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Nick Vigil could impact Bengals’ strategy in NFL free agency and draft

How confident the Bengals are in Nick Vigil could determine if Karlos Dansby, Rey Maualuga and even Reuben Foster are in Cincinnati next season.

NFL: Preseason-Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Vigil was one of the few rookies to have a significant role with the Bengals in 2016.

Now, Vigil is hoping for a starting role when the 2017 season begins, and it looks like he’s well on his way to getting one. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther told that Vigil will likely open OTAs as the starting strongside linebacker.

Vigil, who was selected with the 87th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, was once thought to be the team’s future middle linebacker, but the strongside is where the easiest path to playing time is right now.

In his senior season at Utah State in 2015, Vigil racked up 144 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He has since been one of the most-highly-praised rookies from the Bengals’ 2016 class, even receiving comparisons to Panthers All-Pro Luke Kuechly. We saw flashes of that in the preseason, but once the regular season began, Vigil found it tough to see much of the field on defense.

With Vincent Rey, Vontaze Burfict, Karlos Dansby and Rey Maualuga getting most of the snaps, there simply wasn't enough time for Vigil to see the field, especially with nearly every game being close. He did make it onto the field for all 16 games, mostly on special teams, and his playing time increased during the final month of the season, especially on passing downs.

Vigil would finish his rookie season with 21 tackles, 11 of which came in the final three games when Burfict was in and out of the lineup with a concussion. It helped that he and Dansby could rotate between middle and strongside linebacker and not be limited to one spot.

For 2017, Vigil's role will be largely determined based on what happens with the veterans. In that same breath, how well the Bengals feel about Vigil could affect their plans in free agency in the draft.

Right off the bat, Guenther’s comments would seem to indicate Dansby isn’t being brought back, which has been the expectation. That’s still big since Dansby played the most snaps of any Bengals linebacker last year and the seventh-most of any defensive player.

That’s a lot of playing time to be accounted for next season, and Vigil seems like the ideal candidate. He can play all three backer spots, including the weakside, but if he earna the starting SAM spot, it would ensure he’ll play a ton next year.

Now, if the Bengals think Vigil has a better future in the middle, that could help sway the team to make Maualuga a cap casualty. If that happens and Dansby isn't re-signed, Vigil will quickly find himself getting a heavy amount of snaps next season.

But if either of those two vets are back, Vigil is right back to fighting to start —and play— as long as Burfict and Rey are healthy. The fact that Vigil was taking snaps away from Maualuga down the stretch of last season suggests the Bengals may want to cut Maualuga this offseason and give his snaps to Vigil.

But does that mean Vigil would be the starting middle backer, or just a jack-of-all trades who could play all three spots? That could and should determine if the Bengals are willing to spend the No. 9 pick on Alabama middle linebacker Reuben Foster, who is likely an MLB in the NFL, but could have a career at WLB as well.

If the Bengals draft him, that means they think Foster is their starting MLB of the future, though Burfict effectively moves to MLB on passing downs. Having Burfict and Foster as the Bengals’ linebacking duo would bode very well for this defense, and it would help keep Vigil in a role where the Bengals can utilize his strengths and masks his weaknesses.

But if the Bengals want Vigil to be the long-term answer in the middle, that may sway them away from drafting Foster at No. 9. The Bengals would probably rather rely on Vigil and hope he’s the guy long-term, which allows the team to address another need with that high of a pick.

However, if the Bengals think Vigil is more suited for a swiss army knife role or just sticking to one of linebacker spots outside of the middle, Foster has a good chance of being the guy at No. 9.

Either way, Vigil is all but locked into a key role in this defense next season.