For NFL defenses that regularly employ four-man fronts, the linebacker position has been somewhat devalued in recent years. The need for mammoth thumpers has largely been replaced by rangy guys who can aid in pass defense, along with those who have the ability to rush the passer off of the edge.
Over the past couple of seasons, the Bengals have missed out on athletic linebackers such as C.J. Mosley, Darron Lee and Ryan Shazier—be it by their own choice or their draft slotting. Even though the team has had solid defenses without the likes of them, the vacancies in the middle of the defense has been apparent.
Vontaze Burfict has become the best linebacker Marvin Lewis has groomed as the Bengals head coach, but he has missed 23 games, including the playoffs, over the past three seasons. Rey Maualuga, another Cincinnati defensive staple sine 2009, saw the least amount of snaps in his Bengals career last season, while Vincent Rey filled in all over the place and Karlos Dansby is approaching 36 years of age.
Cincinnati often employs a two-linebacker, nickel base set, but even so, good linebackers are a key to what they do on defense. A myriad of issues plagued the Bengals which led to a 6-9-1 season, but having the No. 21-ranked rushing defense was indicative of personnel problems on the two front lines of the defense.
On this week’s Orange and Black Insider, we continued our positional analysis with the linebacker position. Is retooling the whole group a key to a 2017 rebound?
Fans have their preferences at No. 9 overall for the Bengals, be it defensive end, wide receiver or linebacker. The only linebacker worth taking at that spot this year is Alabama’s Reuben Foster. While not a burner, he’s physical, has great instincts and could be a good fit next to Burfict as two potential three-down linebackers.
Other options available after that spot are Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham, Takkarist McKinley of UCLA, Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan or Temple’s Haason Reddick. Given the team’s usage of just two first round picks under Lewis’ watch on linebacker (Keith Rivers, also at No. 9 overall and David Pollack), it would seem that a pick used on a player after round one would buy into the trend.
And, while linebacker is a big need for the Bengals, grabbing a solid one in rounds two or three could be a key to a great draft, if they get a defensive end or receiver in the first round. After all, the best linebacker in the Lewis era was an undrafted free agent.
Free agency and the lack of developing young talent:
Lewis was a defensive guru while with the Baltimore Ravens, cementing his head coaching credentials with the development of Pro Bowl players like Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware. However, aside from Burfict, the best Bengals linebackers since Lewis’ 2003 arrival have been free agents.
Veterans Kevin Hardy, Dhani Jones, Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard all had productive stints with the Bengals on team-friendly deals. While none made Pro Bowls and some may scoff at the notion of their truly being “productive”, they still largely outweigh so many other draft picks the team failed to develop over the past 14 years.
OBI co-host Scott Schultze chronicled the failures on the show, pointing to the possibility of the team looking in outside free agency for some help again in 2017. With names like A.J. Nicholson, Caleb Miller, Marquis Flowers, Roddrick Muckelroy, Sean Porter and so many others.
There is still hope for two young linebackers who had productive college careers in recent third round picks, P.J. Dawson and Nick Vigil. Dawson seems to have the innate talent, but reports have him not going about the professional path the correct way, while Vigil has great agility, but may be more of a chase-and-tackle kind of guy.
Either way, the team will be adding players to the group—likely in both free agency and the draft. If they finally play their cards right, the defense could once again catapult itself into the elite category.
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