Signed in 2013: Vontaze Burfict, Dontay Moch, Aaron Maybin, Emmanuel Lamur, Brandon Joiner
Free agents: Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson, Rey Maualuga, Vincent Rey, DeQuin Evans*
(* denotes restricted free agent)
The Bengals linebacker unit went through a lot of changes in 2012 and will undergo even more changes before the 2013 season. The season began like the 2011 one did as far as the linebackers were concerned: Rey Maualuga was named the starter at MIKE, Manny Lawson was the starter at SAM and Thomas Howard, who led the Bengals in tackles in 2011, was the starter at WILL. However, barely after the season was underway, Howard suffered a knee injury in practice on Sept. 13 and was placed on Injured Reserve just a day later.
That's when we were introduced to Vontaze Burfict.
Burfict was considered a top-10 pick by many draft analysts. However, a disastrous combine combined with rumors of attitude problems and a senior season in which he struggled caused him to fall completely out of the draft, making him one of the biggest fallen players in draft history. The Bengals were able to grab him as an undrafted free agent, and it may not be long before Burfict is considered the steal of the century.
Burfict, who had already sufficiently impressed Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer enough to make the 53-man roster, was named the starter at WILL in place of Howard. From that time on, he led the Bengals in tackles, finishing the season with 174. He had some huge games and seemed to come up biggest when he was needed most. He had 15 tackles in the team's Week 7 game against the Steelers and a season-high 18 tackles against the Ravens in Week 17.
The other starting linebackers struggled, though, especially Maualuga. The team's middle linebacker was nothing short of awful through much of the season, and though he showed flashes occasionally, he was ranked among the worst starting linebackers in the league. His trouble was highlighted by his poor performance in the team's playoff loss to the Houston Texans where he was completely unable to cover anyone in the pass game and struggled against the run as well.
Lawson didn't struggle as bad as Maualuga, but he wasn't the greatest strong-side linebacker in the league either. He showed, like Maualuga, that he has a hard time in pass coverage and he was just mediocre when it came to stopping the run. Really, of the three linebackers, the rookie, Burfict, was the only bright spot.
Free Agency/NFL Draft: The Bengals are unlikely to re-sign Maualuga unless they can get him fairly cheap. What they are expected to do, though, is move Burfict to MIKE, which is a more natural position for him, and re-sign Howard to start at WILL, that is as long as he's healthy, of course. At that point, they would have some decisions to make. They already signed Aaron Maybin, who would likely compete for a starting job at SAM with guys like Emmanuel Lamur and Brandon Joiner.
They're also predicted, in many mock drafts, to select an outside linebacker with their No. 21 overall pick. Two guys that have been linked to them are Georgia's Alec Ogletree and Kansas State's Arthur Brown. If that's the route they go, they'd have a pretty solid group of linebackers, led by Burfict.