One of the more interesting aspects of the recent signing of James Harrison is how it will affect the upcoming draft. Over the past several weeks, linebacker has been strongly considered to be a position of need for the Bengals. Almost one out of every three mock drafts has the team selecting a linebacker in the first round. Only safety and right tackle were ranked as bigger needs.
But now that the Bengals have acquired Harrison, things are different. The starting three linebacker spots seem to be filled now, with Harrison sliding into Manny Lawson's old role and Maualuga and Burfict remaining at their 2012 posts. After the very underwhelming result of moving Maualuga into the middle, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer now seems hesitant to shake up the position, despite calls to the contrary. Moreover, both Maualuga and Harrison received multi-year deals from the team, ensuring their services beyond 2013. There is no longer any immediate need for a new linebacker to step and contribute right away.
So what does that mean as the Bengals turn their attention to the draft on Thursday evening? According to Goeff Hobson of Bengals.com, Marvin Lewis and co. are now unlikely to draft a linebacker near the top of the draft. Not just in the first round, but also in any of the early rounds as well.
On the one hand, an argument could be made that this is good news. The Bengals have freed themselves of a need and are able to draft more widely using a best-player-available approach. If the best player on their board at 21 happens to be a linebacker, then so be it, but they will no longer be forced to reach for a player that might only see the field for one third of the team's snaps.
On the other hand, unless Maualuga actually takes the next step and becomes a quality starter, the Bengals will simply have delayed the inevitable, forcing them into the same situation of needing a difference maker at linebacker in next year's draft. Furthermore, depending on how things work out with Harrison, they might also need a second helping hand at linebacker. Harrison signed a two-year deal, but at 35-years-old and coming off of a knee surgery, there is no telling how much is left in his tank. If both players need replacing following 2013, then the need will be twice as urgent.
The Bengals typically make first-round selections based on their most immediate need, so even without the addition of Harrison, a right tackle or safety were more likely picks than linebacker. But given the fact that Hobson is stating that they won't select any linebackers in the early rounds of the draft, the Bengals might be setting themselves up for failure down the road.