When Linebacker Thomas Howard signed with the Bengals last year in free agency, it was hard to get too excited about the guy. He spent all of 2010 in the Oakland Raiders' doghouse, after mediocre 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Howard was signed as a result of Keith Rivers' wrist injury that would keep Rivers from playing all year. Howard eventually took over Rivers' WLB spot, but at the time no one knew if he would be good enough to start for a whole year.
Howard then showed everyone why he deserved an early second-round pick, and looked a lot better than what most expected from him. He emerged as a versatile and tough linebacker; a tackling machine that could also cover well in the passing game.
He was a big reason for the turnaround on defense this year. He played more snaps in 2011 than any other player in the defensive front seven, and he led the Bengals in tackles in five of the last seven games.
But, what does he think the biggest part of the turnaround was? In a recent interview, Howard cites the revived locker room, youth, focus, and coaching:
I think it was a combination of things. I enjoyed being in the locker room this year. And I think it helps that we got younger this year. There aren’t many guys over 30 on our club, and they’re all focused. They were playing better. We’ve always had a good coaching staff, and that really came together on the field this year.
It was tough losing Ocho-Cinco (Chad Johnson) and (former quarterback) Carson Palmer, but it became clear that our collective fate was in our hands.
Howard is still one of the more underrated players on this Bengals defense. He didn't have a perfect season, but he definitely showed why he deserves to be starting on this team.
At the age of 28, Howard is definitely one of the more senior members of this extremely young squad. Howard also said that he "tries to lead by example", which is exactly what a young players can look up to and learn from.
The fact that more and more players have praised the locker room and the youth of this team really shows what a bright future this Bengals squad has in front of them.