This year's NFL postseason has had a focus on the finale of the career of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. In many interviews with the future Hall of Famer, he credits current Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis for a good portion of the success he's had. After all, Marvin was partly responsible for the drafting of Ray in 1996 and groomed him into one of the best players in the history of the NFL. It was his these six seasons as Baltimore's defensive coordinator that Marvin Lewis had the only semblance of good play and continuity at arguably the most important position on that unit.
Since arriving in Cincinnati during the 2003 offseason, Lewis has had a revolving door of veterans and rookies to fill the position. While there have been adequate performances during some of the best ten seasons, there have been zero Pro Bowlers and none that have manned the position for more than two consecutive seasons. Lewis and Co. have literally exhausted every avenue in an attempt to fill this position, be it the draft, free agency and even diving into the supplemental draft.
In case you missed it, here is the list of the players who started the middle linebacker spot in Lewis' tenure: Kevin Hardy, Landon Johnson, Odell Thurman, Caleb Miller, Brian Simmons, Lemar Marshall, Ahmad Brooks, Anthony Sclegel, Dhani Jones and Rey Maualuga. Ten names over ten years. The best seasons were turned in by Thurman in 2005, Jones in 2009 and some could argue Maualuga's in 2012, though he was wildly inconsistent. Most of the bigger names on this list were "has-been's" by the time they arrived in Cincinnati.
2013 marks a pivotal offseason for the Bengals and their decade-long search for the answer at middle linebacker. They have to decide if they are going to try an in-house option or look elsewhere to find their next guy.
In-House Options: As has been repeated ad nauseum this year, Maualuga struggled in 2012. He played tentative at times and has been proven to be a liability in pass coverage. He's an impending free agent and nobody knows if he'll be back, but it doesn't seem likely that they'll simply hand him the job if he does return. He has a lot to prove wherever he lands. It wouldn't totally surprise us if Maualuga returned to Cincinnati, but it might be best for both parties for him to get a shot elsewhere.
The other option that the Bengals could exercise with someone they already have is to move Vontaze Burfict from the outside to the middle. Burfict played with great instincts and led all Bengals players in tackles even though he didn't play in the first game, nor was he playing his natural position in the middle. Though he wasn't superb in pass coverage, he is serviceable and could be a better option than Maualuga. Ideally, if the Bengals were to do this, they would have brought back a healthy Thomas Howard sand/or drafted a suitable replacement.
Free Agency: To be frank, there really aren't great options on the free agent market at the position this year. Chicago Bears great, Brian Urlacher is set to become a free agent, but it would seem that he'll be retained there because of his legacy. There are other players out there that are either past their prime and/or would not be much more than added depth. One other option could be Dannell Ellerbe of the Ravens, and though he has played the outside linebacker spot, the Ravens linebackers are usually asked to be versatile because of their scheme. Still, it would seem that it's Maualuga or nobody else in free agency.
Trade: We don't see this as a realistic possibility--especially since teams prefer to latch on to a quality guy that mans the middle. Still, the team did make four player trades during the 2009-2011 offseasons, so anything is possible. At the moment, this seems like the least possible avenue that Cincinnati will take.
Draft: It seems as if this is the most likely scenario up there with the Burfict switch. If they want a quality player, they'll likely have to use a pick within the first three rounds. There are four prospects that the team could target with one of their first four picks at the position: Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, Georgia's Alec Ogletree, LSU's Kevin Minter and Kansas State's Arthur Brown. Ogletree and Brown are slighter and perhaps a bit more quick than Te'o and Minter, but there's plenty of good tape on those two as well. These four could be day one "plug and play" middle linebackers for most teams in the NFL, so the Bengals could look here and keep Burfict on the outside.
The good news is that there are options. Two of which (moving Burfict or looking at the Draft) seem to provide a potential improvement over the status quo. If the Bengals exercise the right to bring back Maualuga and start him, it would mark the most consecutive seasons for a player starting at middle linebacker in the Marvin Lewis era.