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Comparing Bengals’ 2016 inside linebackers to 2017 unit

The Bengals made some big moves at inside linebacker this offseason.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals absolutely turned over their linebacker corps in the offseason. In addition to all the turnover at outside linebacker, another wave of changes came on the inside, likely due to severely disappointing results in 2016. Tackles from the inside were down, sacks were virtually non-existent, and pass coverage in the middle of the field was weak. Therefore, significant changes were needed and almost surprisingly, those changes happened.

2016 roster

Rey Maualuga

Statistically, no Bengals linebacker struggled more than Maualuga in 2016. His 27 combined tackles ranked worst among all linebackers with any starts under their belt. The same is true for pass deflections (one). He didn’t record a single sack or a fumble recovery all season. His most notable moment from the season was a nine-yard interception against the Baltimore Ravens in a Week 9 loss. And even that was handed to him. Otherwise, his season was not what the Bengals wanted to see.

Status: Free Agent

Vincent Rey

The Bengals signed Rey to a three-year, $10.5 million contract extension before the 2016 season started. Although many fans were happy to keep him around, that number seemed a bit steep for a career backup. However, doubts were silenced after a strong 2016 season for Rey. While Maualuga struggled with weight and injury problems, as well as performance issues, Rey wound up starting 12 games in 2016 in comparison to Maualuga’s six. His performance (79 combined tackles, seven pass deflections, one interception, one fumble recovery) put Maualuga to shame, showing why the Bengals were willing to essentially pay him a seven-digit salary. PFF also took noticing, ranking him in the top 15 among all linebackers in the NFL.

Status: Still on the team

Trevor Roach

Roach was active for four games in 2016, but he was buried so far down the depth chart, he had no chance to make an impact, aside from a single tackle made in Week 17 against the Ravens. The Bengals signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska in 2015. Over time, it seemed like a savvy move as he became a practice squad mainstay and even worked his way onto the active roster. Unfortunately, after the season ended, he realized he didn’t love football anymore, and retired at the young age of 24.

Status: Retired

2017 changes

Bengals release Rey Maualuga

As previously explained, 2016 was a rough year for Maualuga. It all started with showing up to camp ‘grossly overweight’, but the ball kept rolling with poor performance after poor performance, a calf injury, and more poor performances. The Bengals leaned more on Rey in 2016 than they did Maualuga, which makes you wonder why he even lasted as long as he did on the roster. The Bengals finally decided enough was enough and released the 30-year old linebacker this offseason. He reportedly had an fruitless workout with the Chiefs, but otherwise has received no known interest during the offseason.

Bengals sign Kevin Minter

The Bengals have replaced Maualuga with 26-year old former Cardinals starting linebacker, Kevin Minter. The Bengals rarely make big moves for free agents in their prime, but they needed a quick fix at the position. If Minter pans out, the fix should not only be quick, but long-lasting. The former second round pick has started all 16 games in each of the past two seasons and has been putting up numbers that Maualuga hasn’t sniffed in years. Even in 2014, when Minter only started five games, his combined tackles (45) were way ahead of Maualuga’s in 2016 (27).

Bengals draft Jordan Evans in Round 6

In the draft, the Bengals didn’t focus on linebacker as much as many expected them to. Despite rumors of the Bengals looking for an inside linebacker in the first or second round, it took them until Round 4 to draft defensive end Carl Lawson (who the team is converting to be an outside linebacker) and until Round 6 to draft inside linebacker Jordan Evans. He’s the prototypical NFL linebacker in terms of measurables, but scouts question his desire to make contact with other players, which is an absolute must at the linebacker position. If he buckles down with the Bengals, he could find a niche in Cincinnati, although it seems unlikely he will see much, if any, opportunity to start anytime soon.

2017 outlook

After what we saw in 2016, there was virtually no chance Maualuga was going to return to the consistent starting lineup mainstay he was for much of his career. Seasons like he had in 2012 (122 combined tackles, four pass deflections, one fumble recovery, one sack), are a thing of the past for the now-free agent. At 30-years-old and clearly on a severe decline, the best hope was that he could return to being a semi-effective veteran presence for the remainder of his career. It shouldn’t take much for Minter to perform better than that. With two more years of Rey’s insurance policy and a young Evans full of potential, the Bengals’ inside linebacker spot looks much more promising heading into 2017 than it did in 2016.