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Rough Draft: Linebackers, Tight Ends and Receivers in NFL Draft and Free Agency

Taking your draft questions and Bengals topics from Twitter and trying to answer them.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

"@BMlDD: Who do you think the best replacement for Rey Maualuga in the draft?"

I'm glad Bez asked about the Draft to replace Maualuga. This is where it should be done. The Bengals really haven't drafted a non-pass-rushing Linebacker since Maualuga was taken in the second-round in 2008. Since then, it's been Day-3 picks of Rodderick Muckelroy and Marquis Flowers. That's it. Now is the time to dip into the LB pool for a chance to upgrade.

I wouldn't look into free agency either. The Bengals already have about $9M of their cap tied into Vontaze Burfict, Vinny Rey and the likely restricted offer to Emanuel Lamur. Re-signing Maualuga at nearly $4M per year would take your LB Cap over the suggested budget for a 4-3 Defense.

With the three under contract, you have, at the least, quality starters that could help bring along a rookie LB. They're all flexible too, so you're not locked into drafting a certain type of LB. Besides, the second-round linebackers picked in recent drafts have been dynamite. Take a look...

past drafts LB

Every Non-Pass-Rushing LB drafted in the second round since 2010.

Most of these picks not only became starters, but some are leaders of their defense and some of the best LBs in the entire NFL. The second-round is the sweet spot for drafting a non-pass-rushing linebacker. This position along with running backs have become the most valued picks in recent NFL history. The Bengals have already seen tremendous value from their second-round RBs, it's time for some love at linebacker.

Now, let's look at some prospects who have caught my eye. This group should hear their names called between picks 20 and 100. The Bengals will have four opportunities to take the LB they want.

1) Eric Kendricks - UCLA
Kendricks is a natural LB with top level awareness, feel and anticipation. He is a very good tackler who displays great form and stops ball-carriers in their tracks. He lives within 3 yards of the LOS and most of his plays occur there. He diagnoses runs quickly and gets to the hole before the RB. Instinctively avoids blockers in the second level. Better when attacking downhill in both coverage and in run defense. Once he fires, Kendricks is sure to make the stop. He's an above average athlete and will need to get stronger, but he's ready to start in the NFL.

2) Paul Dawson - TCU
Dawson is comfortable in space, with good instincts and anticipation. He takes good angles to the ball carrier and knows how to slip through traffic. He doesn't take on blocks or shed them well and he's at his best when deciphering the run and attacking downhill. In man coverage can get handsy as his feet stop, but Dawson shows nice awareness in zone and has good ball skills; plus, he's a solid blitzer.

As a secure tackler that knows his range, Dawson can often look stiff in space, causing him to miss tackles. He's an above average athlete aided by mental aspects of game like Awareness, Anticipation and Football IQ. Dawson is scheme versatile and should see early action.

3) Shaq Thompson - Washington
Thompson played S, RB and LB. He's mostly likely an NFL OLB. At first, he's probably just a Nickel backer that'll offer athleticism in space. Thompson needs time to develop at one position. He's not a downhill run defender at this point and plays a little hesitant towards runs at him. He'd rather chase them down from the side/behind as he doesn't take on blocks well. He isn't great in man coverage and usually wins because of his natural gifts; not technique or intelligence.

He's better in zone where he can read and react, but still saw his share of mistakes and late reactions. Thompson isn't always an aggressive player and isn't in on every play, but when you need a stop and he's in range to make one, the lights come on and he looks great. Most importantly, Shaq Thompson has an unexplainable knack for finding the football. This is an aspect that's hard to calculate and will surely get people excited about Thompson. He just makes plays and that interests me.

4) Benardrick McKinney - Miss State
"Mckinney is a massive man who uses his size to upper body strength to fend of/shed blockers. He plays multiple positions, lines up at all three LB spots and provides a decent bull rush when blitzing. Teams can mold his elite blend of size and body control into whatever they want. McKinney never missed a game due to injury in 3 years of SEC play and had slightly more than a 50% solo tackle percentage. He's a big hitter and uses his size to pack a punch when he squares guys up and has good but not great tackling form.

Cons: Has sloppy footwork in traffic, can lose his footing when having to get around bodies on the turf. Marginal motor; seems uninterested in chasing down plays away from him.  Lacks ideal speed to get to the edge, which concerns me if he will ever be able to play in coverage, he might be 2-down player. Lack of speed also causes him to have to go full speed to get to the edge and he misses tackles with over-pursuit when shifty players cut back inside." (This report is courtesy of Cody Tewmey. He has been working with me this draft season. Give him a follow at @Codiki)

5) Denzel Perryman - Miami
Perryman is thickly built with good strength and power. When coming downhill with speed and power at maximum, Perryman can pack a serious punch. He knocks lineman on their butts and causes RBs to reroute just by creating havoc.

Perryman has solid straight-line and closing speed. When he has to move laterally or backwards, Perryman becomes average as he doesn't have the ability to generate power or speed in short areas. He just doesn't have that type of burst. Without his strength, he becomes a liability. Perryman should be best used as a base ILB who attacks the run downhill. He should be fine in short zones but doesn't show man coverage ability.

He's a good tackler who often misses because he doesn't understand his own radius and limitations. Sometimes Perryman avoids blockers and can't always make up for the extra steps. He sees through lineman and his eyes stay focused on the ball carrier. When he reads the play and gets going before the snap, he looks like a monster. He could be a great run defender in the NFL and that interests me.

6) Stephone Anthony - Clemson
Note: Anthony is actually currently our 4th-highest graded Linebacker in this draft, but McKinney and Perryman offer more in one single phase of the game than Anthony's combined talents. Take the better overall player or the players with the one dominant ability?

On to Anthony... He trusts his insticts, has great anticipation and read & react because of it; he never hesitates. Anthony is an extremely durable player, he never missed a start as a four year starter (only injury was ligament tear in spring ball but didn't miss a game). He increased his solo tackle percentage throughout career and finished with over 50% solo tackles. Anthony is a solid tackler who shows good form and discipline, he has the strength to stop larger RBs' forward momentum and drive them back. He is not afraid to sacrifice his body to allow his teammates to make plays either, as seen when destroying the wedge on screen plays.

Good timing on his blitzes make him fairly effective with his bull rush. To be an effective 3 down player in the NFL he will have to work on his coverage skills. He showed improvement from the end of the season to the senior bowl so I think he can do it. Right now he is stiff in coverage and instantly opens his hips when he is dropping back. NFL QBs will see that and throw to his back side with ease, he will need to develop a backpeddle. In zone coverage he tends to sit in his spot and not shift with the play leaving him out of position at times. Doesn't have elite top end speed, and needs to play all the way through the whistle; sometimes he doesn't when the play is away from him.  -- Cody Tewmey

"@Kevskirk: Why is a linebacker split out right against Gronk?"

This was a question from the Super Bowl. The Patriots kept lining Rob Gronkowksi out wide and the Seahawks would send a linebacker to the boundary to cover him. Not only does it look like a mismatch on paper, but this is exactly what the Patriots hoped would happen and they took advantage of it a few times. When Tom Brady sees an LB on his all-world TE, he instantly knows the defense is playing man coverage. If they were in zone, you'd see the boundary CB aligned over the Patriots TE. This makes the defense easier to read and Brady can pick his spots before they even snap the ball.
This is added value to having versatile players like Gio Bernard and Tyler Eifert who can split out wide and make a defense declare their coverage before the snap. Andy Dalton has had his struggles with pre- and post-snap reads, having a healthy Tyler Eifert could really help this aspect of his game.

Speaking of the Tight End position for the Bengals, allow me to expand on their offseason plan to replace Jermaine Gresham. First, let's talk about the different roles among the TE depth chart. You have two different types:

  • The Y-TE: This is the inline player. He often lines up on the line of scrimmage (LOS) and is asked to block Defensive Ends or pass rushing LBs. This is your more traditional type and the Bengals had two under contract last year in Gresham and Alex Smith.
  • The H-TE or the "Move-TE" is the player with more athleticism but less strength. They're not as good of blockers and in order to maximize this aspect of their game, coaches will keep them OFF the LOS, in motion, in the backfield or split out like a WR. These players are typically much better receivers than the Y-TE and make their money in this phase of the game. The Bengals have two players that fit this role in Tyler Eifert and Ryan Hewitt.

The Y-TE is vital to the run game. If you shoehorn a natural H-TE into that spot, you're going to suffer in the run game, but probably be able to expand your passing attack. That balance is up to the coaches and it's why most teams usually go with 2-TEs. This way, they can always count on the blocking from their Y-TE.

Now, for the Bengals, losing Gresham will be a big loss in the fact that they don't currently have somebody to replace him. I think they'll draft a TE, but when it comes to blocking, this will be a priority when free agency arrives, but let's not look at the receiving H types, the Bengals will be active looking for the Y-TE. Here's the short list...

Blocking TEs

Free Agent List of Blocking Tight Ends

"@BHugh_215: Any chance Leon Hall slides to Nickel corner; play Dennard, Kirkpatrick at Boundary?"

Leon Hall still has something to offer. He's a good Nickel CB that'll play the run, is smart and is still great in zone coverage. Limiting him to just Nickel CB may not be a bad idea. You'd limit the chance that he hurts himself again while still seeing 500+ snaps a season. Maybe a fresher Hall would help extend his career. I'm just not sure his salary would allow the Bengals to use him in a limited capacity.

You have to think the future for the Bengals secondary is with Kirkpatrick at LCB, Dennard at RCB and Iloka at FS. Beyond that, things get murky after 2015.

"@StankFreakNasty: interested to see your report on Jaelen Strong. I was really impressed this year with his contested catches. Played hurt too."

Jaelen Strong is currently my 10th highest graded receiver prospect heading into the Scouting Combine. He is a big, possession WR with the ability to make crazy catches that grab your attention. He struggles to get open because of physical limitations and his route running isn't refined. Almost every pass targeted his way is contested. He is asked to make hard catches almost every time the ball is thrown his way. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn't. This isn't a good formula for success.

His ball skills are great in flashes and poor in other flashes. He needs to be consistently good in this area to dominate. if you cannot consistently get open, you need to be able to win at the catch-point more than most. Consistency is an issue with Strong and I suspect it will continue. On the plus side, he played all over the ASU offense and ran a bunch of different routes. There's some upside here, but it may be play-to-play upside rather than long-term physical upside.

"@Shuntzz: Who is your pro comparison for ECU's Justin Hardy?"

Hardy is one of my favorite prospects at this point in the process. He stood out at the Senior Bowl and I immediately kept thinking of Marvin Jones because Hardy runs just like him and attacks the ball in a similar way. He currently grades out as my fourth-highest receiver.

He is a natural football player; Ball Skills and improv skills set him apart. Hardy had to play with a backyard, poor QB and had to adjust to poorly thrown passes and play outside the framework of conventional offenses. Even with the QB-play, Hardy was a very productive college WR.

I would tell coaches not to take away his ability to find open areas and break his routes. He has a Stevie Johnson element to him that makes Hardy very hard to predict and cover. He just has a natural feel for the game and it shows routinely. Let him shine in this atmosphere. He would work well with Russell Wilson, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers, (Who wouldn't?) but any quarterback willing to extend the play would find Justin Hardy a valuable asset. Hardy is a very willing and skilled blocker, he has the ability to run after the catch, throw passes and return punts. The versatility is there.

The bad side is Hardy almost always lined up on right side of the formation. He isn't an automatic catcher despite great ball-tracking. Hardy will finish his rookie season at 24-years-old.