Vontaze Burfict (3rd season, 2014: $570,000)
We hold no illusions about it. If the Cincinnati Bengals are defensive-oriented team, then Vontaze Burfict is your most valuable player for the foreseeable future (which includes the uncertainty surrounding the rehabilitation efforts of defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall). Entering his third and final season of a three-year deal that he signed as an undrafted free agent following the 2012 NFL draft, Burfict has become an unlikely face of motivation as Cincinnati enters the post-Zimmer era.
In two seasons, Burfict has already generated 308 tackles in (according to the team's numbers), with an interception, forced fumble, and four fumble recoveries -- one of which was returned for a touchdown. Burfict was named to the 2014 Pro Bowl; an honor that a Bengals linebacker hasn't held since Jim LeClair in 1976.
Not only is he a play-maker, a rock steady roadblock for opposing offenses that takes on open-field tackles with relative ease, Burfict has become an emotional leader of an aggressive defense that needs to find their footing after their general, father-figure defensive coordinator left for Minnesota. And if anyone can carry that message, it's Vontaze Burfict.
Rey Maualuga (6th season, 2014: $2.25 million)
Once a down-trodden linebacker that wasn't sure if he'd be wanted after his performance against the Houston Texans during the 2012 wild card game, the Bengals re-signed Rey Maualuga to a two-year deal. Instead of applying him as an every down linebacker, the Bengals converted him to a two-down run stopper and his overall performance showed improvement. He finished second on the team with 110 tackles, adding a quarterback sack and interception, along with three passes defensed -- and he did that missing three games with a knee injury and concussion.
Many of those previous issues remain. He missed a team-high 13 tackles (tied with Adam Jones and George Iloka) and when he was asked to play coverage, 82.9 percent of the passes that he covered were completed -- along with a 95.4 opposing quarterback rating. Maualuga wasn't great. He wasn't bad. He was serviceable. And that's alright -- but he's certainly replaceable.
James Harrison (11th season, 2014: $1.1 million)
He didn't play the same role with Cincinnati that he did during his stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harrison was mostly a run stopper that played some in coverage, with only 146 pass rushes -- or 38.1 percent of his total defensive snaps. Credited with two quarterback sacks and an interception, Harrison generated only 30 tackles in 2013 -- his lowest total since becoming a full-time starter with the Steelers in '07.
One could argue that it wasn't his on-field presence that helped. In fact, his greatest application was giving Cincinnati some teeth, a nastiness that found its way into Burfict and maybe even generating some confidence in Maualuga. Either way, his arrival wasn't just about the production that he could offer Cincinnati -- it was behind the scenes in the team's locker room.
Vincent Rey (4th season, 2014: RFA)
Despite being a restricted free agent, we'd be shocked if Vincent Rey (or Vinnie or Vinny) played for any other team than the Cincinnati Bengals in 2014. Primarily a special teams player with spot-duty on defense, Rey strung together a career-year with two interceptions and four quarterback sacks -- three sacks and a pick against the Baltimore Ravens alone. Rey added an interception and a forced fumble.
Unless something unexpectedly happens with the top-three, Rey won't be viewed as a projected starter at the onset. An injury or a player release could change things -- we can't project the former and don't expect the latter. Either way, Rey is a model example of how the Bengals roster continues to show an impressive measure of their depth and development.
Michael Boley (10th season, 2014: UFA)
A street free agent when injuries impacted the team's linebacker position midway through the season, Boley finished with ten games played and seven tackles generated on only 56 defensive snaps played.
As an unrestricted free agent, it's possible that Cincinnati re-signs the ten-year veteran to ensure roster stability. However, with Emmanuel Lamur and Sean Porter returning from their respective preseason injuries, it forecasts an improbable return.
Jayson DiManche (2nd season, 2014: $495,000)
Just another player in a long-line of undrafted linebackers that's made an impression on Cincinnati's roster -- you can wink your striped eye at former linebackers coach and current defensive coordinator Paul Guenther for that trend.
DiManche was a special teams stud, who finished with 12 stops and a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. Defensively, DiManche only played 47 snaps with six tackles and one stop (which constitutes a failure for the opposing offense).
Like Rey, it's unlikely that DiManche replaces any starters in the foreseeable future. Still, keep your eye out for him.
J.K. Schaffer (2nd season, 2014: $495,000)
Born in Cincinnati. Played college ball in Cincinnati. Now a professional football player in Cincinnati. Second-year linebacker J.K. Schaffer will enter his second season in his hometown after being tossed around as a practice squad player prior to playing in nine games with Cincinnati in 2013. Schaffer, who only played eight snaps on defense last season, finished the season with three tackles and another six on special teams.
Emmanual Lamur (3rd season, 2014: $495,000)
Did you know that at one point in 2012, Emmanuel Lamur was viewed as the favorable linebacker in comparison to Vontaze Burfict? It's true. Once Burfict overcame those demons attached to his predraft status, the obvious result took place and Lamur was a victim of numbers when the final 53-man roster was released. He spent the first half of the season on the team's practice squad in 2012, before playing nine games and generating 19 tackles on defense with two passes defensed.
Projected as a hybrid player with duel citizenship at linebacker and safety, Lamur suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the final preseason game last season. Lamur, to me, is very interesting that could become a significant role player that Taylor Mays ended up managing.
Sean Porter (2nd season, 2014: $495,000)
In many ways, Porter has already been forgotten. A former fourth-rounder that suffered a season-ending torn labrum during training camp, Marvin Lewis praised Porter as a versatile athlete.
"Sean is a guy who can really run and cover, and he’s going to continue to grow and develop. He has the potential to be an NFL body, an athleticism-type body similar to Thomas Howard when he was here. He’s going to be big enough and strong enough and also have the flexibility and speed to be very productive."
Porter will have the opportunity this year to make that impact that was projected in 2013.
Brandon Joiner (2nd season, 2014: $420,000)
This kid has the worst luck -- though some of it via his own doing, of course. After being signed as an undrafted free agent, Joiner spent time in the slammer from a crime that was committed in '07. The Bengals knew that this was going to go down, signing him to a contract anyway and holding onto his rights until he was freed in 2013. Unfortunately, a month after training camp, Joiner suffered a season-ending knee injury.
He will fight again this year, to make the 53-man roster or, at the very least, earn a spot on the team's practice squad. The thing that's going for Joiner is that Cincinnati finds diamonds in undrafted linebackers, who are often given an honest shot at making an impression.
Bruce Taylor (1st year, 2014: $420,000)
After being waived during final cuts, Taylor was unemployed until Nov. 4 when Cincinnati signed him to their practice squad. He remained there until the end of the season, and now he's transitioning as one of the practice squad players that signed onto the team's active offseason roster.