2014 Depth Chart
Starters: Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Emmanuel Lamur
Backups: Vinnie Rey, Marquis Flowers, Jayson DiManche
Practice Squad: None
IR: Sean Porter
Outside of quarterback, the linebacker position probably had the most question marks entering the 2014 season. How would Burfict play with a new contract? Could Maualuga be more of an asset than a liability? Is Lamur a starting NFL linebacker? Can Vinnie Rey challenge Maualuga for the starting role? Can Flowers and DiManche contribute if called upon? Can Porter stay healthy?
Well, due to injuries, Burfict never got a chance to prove he could play under a big contract. Maualuga proved to be one of the most valuable defenders of the year. Unfortunately, Lamur didn't exactly impress. Rey was decent. Flowers and DiManche proved that if they are needed, the Bengals are in trouble. And Porter ensure us that he is indeed made of glass.
Overall, the 2014 season was nothing short of disappointing for this group and the Bengals will need to get more productivity out of their linebackers in 2015.
When healthy, Burfict is one of the best linebackers in the game. Unfortunately, Burfict suffered some concerning injuries in 2014, which not only wiped out his season, but could put his career in jeopardy. Bengals camp is saying that Burfict's knee is doing well, but I will believe it when I see him on the field. Microfracture surgery, which Burfict had, is probably the worst thing a player (of any sport) can have happen to their knee. This is a surgery that has ended the careers of many players and even if a player comes back from this surgery, they rarely ever regain their explosiveness (see Kenyon Martin). If Burfict comes back healthy, that is a relief, but make no mistake about it, A.J. Hawk was signed as an insurance policy in case Burfict a) can't come back, or b) is not the player he was prior to the injury.
On top of his knee injury are the concussion concerns. Burfict didn't make it through a single game in 2014 without suffering some sort of head or neck injury and that is a big concern for a player whose job is to hit and hit hard on every play. What's worse, Burfict appears to either not know how to tackle properly, or simply doesn't care to change. Either way, even if Burfict overcomes his knee injury, if he can't learn how to tackle properly, he's going to miss significant time (or be forced to retire) due to concussions. Needless to say, the 2015 outlook on Burfict is murky at best, bleak at worst.
I have never been a huge Maualuga fan, and he is still a liability in coverage, but in 2014, the Bengals defense was night and day with and without Maualuga. When he was missing, the Bengals could not stop the run. When he was healthy, they were pretty good against the run - and therein lies the reason the Bengals re-signed him. I thought the money the Bengals gave Maualuga was a bit hefty, but I like the way the contract is structured - big money up front in 2015 with little cap hit if they elect to move on in 2016. Maualuga is a solid run-stuffing middle linebacker and seemed to find a rhythm in 2014. He is a good two down linebacker and as long as he is off the field in passing situations, he is a solid player.
Few had higher hopes for Lamur entering the 2014 season than I did and therefore few were as disappointed by his play as I was. Don't get me wrong, Lamur had flashes of good and has the ability to be an excellent cover linebacker, but he never found any consistency and at times, seemed to disappear - and that is exactly why he stayed un-signed for as long as he did. Lamur is not a guarantee to start in 2015 and in fact, depending on how the draft unfolds and how some of the young guys like Flowers and Porter progress, his spot on the 2015 roster is not a given either. I believe Lamur has the ability to be an impactful linebacker, but he needs to improve in 2015.
Rarely has the signing of a backup linebacker caused so much uproar. Some Bengals fans loved the signing simply because he is a Buckeye and it brought home a local hero. Some, like myself, loved the signing because of the experience and depth it added to a questionable position group. And a smaller, yet very loud contingent of Bengals fans, beratedthe organization for the signing because they believe Hawk is over the hill and washed up.
Here is what I will tell you about Hawk: Is he on the backside of his career? Yes. Is he the player he once was? Nope. Does the signing make the Bengals a Super Bowl contender? Hardly. Is he still a starting NFL linebacker? Borderline. Does he have a Super Bowl ring and tons of playoff experience playing beside some NFL greats (Aaron Rodgers, Clay Mathews)? Yes. And is he the all-time leading tackler of one of the most storied franchises (Green Bay), a great leader and locker room guy anddid he come at an extremely cheap price, with little to no risk...? Yes, yes and yes. And, he wanted to be on the Cincinnati Bengals!
Regardless of what you think of the Hawk signing, just go back and watch the Bengals Week 7 matchup in Indianapolis last year. Remember how bad the Bengals backup linebackers were? Well, that is why Hawk was signed. He may not have the athleticism of some of the Bengals' younger "prospects" but he is a better linebacker and he can hold down the fort much better than Flowers, DiManche, Porter or any other unproven linebacker.
Believe it or not, Rey actually lead the 2014 Bengals in tackles with 121. When on the field with Maualuga and/or Burfict, Rey played well. When on the field without either Maualuga or Burfict, Rey looked a bit lost. Rey may not be a starter, but like Hawk, he is a high quality backup who can fill in admirably if the Bengals were to lose a starter.
If we were giving out grades, Flowers would have to get an ‘Incomplete.' The Bengals were high on Flowers coming into the season, but in his limited playing time (8 tackles), he did not impress and at times, was a liability. Flowers will be fighting for a roster spot in 2015.
Like Flowers, DiManche did not impress in his limited field time (10 tackles), but he was credited with two forced fumbles. After an impressive showing on HBO's Hard Knocks in 2013, DiManche does not appear to have progressed much and will likely find himself fighting for his roster life in 2015.
IR: Sean Porter
Despite missing all of his rookie season (2013) due to injuries and all of the 2014 preseason, Porter managed to land a spot on the roster - which goes to show how highly the Bengals think of their former 4th round pick. However, in his first ever NFL snap - a kickoff - the Glass Man tore his ACL. If he can stay healthy for longer than five minutes, the Bengals tell us he can be a good NFL linebacker; the problem is, that has never happened. In order to cut down on the chances of his ulnar nerve exploding, the Bengals may want to ban him from signing autographs in 2015.
2015 Linebacker Free Agency Outlook
The Bengals added Hawk, but any other additions to the linebacking corps will come through the draft.
2015 Linebacker Draft Outlook
With the uncertainty surrounding the long term prospects at the linebacking position - Burfict's health, Maualuga's contract, Lamur's overall play, Hawk's age and the unproven abilities of the young guys - I would expect the Bengals to take a linebacker somewhere in the first four rounds - possibly even with their first pick if they were to trade back into the second round.
General Roster Makeup: 6-7 on the 53-man roster; 1-2 on the practice squad
2015 Roster Prediction:
LBs (7): Burfict, Maualuga, Lamur, Hawk, Rey, Rookie, Marquis Flowers
PS (2): Sean Porter, Rookie
2015 Linebacker Stock Outlook:
Risky - this group has the potential to be a strength of the 2015 Bengals...potentially. However, the success of this group will hinge on the health of Burfict's knee (and head) and at this point, that is a risky bet.