2014 (opening day): Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Emmanuel Lamur, Sean Porter, Vincent Rey, Jayson DiManche, Marquis Flowers.
2015 (current): Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Emmanuel Lamur, A.J. Hawk, P.J. Dawson, Vincent Rey, Marquis Flowers, Sean Porter, Jayson DiManche, Chris Carter, Trevor Roach
Two significant scenarios exist prompting a Shakespearean query: Will he or won't he play. Cautious and conservative estimates project Vontaze Burfict headlining the team's Physically Unable to Perform list. Those with a minor in internet medical diagnosis suggest an extended rehabilitation period to recover from micro-fracture surgery. Yet significant injuries and time-consuming rehabilitation don't account for actual training. Pretend Burfict is ready for the regular season opener in Oakland, he'll probably be well behind where he was this time last year.
As for the rest of Cincinnati's linebacker crew, the team re-signed Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur (restricted free agent), signed A.J. Hawk and drafted P.J. Dawson. Sean Porter, once an impressive figure at Texas A&M, appears doubtful to make the squad due to significant durability questions. Jayson DiManche holds a favorable view due to his production on special teams and Cincinnati will give Marquis Flowers every opportunity to win a spot.
Are the Bengals better or worse at linebacker?
In addition to drafting Dawson (initially viewed as the Burfict clone) and signing the versatile Hawk, who brings veteran leadership, Cincinnati's depth is immediately better. Porter, Flowers and DiManche, linebackers with "games played" merit badges, will compete for a roster spot; someone like Porter faces an incredible climb to create those realistic opportunities during training camp. Depth is obviously important and Cincinnati is much better compared to 2014.
The front-line talent, the starters and significant contributors, could take a dramatic turn into the pool of pessimism. Based on Burfict's indeterminate return to everyday activity and varying projections regarding possible production in 2015, the team's primary contributors should appear lesser. In his first two seasons, Burfict dominated in the NFL, earning a friendly four-year extension with a Pro Bowl merit badge sewn into his jean jacket; he spent last season concussed early and with a knee injury in late October.
Maualuga was arguably better in 2014, so one could presume positive momentum, if you ignore the four games he missed. It appeared Maualuga's niche was found, improving his contributions as a two-down linebacker by replacing him during passing situations with Emmanuel Lamur, who entered the league in a similar fashion to Burfict, as undrafted free agents. Lamur's climb appears favorable. Hawk will contribute, as will Rey -- both will be quality role players.
Are the Bengals better at linebacker? Personal instinct dictates an optimistic viewpoint with considerable variables being acknowledged, such as Burfict's health, Dawson's rookie status and the rise of secondary contributors like Porter, Flowers, and DiManche.