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Bengals Training Camp: Updated look at LB Battle and 2015 Outlook

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AJ Hawk is now starting. Vontaze Burfict's return is still unknown. Chris Carter is quietly emerging. These are just some of the many developments that have come at LB in Bengals training camp and the preseason.

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Coming into 2014, the linebacker position was viewed as one of the Bengals' biggest positions of strengths.

Now in 2015, it's a position of slight uncertainty as the regular season inches closer. There's still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this position, but not before several questions are answered in camp and the preseason. With that said, here's a look at the current state of the 2015 Bengals linebackers:

The Cast

Getting significant snaps: Vinny Rey, Emmanuel Lamur, Rey Maualuga, A.J. Hawk

Injured, but starter when healthy: Vontaze Burfict

Role players: P.J. Dawson

Special teamers and fringe roster players: Nico Johnson, Marquis Flowers, Jayson DiManche, Chris Carter

Injured, but special teamer and fringe roster player: Sean Porter

Cincinnati made two significant moves at LB this offseason. The first of which was signing former Green Bay Packers LB A.J. Hawk. The Packers released Hawk this offseason with a "failed physical" designation, but it was more to save $3.5 million against the salary cap. Hawk has only missed eight of 144 regular season games in his career.

The Packers' franchise-leader with 1,118 tackles, Hawk concluded a nine-year run in Green Bay this offseason, which started with a first round draft selection in the 2006 NFL draft. In recent years, however, Hawk's play has slowly declined to the point where he was ranked 52nd out of 60 eligible ILB last year via Pro Football Focus.

Still, the former Buckeyes All-American has already managed to earn a starting role in the defense. In the Bengals' first preseason game, Hawk started at SLB, despite Emmanuel Lamur holding that role in 2014.

At that spot, Lamur played in 14 games (13 starts) and finished second on the team with 91 total tackles, seven pass deflections and two interceptions. Still, both Lamur and Hawk got runs with the starters, though it was Hawk on the field on early run downs with Lamur spelling him on clear passing downs. Perhaps that's a combination we'll see throughout the regular season. Though he turned 26 in June, there's reason to believe Lamur still has room to grow as an NFL player with not even two full seasons under his belt.

Another key LB will by Vinny Rey. During  the past two years, Rey has done an admirable job starting when Burfict and/or Maualuga were sidelined. He can play any of the three LB spots and do so at a quality level. It was his play at OLB that got him recognized by Pro Football Focus as one of the best tackling LBs in 2014.

His tackling efficiency of 28.1 meant that Rey missed one tackle in every 28.1 attempts, which was the second-highest rate of any OLB. Expect him to start at WLB to start the year if Burfict is unable to play. Even when Burfict is back, Rey will still be getting plenty of snaps at multiple backer spots.

The Promising Rookie

The other big addition Cincinnati made at LB this offseason was through the draft in the form of TCU All-American P.J. Dawson. Going into the draft, Dawson was rated as the top 4-3 LB prospect by some, and most expected he'd be off the board by the end of the second round.

That belief has been reinforced in training camp thus far, where Dawson has been a force on the defensive side of the ball. However, that didn't translate into much playing time in the preseason opener. Dawson played in just 21 snaps with guys like Chris Carter (31) and Marquis Flowers (37) getting more run than him. That could be because those two have NFL experience that Dawson does not, or it could be a sign that Dawson isn't picking up the defense as fast as hoped.

As for the upcoming season, Dawson will likely play mostly at WLB while Burfict recovers from microfracture surgery. At worst, Dawson will split playing time with Vinny at WLB while also getting some runs at MLB when Maualuga needs a break.

Though he's best suited at WILL, Dawson can play all three backer spots because of his coverage skills, tackling ability and pass-rushing prowess. It's possible he's already among the most complete LBs the Bengals have before he plays a down of football.

The Man in the Middle

At MLB, it will once again be Rey Maualuga and everyone else.

From the moment the star LB was drafted out of USC in 2009, Maualuga was viewed as the future in the middle of the Bengals' defense.

However, from 2011-13, Maualuga ranked among Pro Football Focus' worst MLBs, and any fan who watched him play could tell he wasn't suited for the role in which Cincinnati had placed him.

Maualuga did have a decent year in 2014, finishing with a -0.1 grade from PFF, ranking him 27th out of 60 middle backers who played in at least 25% of their teams' snaps.

Here's another perspective: Maualuga missed four games this year (Weeks 7-10) with a severe hamstring injury. There's a noticeable difference:

W/ MAUALUGA

W/O MAUALUGA

TOTAL YARDS

351.3

383.3

RUSHING

106.8

145

POINTS

20.5

24.5

Needless to say, the Bengals found a role for Maualuga last year that made better use of his strengths while negating his weaknesses. That led to Cincinnati re-signing him to a lofty three-year, $15-million deal that will pay him more than $7 million in 2015. He's a starter so long as he's healthy, and that's been the case in training camp.

The Big Unknown

As for the starting WLB, that belongs to Vontaze Burfict, when he's healthy, that is. The biggest question mark for the Bengals' defense right now is when Burfict will be back.

After leading the team in tackles in 2012 and 2013, Burfict was lost in 2014 to a knee injury, after missing multiple games and parts of games due to concussion and neck issues. Burfict underwent microfracture surgery in late January. He's since opened camp on the PUP list with no clear-cut return date in sight.

Depending on what the Bengals do with him could determine other players' chances of making the final roster. If Burfict remains on PUP, that means he misses the first six weeks, and another LB spot is open for one of the fringe guys. If Burfict comes off PUP before the regular season, that likely will cost one of those fringe guys a job.

The Fringe Guys

In summary, the Bengals will likely roll with a top six of Burfict, Maualuga, Lamur, Vinny, Dawson and Hawk at LB. They'll probably keep 1-2 more with those first three guys combining to have missed 36 games during the past two seasons. The two most likely guys to make it after them are Marquis Flowers and/or Jayson DiManche.

The Bengals drafted Flowers With the 212th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft after a standout career at Arizona. Flowers was a versatile backer who was even described as a "Kam Chancellor-type LB-turned safety."

As a rookie last year, Flowers played in 16 games while getting 94 snaps on defense and registering a -1.9 grade by PFF. While Flowers showed flashes of promise, he needs to have a good showing in training camp and the preseason to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

The same holds true for DiManche, who was placed on season-ending Injured Reserve last year after suffering a forearm fracture during Cincinnati's 14-13 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 13.

The second-year backer out of Southern Illinois finished the season with seven tackles on defense and three on special teams. He's also credited with a forced fumble on special teams. PFF gave DiManche a -4.0 on kickoffs this season and a +1.5 on punts.

Needless to say, DiManche is more of a special-teams player who hasn't found much of a role on defense. Still, this team puts a lot a value on special-teams impact, so DiManche has an edge over the other backers for a spot on the 53-man roster.

The only other true LB  that was on the roster last year is Nico Johnson, a former fourth-round draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft that was signed off the Chiefs' practice squad last year.

In nine games with the Bengals last year, Johnson played in 96 snaps and got a -1.6 grade from PFF. He showed flashes of being a capable MLB and had a good showing in the preseason opener with a game-high 10 tackles in 49 snaps.

The only other LB that looks possible for the final roster is Chris Carter. A fourth-year NFL player, Carter entered the NFL in 2011 as a fifth-round draft choice of Pittsburgh and played 29 games with four starts for the Steelers in 2011-2013. He was waived by the Steelers at the conclusion of the 2014 preseason before eventually ending up with the Bengals in December of last year.

With the Bengals in camp and in the preseason, Carter has been used almost exclusively at DE and as a pass-rushing LB. He's more than held his own and had several QB pressures during Friday night's game vs. the Giants, as he's done throughout training camp.

Carter now looks like a viable threat to make the final roster.

2015 Outlook

If you didn't realize it already, health is the biggest concern at this position heading into 2015. If everyone was 100 percent healthy (a rarity in today's NFL), this would be a position of strength.

However, Burfict's microfracture surgery has his status for the start of 2015 up in the air, and it's unlikely we see him at his best for at least the first few months of the season.

The good news is there are plenty of capable backups to help pick up the slack there along with a promising rookie in Dawson. In the end, I expect this position to be one of weakness in the early parts of 2015, but it should improve significantly as the season goes on to the point where it's a position of strength as the regular season winds down.