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2015 Bengals Position Preview: Linebackers

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There is no shortage of drama and colorful characters this year for the Cincinnati Bengals. We take a look, with some help from William Shakespeare, at how everything might work out when the training camp dust has settled.

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"In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage; then led the eye a terrible aspect." Was it Marvin Lewis who said that or Shakespeare’s King Henry V? I always forget.

Often labeled as the captains and commanders of the defense, the linebackers are often the quintessential mold for football players: big, fast and dangerous. They’re in the trenches for every play, responsible for leveling fleet-footed running backs and undercutting colossal linemen. It’s difficult not to draw comparisons between drama and sports or to hold corresponding views of the professional athletic world with the eloquent and relatable words of literary masters. This all may seem a bit forced when discussing the linebacker preview for the 2015 Bengals, but bear with me. William Shakespeare wrote of flawed rulers and weary battlers. Leaders with crooked backs and statesmen with mental burdens. Tragedy and triumph overflows in his work and in looking at the Bengals’ upcoming slate, it’s hard not to see Shakespearian dramas being played out.

Vontaze Burfict will be coming off an injury-plagued season and trying to regain the dominance he held as a rookie, when he led the team in tackles and was looked to as the leader of an already accomplished defense. But, as with any great drama, there are layers, and Burfict’s road to the Bengals was zig-zaged with off-field issues. Labeled as a liability, he proved would-be suitors wrong and was transformed. The irony is that the crushing style of play that made him so successful is now what is limiting him. The tragedy is that he may not come back as strong again, but overcoming the odds time and time again is what heroes do best.

A.J. Hawk is a warrior who for once dawns new colors, and yet isn’t far from home. The prodigal son returns after 10 battle-tested years with the Green Bay Packers, and he looks to squeeze out tackles and prove to be an anchor. When a proven gladiator returns to his roots, it’s a tale we love to hear. But his story needs to be far from over, at least for the Bengals’ sake.

The others populating this cast of characters tell more stories filled with rejection, everyday soldiers, and stories of eternal hope. Are we ready to watch a tragedy? An adventure? A triumph? A comedy? Most likely it will include all of these elements, but that’s what a good story should do. Shakespeare wouldn’t have had it any other way.

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…"

-Marvin Lewis -King Henry V

Vontaze Burfict

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em."  - Twelfth Night

Burfict has been down this road before. This down-and-out road. This well-beaten path of the battered professional athlete. A bar was set in 2012 when he was a Pro Bowler and a team leader in tackles. He was the talk of the NFL and a player on the rise, but the injury bug bit. In Burfict’s case it was symptomatic of his playing style: fierce hits and punishing play, which while inspiring, doesn’t usually equate to longevity. But the odds have been against him before; undrafted, he took the rather large chip on his shoulder and used it as a counter weight against opposing teams. This year the doubts are back. With the words "microfracture surgery" and "concussions" thick on the tongues of sportswriters. The physical impingement can often be harder to overcome than mental squabbles. We know he’s strong and we know he wants it. A healthy and smarter Burfict is what the Bengals need, because one thing we know about this well-worn path of uncertainty is that it’s how leaders are made.

Chris Carter

"Never shame to hear what you have nobly done." - Coriolanus

Chris Carter appears to be a plumber player, in that he will come in everyday he’s on the team and do his job. There are little expectations for the fourthyear linebacker listed deep on the depth chart, but everyone has a role. Mainly utilized on special teams, he was brought in as a backfill to a tattered Bengal defense late last season after signing a one year deal following his release by Indianapolis. While we always wish every Bengals player the best, let’s hope we don’t see much of Carter mid-field in 2015/2016.

P.J. Dawson

"We know what we are but know not what we may be." - Hamlet

Watch the tape on this 22-year-old rookie and you’ll see the comparisons to Burfict plain as day. Instinctual and explosive, he disrupts offensive party plans with his athleticism. Chosen 99th overall, Dawson is the intriguing pick in 2015 for your Cincinnati Bengals. Intrigue in a rookie usually carries the connotation of high ceilings and harsh tumbles. While game day triumphs mirror a Burfict-style of play, apparently it’s his weekday exploits that also remind those in the business of making suggestions of a young Burfict. Showing up late to team meetings, rubbing coaches the wrong way, and even a failed drug test appear on his rap sheet, but the Bengals often show a willingness to forgive youthful misdeeds in hopes of development. Dawson has the ability to be in the mix and there could be ample opportunity for him to prove his worth and have an impactful rookie season.

Jayson DiManche

"And all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts." - As You Like It

Dejected and scooped up as an undrafted signing (are we noticing a theme here?), DiManche could forge significant time yet this upcoming season. After suffering a season ending forearm fracture against Tampa Bay last year, he appears to be back and healthy. He’s not a significant solution at linebacker, but lessening the blow of the projected starters and keeping pace is a worthy accomplishment. He played in all possible games last season before going on the IR. It’s inevitable that a starter may go down at an inopportune time. Whether it’s Maualuga with a charlie-horse on a 3rd and 3 play late in the second half of a tight game or a season altering injury for an established starter, that’s when DiManche needs to be there; ready in the footsteps, waiting to strike.

Marquis Flowers

"Have patience, and endure." - Much Ado About Nothing

The former Arizona prospect made a move from safety to linebacker in his junior year and has since earned himself a spot on the Bengals’ defense. In the same way DiManche will fill select opportunities to prove his worth, Flowers is tasked with the same. He’ll most likely be living in the shadows for a second straight year, but having played in all 16 games last season, he at least has a foot in the door.

A.J. Hawk

"Brevity is the soul of wit." - Hamlet

Ladies and gentlemen, A.J. Hawk is now a Cincinnati Bengal. Okay, so that statement might have carried more weight, say, 10 – hell, even five - years ago. But here we stand in 2015 and the Ohio State standout has come back to the motherland. He has described himself as a, "Quiet guy [who] tr[ies] to lead by example and just keep my head down and do my job." This is the type of leadership teams need in a locker room. While of course we’re months away from an opening kickoff, it’s hard to project just what will happen on the field. But, as preparations begin it’s that type of quote you like to hear. Hawk has been to the light at the end of the tunnel; he’s won a Super Bowl, and that type of experience from a high-profile player doesn’t come around often. As the most tenured professional in the linebacker core, Hawk will be a pretty big cog in the defensive machine for Cincinnati.

Emmanuel Lamur

"Strong reasons make strong actions." - King John

Joe Flacco knows exactly who Emmanuel Lamur is. And outside of the Baltimore signal caller’s head, he’s been growing in our minds for some time now. The E-Man was at first filling in spots, but after the departure of James Harrison in 2014, we saw some more of what he can do, and we has impressed. The Kansas State product had, well, ‘a year’ last year. It’s not enough to call it a breakout year, but it’s enough to keep him in the mix for the upcoming season. Coming off shoulder surgery in 2013, last year he proved no worse for the wear and was able to make use of his growing time on the field. Look for him to be another constant in the middle while we wait to see if the rookies around him pop or not.

Rey Maualuga

"It is a tale… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." - Macbeth

When all is said and done and you sort through the last five years of the Bengals defense, it’s hard to come up with an argument against Rey Maualuga being the defensive leader. Outside of the newly acquired Hawk, Rey is the most tenured Bengal backer. It’s often times been a struggle with Rey as he flirted with fan expectations but hasn’t really convinced us. It’s mostly because those expectations were so damn high. An All-American in high school and college, he came from the highly touted USC program and drew comparisons to Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu. And honestly, that’s what we expected. To say he has underperformed may be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. He’s logged decent numbers through his career and has remained a constant for a tough Bengals defense. When the spotlight shifted from him in 2012 with the emergence of Burfict his numbers were the best they ever were, logging 122 tackles. This offseason, he signed a contract extension to avoid free agency so we will continue to see him in black and orange for the next three years.

Sean Porter

"And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse." - King John

It’s hard to believe there isn’t much to say about Sean Porter, despite his logging two years with the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s hard to say anything because, quite frankly, we haven’t seen him. He was drafted in 2013 but suffered a season-ending torn labrum only days after training camp started. He didn’t make his debut in 2014 until Week 4 , when his playing time included all of 12 seconds. He suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff, which knocked him out for the rest of the year. It’s hard to think Porter will do much of anything as a Bengal. While the injuries keep piling up, players like Lamur and DiManche are logging experience and now two rookies are waiting in the wings. We can hope for a healthy season, but it seems like the proverbial ship has sailed.

Vincent Rey

"Men at some time are masters of their fate." - Julius Caesar

I’ve liked this Duke grad for some time now. I remember his big game in Baltimore in 2013, when he had three sacks and an interception (still the only Bengal player ever to do so). I remember later in the season him picking off Minnesota for 35 yards and a touchdown. Last year he put it all together for what could definitely be called a breakout year. His 121 tackles led the team as he played in all 16 games. The injury-plagued defense was looking for a stopper last season, and Rey answered the call. I just hope he stays by the phone for this season as well.

Trevor Roach

"Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken."-Sonnet 116

The rookie will have a bit of hard road to travel if he expects to see time with the Bengals in 2015. Signed out of Nebraska after going undrafted, Roach made enough of an impression during his school’s pro day to land an extended audition with Cincinnati, but he’s going to have to prove himself. But hey, that’s not out of the question. Roach already did it once by walking on to Nebraska as a freshman and ended his career there by notching 63 tackles as a senior.