injury? This pick just makes too much sense.

Round 1, Pick 21: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State: Though some may think this is a little high for Martin, it could be just about right. Trent Richardson won't make it out of the top ten and Martin is quickly establishing himself as the second-best player at the position in this year's draft, evoking images of Ray Rice. It's become apparent that he won't get out of the first round with his recent workout in Boise. Both Marvin Lewis and Jay Gruden were on hand for his workout, which speaks volumes to their interest in him. He can do a little bit of everything and will be eased into the lineup while splitting carries with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They won't pass on "their guy" and trade down as they did in 2004 when they lost out on Steven Jackson and had to settle for Chris Perry. He won't make it out of the first, especially with New England sitting at No.31, and in the slight chance he does, he won't slide to them at No.53. He'll become the team's feature back by 2013 and can also return kicks if the team opts to get rid of Brandon Tate.

Round 2, Pick 53: Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina: The second round is where the Bengals traditionally take chances on questionable character players. Corey Dillon, Odell Thurman and Carlos Dunlap are all examples of players that they took a gamble on. Sometimes these players work out and sometimes they don't. Jeffery isn't a "bad guy" per se, but he's had issues with weight fluctuation and inconsistent play. There were many times in 2010 that he was a dominant player in the SEC. But thanks to quarterback issues, a season-ending injury to the Gamecocks' star running back and lapses by Jeffery, he wasn't the same guy. Some think that Jeffery will go in the first. With Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright and Stephen Hill all slated to go in front of him, I could easily see him slipping here. National Football Post did a recent write up on Jeffery and they agree that he's a second-rounder. I think the Bengals want a big, physical, possession-type of receiver opposite A.J. Green who can move the chains and score in the red zone. Jeffery can be that guy.

Round 3, Pick 84: Brandon Brooks, OG, Miami (OH): This extremely athletic guard was snubbed from the Combine and really improved his stock with his Pro Day workout. Our own Joe Goodberry says that Brooks is anywhere from a mid-second to late third round choice, so he might not be here. I think he might because there will be a run on receivers and running backs in rounds two and three. Brooks can play multiple spots on the line and would compete with second-year man Clint Boling for the starting right guard spot.

The other scenario that I could see happening:

Round 1, pick 17: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College: I personally think that it's more likely that David DeCastro is gone by the time they pick here and Kuechly has a better chance to be available. I imagine that both Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer are fed up with Rey Maualuga "not getting it" both on and off of the field. Kuechly is a native of the greater Cincinnati area and is a smart kid with a lot of talent. He's a tackling machine and could man the middle of the defense for a long time.

Round 1, pick 21: Cordy Glenn, OG, Georgia: The Bengals like three things about this kid: he's big, versatile and is a former Georgia Bulldog. He'd come in and replace Bobbie Williams immediately at right guard and would combine with Andre Smith to form a 700-pound wall. He's a boom or bust player, but has great athleticism for his size. If either Glenn or DeCastro are available, this could be the year that Bengals finally use a first round pick on a guard.

Round 2, pick 53:Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama: As I said earlier, the Bengals have a penchant for grabbing value in the second round with troubled players. Jenkins is the poster child for "troubled". Those who follow me on Twitter know that I have started a hash tag revolution titled: "#SayNoToJanorisJenkins". In fairness, that's mostly referring to the team taking him in the first round, not the second. If he fell here it would be good value and he could work on his maturity for a year or two before taking over a starting spot. He likely will fall here or even further, as the first round buzz on him has subsided and some teams have taken him off of their board completely. One spot he could end up at is with the Patriots at No.31, if they decide against Martin. Another "boom or bust" player.

Round 3, pick 84: LaMichael James, RB, Oregon: This is likely to be a divisive pick and this selection depends on how high the team actually is on Bernard Scott and Green-Ellis. If James were to be selected, it would help bring a true home run threat to the backfield, bringing a nice complementary back into the fold. Mel Kiper, Jr. has James going as high as the bottom of the second round, but because of his size he's likely to end up in the third. It would also help the wide receiver group, as James split out as a wide receiver throughout his college career--and effectively, I might add. Some worry about his small stature holding up in the NFL, but if you've watched any Oregon games over the past few years, you'll know that this kid runs bigger than his size. The addition of James would likely be the end of Scott's career in Cincinnati.

While I feel these are somewhat accurate, I also believe that what they might do as a third scenario, is end up blending these two predictions in some way to form their first few picks. Feel free to agree or rip these scenarios to shreds, if you like--that's what mock drafts are for. Thanks for reading and send those emails and tweets my way for next week's mailbag.

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