Given the continued deterioration of the Bengals’ linebacker position, now seems as good a time as ever to start investing heavily at the spot. In 2016, the Bengals started Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, and Karlos Dansby for most of the season. But, Dansby is a free agent and will be 36 years old midway through 2017; Burfict’s aggressive play has caused him a few injuries and concussions, and Maualuga has been performing poorly for years and could be cut.
Perhaps the position in the most need of attention at the moment is middle linebacker. Burfict’s starting spot isn’t going anywhere while he continues to perform exceptionally well on the field. But, Maualuga has become a liability on the field, and the Bengals might want to consider finding someone else to put out there, at least as a starter.
The future of the Bengals’ inside linebacker position appears to be Nick Vigil, although he has proven himself capable in the weakside role as well. Right now, it is hard to say at exactly which spot he will settle. Regardless, the Bengals will want to draft a middle linebacker, whether it be for a starting or depth role. Could the club be considering any of Mel Kiper’s top 10 prospects at this position in the 2017 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look at who they are.
1. Reuben Foster (Alabama)
Foster has been a popular mock draft choice for the Bengals in plenty of way-too-early mock drafts. Who knows what could happen between now and the NFL Draft, but it certainly seems like Foster fits many criteria the Bengals will be looking for. In addition to his hard hitting, explosive, tough playing style, he exhibits a certain swagger and alpha mentality that the Bengals love in linebackers. Think Vontaze Burfict, but without all the drawbacks that allowed the Bengals to sign him as a college free agent. He can also cover the middle of the field in a passing situation strongly, which is something the Bengals have lacked at the linebacker position for a long time.
*2. Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State)
McMillan is seen as a much safer choice than Foster, although with much less potential to be great. His instincts are much more developed and ready for the NFL, although he doesn’t attack blocks with the same ferocity and strength that Foster does. Most scouts see him as a guaranteed NFL starter, albeit a rather unspectacular one that sticks around for a long time based on reliability. If the Bengals go in a different direction in the first round, they can pick him up in the second round, although it would be tough to see him as an instant upgrade over Maualuga.
*3. Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt)
Some scouts see Cunningham as more of an outside linebacker, although Kiper is probably thinking of him on the inside due to his ability to make plays and his understanding of gaps. He would be another option for the Bengals in the second round. In the right system, like the Bengals’ attacking 4-3, he could absolutely thrive and develop into a very effective sideline-to-sideline force. His future linebacker coach will want to help him reign in his issues with missed tackles and play strength, but any team that picks him up will be adding a player with the tools to become an effective linebacker in the NFL.
*4. Anthony Walker (Northwestern)
Walker comes with much more hype than you would expect for a third or fourth round linebacker prospect, but he truly is a remarkable athlete. Already sporting a thick frame, which is ideal for the position, he’s packed even more muscle on and used it to his advantage. The Bengals will love his leadership and developed instincts, although teams will be wary of the downside to his size - mainly, his restricted movement and athleticism. He is expected to develop into a solid starter, but could be held back by the reliance on his size. The Bengals don’t really need to add a developmental linebacker on the roster right now.
5. Kendell Beckwith (LSU)
At 6’3”, 247 pounds, Beckworth is reminiscent of Reggie Ragland, in that classic ‘throwback’ linebacker style that NFL teams are looking for. He should fit into any NFL scheme as he has experience in multiple defensive styles. His football IQ and awareness are off the charts. Unfortunately, his tackling technique can get him into trouble. He has a tendency to play upright to the point of being off balance in places. Throw in a torn ACL on his resume and it would be surprising to see any team pick him up before the fourth round. The team that selects him will have a player who could compete in any linebacker corps, but may struggle to see action due to physical limitations.
Here’s the rest of Kiper’s top 10 inside linebackers:
6. Duke Riley, LSU
7. Marquel Lee, Wake Forest
8. Ben Gedeon, Michigan
9. Keith Kelsey, Louisville
10. Hardy Nickerson, Illinois
For reference and comparison, here’s Todd McShay’s list of the top 5 inside linebacker prospects for 2017:
1. Reuben Foster, Alabama
2. *Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
3. *Anthony Walker Jr., Northwestern
4. *Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
5. Kendell Beckwith, LSU
One asterisk denotes a junior, and two asterisks denote a redshirt sophomore for the 2016 season.