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Bengals 2017 free agency spotlight: Linebacker Sean Spence

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We take a look at the profile of an outside free agent who may be on Cincinnati’s radar, based on positional need and price.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at San Diego Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Super Bowl LI is in the books, all 32 NFL teams are officially looking to the 2017 offseason. The Cincinnati Bengals have a number of areas on the roster they should be looking to improve in free agency and the NFL Draft.

There are a number of players the team could look at next month in free agency in an effort to get back to the postseason following the 2017 season. Based on what the Bengals usually do in free agency, which has been affectionately known as “barrel-scraping” or “dumpster-diving”, there are a couple of outside players who might be able to fit the team’s mold—both in price and potential. The team followed this practice to an effect with Karlos Dansby in 2016 and A.J. Hawk in 2015. The linebackers were both cut by their prior teams and scooped up by the Bengals shortly after on reasonable contracts.

On defense, linebacker appears to be one of the biggest areas of need. It’s very possible the team looks at a player like Alabama’s Reuben Foster at No. 9 overall, but many free agent options could both be affordable and provide depth. One interesting veteran option is inside linebacker, Sean Spence.

Player Profile:

College: Miami (FL)

Years Pro: Entering 5th season

Scheme: Mostly 3-4 defenses

Age: 26 (27 when the season starts)

Height/Weight: 5’11, 231 pounds

Last Contract’s Details: 1 year, $2.5 million; $500,000 signing bonus, $500,000 guaranteed

Potential benefits to Bengals:

AFC North experience: Even though he hasn’t played much in a four-man front scheme like the Bengals employ, Spence knows the hard-nosed defensive approach which makes teams successful in the division. He spent last season in Tennessee, but his first three seasons were in Pittsburgh. He’s been a solid rotational player with spot starts in his four accrued seasons.

Relatively inexpensive option: Spence isn’t a great starting linebacker, but the team has rotated in a number of different players in their defense over the years and Spence could be valuable to the team in that respect. Rey Maualuga had the fewest snaps in his pro career as the team’s middle linebacker last year, while Vincent Rey has brought mixed results. Spence could be an upgrade to those two, even if a marginal one.

Experience to a green group: Outside of Maualuga, Rey, Karlos Dansby and Vontaze Burfict, the players in the group are unproven. It sounds like a lot of veterans may already be in the group with the above-mentioned names, but Dansby is a free agent and Maualuga could be a cap casualty this year. Spence is in that prime NFL age, where he’s had enough critical experience, but still has enough left in the tank to bring production to a defense.

Coming off of his best season: While Spence hasn’t lit up the stat sheet since going pro, his time in Tennessee brought career-highs in tackles (54), sacks (3.0) and passes defended (three). While it could be attributed to his reunion with defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, it could also point to his improvement as he enters his mid-20s.

Possible Deterrents:

Injury history: Spence had an unfortunate knee injury in 2013 that landed him on both the PUP List and subsequently Injured Reserve. He also missed a game apiece in 2015 and 2016. Susceptibility to injury isn’t a trait the Bengals need out of a new linebacker, given the time missed by so many others in the position group.

Steelers souring on him: Whether it was injuries or a lack of production in his three Pittsburgh seasons, Pittsburgh willingly allowed him to walk in 2016 in free agency. Even though LeBeau was happy to have Spence back, the Titans obviously had their doubts with him, as evidenced by the one-year deal he played on.

Lack of big-time production and starts: Pittsburgh hoped Spence would be the next in a slew of great Steelers linebackers, given their usage of a third round pick on him. He just hasn’t shown consistency over the years and it’s why he’s only started 19 of a possible 46 games. You have to wonder how high his ceiling might be in the NFL.

Scheme misfit?: This is probably the biggest issue with Spence and the Bengals. Sure, the Bengals signed other 3-4 veteran linebackers to somewhat-positive results in the form of James Harrison and Manny Lawson. But Harrison’s niche as a pass-rusher just wasn’t utilized in his one-year stint in Cincinnati. Spence isn’t an edge rush threat like those two, but he might just be wholly more comfortable in a 3-4 scheme.