Last year, the lack of depth among the Bengals linebackers was one of the biggest obstacles that the team faced. The biggest single issue came from star linebacker Vontaze Burfict's head and knee issues. Although he played in five games, his snap count was equivalent to playing in less than three full games.
The issue was compounded when Rey Maualuga went down with a hamstring injury in Week 6 against Carolina and missed the next four games. In losing those two players, linebacker coach Matt Burke lost his two most physical and best run-defending linebackers.
Emmanuel Lamur was the only remaining starter in this time frame. Lamur is, by far, the most athletic linebacker on the team, but he must improve in every area. His run stop percentage (3.8% - 13 run stops in 345 run defense snaps) ranked 39th out of 42 4-3 outside linebackers. As a blitzer, he ranked last at his position with only 3 pressures in 71 pass rushes. Lamur's coverage is his strong suit, but he only ranked in the middle of the pack in every available coverage metric on Pro Football Focus. Last year, the Bengals used Lamur as the other three-down linebacker next to Burfict, but he must improve vastly as a run defender and blitzer if he wants to keep this three-down role. This year, the Bengals may consider relegating Lamur to his old nickel linebacker role and promoting either Vinny Rey, Paul Dawson, or A.J. Hawk to the starting strong side linebacker spot.
Vinny Rey, the team's leading tackler in 2014, comes into this season as a backup player. With injuries to all three starting linebackers throughout last season, it was Vinny Rey who led all linebackers in snaps and tackles made. In the first half of the season, he did not play well. Though, it wasn' entirely his fault, as every single front seven player was playing extremely poorly at the time too. As the season went on, Rey became a much more consistent player. The play around him improved, and his weekly grades on PFF steadily climbed into the positives. If Burfict were to miss any time, Vincent Rey would likely take his spot as a nickel linebacker pairing up with Lamur.
As we look forward ahead to the 2015 season, this linebacker roster has many moving parts. It's hard to project who will play where for a few reasons. First, Vontaze Burfict's rehabilitation timetable is unknown. On the first day to OTAs we got some updates that Burfict looks like he still has a long way to go.
Marvin Lewis on Burfict: Has a long way to go. Will be doing rehab work "all summer." He's trying to beat the odds and come back sooner.— Joe Danneman (@FOX19Joe) May 26, 2015
Vontaze Burfict, Sean Porter are going through some conditioning on side. Seems like Burfict still has a bit of work ahead of him #Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) May 26, 2015
About a week ago, Bengals.com reporter Geoff Hobson reported this ominous update on Burfict's status.
The status of WILL backer Vontaze Burfict seems to be up in the air and if you read the tea leaves it’s a tight call whether he’s ready for the season or starts it on PUP. Except for Jones, I doubt we’ll see any of those guys in the May and June stuff. They’re keeping their fingers crossed and I think it’s going to be close for the opener.
And on Tuesday, Marvin Lewis said, Burfict's rehab will be ongoing "all the way through summer."
With a chance that Burfict may miss at least the first six games of the season on the PUP list, that would leave the weak side starting spot and the second nickel linebacker role wide open.
Second, there is a slight chance that Emmanuel Lamur loses his starting spot on the strong side, as mentioned earlier in this article. Lamur really hurt the team as a run defender and blitzer last year.
Finally, the third reason for unpredictability in the linebacker room is the arrival of two new players - Paul Dawson and A.J. Hawk. Dawson was drafted at the end of the third round in this year's draft, but his talent and production indicate that he could outplay many players drafted before him. Take a look at what Pro Football Focus had to say when they compared Paul Dawson to Bernardrick McKinney, who was taken 56 picks earlier.
McKinney has the athleticism, but Paul Dawson, still on the board at this point, has the production. McKinney was the 42nd-graded linebacker in this class, Dawson was the first. McKinney notched 30 defensive stops over the season, Dawson notched 94. In coverage McKinney allowed a passer rating of 96.4 while Dawson just 50.7.
Even on the blitz, McKinney tallied four sacks and 11 total pressures while Dawson notched seven sacks and 28 total pressures. McKinney trounces Dawson when it comes to athleticism and measurables, but is a vastly inferior player on the field judging by college production.
Dawson's astounding 2014 run-stop percentage (23.2%) indicates that he has elite instincts and tackling ability when defending the run. Although he's only 230 pounds and hasn't yet developed a consistent ability to stack and shed, he might already one of the team's best run defending linebackers.
A.J. Hawk, the former Buckeye and 10-year NFL veteran, is the last piece to the puzzle. Hawk has never been a great player. Rather, a solid, cerebral veteran who doesn't get out of position too often. As Burfict rehabilitates and Maualuga recovers from a very minor issue that held him out of OTA on Tuesday, the Bengals current starters at linebacker are Hawk, Lamur, and Rey.
First set of LBs were Hawk and EMan flanking Vinnie Rey.— Geoff Hobson (@GeoffHobsonCin) May 26, 2015
At the end of the day, there are six possible players who could start for the Bengals at linebacker in the first game of the year. Maualuga will surely be one of them if he's healthy. He's not getting $7 million this year to ride the bench. Burfict, should be one of them too, but his injury situation is much more bleak. Lamur has the inside track at the strong side spot, but there's a small chance he loses it. The two veterans, Rey and Hawk, would be safe, but not exciting fall back options. Finally, Paul Dawson could push for one of those spots as Vontaze Burfict did in his rookie year. Ultimately, it was Thomas Howard's Week 2 ACL injury during practice that allowed Burfict to get on the field. If Burfict ends up on the PUP list to start the season, it could present a huge opportunity for Paul Dawson, who is ideally suited for the weak side.