One of the small handful of positions in flux for the 2012 Cincinnati Bengals is linebacker. There's been a number of roster moves at the position, including the trade of Keith Rivers and the team opting to let Brandon Johnson walk in free agency. But, the Bengals also managed to retain Manny Lawson and are getting Roddrick Muckelroy back from a 2011 season-ending Achilles injury. Let's also not forget the whirlwind of controversy surrounding starting middle linebacker, Rey Maualuga, as he is dealing with another alcohol-related incident and has yet to become a dominant player in the NFL.
Despite the fact that this is a position group in flux, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is remaining optimistic. Ins speaking with Bengals.com Editor, Geoff Hobson, Zimmer handed out early reviews for a few specific players.
He likes the looks of the linebackers, particularly some of the young ones like rookie middle linebacker
Vontaze Burfict and first-year Micah Johnson, a Kentucky free agent playing both the middle and SAM.
"He looks dependable so far," Zimmer said of Burfict.
Burfict has been a very pleasant surprise since landing in Cincinnati. Known as a hothead with a questionable motor coming out of college, Burfict has come in here, put his head down and done all of the right things (he was one of a group of Bengals that recently visited a children's hospital). Johnson has impressed with his size and his workouts on the field so far and he has a chance at a roster spot, come September.
Zimmer has also been pleased with his top two middle linebackers in Maualuga and Vincent Rey.
Zimmer says starting middle linebacker
Rey Maualuga has looked good and has responded to the coaches emphasizing to him that he has to be more patient so he doesn't overrun plays. The other Rey, backup WILL backer Vincent Rey, is coming off a solid special teams season and is trying to stick with the departure of Brandon Johnson.
"Vinny is Vinny. A smart guy from Duke. He's doing the right things. Good kid," Zimmer said.
Another guy impressed with the kid backers is
Thomas Howard, the starting WILL.
"These guys don't make any mental mistakes. They get it," Howard said.
This is a very important year for Maualuga. He could be facing a suspension from his latest legal run-in and is entering the final year of his rookie contract. There were times in 2011 that Maualuga flashed dominance, but there was also a multitude of missed tackles and examples of tentativeness due to an ankle injury. Rey will also need a good camp to fight off Dan Skuta for a roster spot. His role will likely be on special teams and pinch starter if Maualuga is out of the lineup because of injury and/or suspension.
"He's been here for a year and he's making mistakes that he shouldn't be making," DC Mike Zimmer said. "He's sat in the meetings and heard stuff but that's not the best way for him to learn. He has to get out there and do it. He's behind schedule that way."
Moch is head coach Marvin Lewis' pet project and Zimmer likely has big plans for him as well. He's a "boom or bust" player and he doesn't get it together quickly, he could be teetering into the "bust" category.