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Bengals’ track record of drafting linebackers shouldn’t impact first round pick

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If the NFL Draft’s best linebacker is available at #9, should the Bengals draft him?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On more than a few mock drafts, Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster has been predicted as the Bengals’ selection with their ninth overall pick in the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft. He is an SEC player, which seems to be Marvin Lewis’ favorite conference to draft from, especially in the first round (Cedric Ogbuehi, Dre Kirkpatrick, A.J. Green, Andre Smith, Jonathan Joseph, David Pollack), and fills a need for a team devoid of great talent next to Vontaze Burfict, who has only played in 26 games during the past three seasons.

At first glance, Foster seems to be a good fit. But Bengals’ fans have been down this road before – using the ninth overall pick on a linebacker from a great college team with a great defense. Nine years ago the Bengals did this very thing with USC’s Keith Rivers. Unfortunately Rivers’ failure to resemble a first round pick, let alone a quality NFL linebacker, may have left a sour taste in fans’ mouths when it comes to the team using a high pick to select a linebacker. If that didn’t do it, the fact that the linebackers the team has selected since Rivers are a collection of underwhelming players in P.J. Dawson, Marquis Flowers, Sean Porter, Roddrick Muckelroy, and Rey Maualuga. Those players will certainly leave that Rivers sour taste, if not amplify it. The team has a pretty poor record of drafting linebackers during the Marvin Lewis era, regardless of round selected. So would fans want the team to use yet another selection on a position they just can’t seem to succeed with in the Draft?

Do other teams get worthy linebackers with a top 10 pick in the Draft? One would have to think that there are been some good, if not great, linebackers selected high in the draft who proved to be worth the pick. Going back to the 2000 NFL Draft, there have been 24 linebackers selected in the top 14 picks. Because Reuben Foster is not a 3-4 OLB pass rush specialist, we’ll only consider the linebackers who are also not pass rush specialists. So that means Leonard Floyd, Dante Fowler, Vic Beasley, Khalil Mack, Barkevious Mingo, Von Miller, Brian Orakpo, DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, and Terrell Suggs won’t be under consideration. What does that leave us?

Draft Duds

  • 2006 A.J. Hawk, interestingly, even though the Bengals didn’t draft this dud, they signed him at the end of his career
  • 2006 Ernie Sims, was never horrible, but was on some horrible teams
  • 2008 Keith Rivers, his failures are the impetus of this article
  • 2009 Aaron Curry, proved that a great combine is no substitute for instincts and talent

Solid

  • 2001 Dan Morgan, was a solid player who could never stay healthy, only playing in 59 of a possible 112 games in his seven year career
  • 2010 Rolando McClain, like Morgan, he’s had trouble staying on the field, missing 14 games over the past three seasons

Very Good

  • 2000 LaVar Arrington, began his career with three Pro Bowl trips in four years before injuries forced him to miss more than half of the games during the final three seasons of his career
  • 2004 Jonathan Vilma, had a very good career starting for nine seasons with three Pro Bowl trips
  • 2005 Thomas Davis, was rewarded at the end of a long career with an All Pro selection and a pair of Pro Bowl trips
  • 2008 Jerod Mayo, had five great seasons before injuries knocked his career of the rails
  • 2014 Anthony Barr, has had a good start to his career with a pair of Pro Bowl trips in three years

Elite potential Hall of Fame Candidates

  • 2000 Brian Urlacher, had a very long, very productive career. Played 13 seasons, had 1,040 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 22 interceptions, 11 forced fumbles, 15 fumble recoveries.
  • 2007 Patrick Willis, five first team All Pro selections in seven seasons as the most dominant MLB during his time. Played 8 seasons, had 732 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 8 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries.
  • 2012 Luke Kuechly, a great run stopper and pass defender in his highly decorated career. In five years in the league (so far), he has 453 tackles, 9.0 sacks, 12 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and 5 fumble recoveries.

Clearly there is talent to be had in the first 10 to 15 picks of the NFL draft at the linebacker position. Ten of the 14 players we looked at ended up as pretty good linebackers, with only injuries slowing them down. I’m not saying Foster is the next Kuechly, but if he is, who wouldn’t want the next Kuechly, who was also selected ninth overall, out there on the Bengals’ defense?

Another consideration is if a non-pass rushing specialist linebacker is worth a pick this high in the draft. Due to the evolution of the NFL game and becoming a more pass-happy league, the offensive and defensive components of the running game have been devalued, to an extent. During the past five years, 88% of the teams who finished in the top 10 in passing attempts per game threw the ball 38 times or more per game. In the prior five seasons, only 24% of teams in the top 10 made 38 or more passing attempts per game.

Teams are throwing more and running less, making a run-stopper not as essential as in past years, and this is showing up in the Draft. During the past five years, seven linebackers have been drafted in the top 15 picks. Five of those seven were pass rushers (Floyd, Fowler, Beasley, Mack, Mingo) while only two of them have been traditional linebackers (Barr and Kuechly). In the five years prior, that number was flipped, with five traditional linebackers (McClain, Curry, Rivers, Mayo, Willis) and only two pass rushers (Miller, Orakpo).

Both Kuechly and Barr were considered very special players who could play on all three downs, covering tight ends on passing plays, and shutting down running backs on running plays. Both of them were drafted ninth overall. If Foster, and that is a big if, is considered to be on par with these two linebackers, who already have three All Pro selections and six Pro Bowls to their credit, it would be reasonable to Draft him with the No. 9 overall selection.

Ultimately if Foster can play all three downs with the speed to cover tight ends, and the instincts to beat blocks to stop running backs, he would be a great pick at ninth overall. This hold true despite the Bengals’ lousy track record of drafting linebackers during the last decade, and despite the NFL moving toward more of a passing league.