Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is facing a five-game suspension for what’s being referred to as an illegal hit against Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman from the second preseason game this year.
While Burfict is appealing the suspension, his appeal may not be heard for a week (or more) and the NFL regular season is inching closer each day. Bengals.com has said the appeal will be heard this week, while other reports say a date has not been set and it may have to wait until next week.
With that said, we’re less than one week from learning the Bengals’ 53-man roster and less than two weeks away from the Bengals’ season opener against the Baltimore Ravens.
In those next two weeks, the Bengals need to prepare for the possibility that Burfict misses the first five games of the 2017 NFL season, a stretch that sees the Bengals take on the Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills. The Bengals then have a Week 6 bye, so if Burfict remains suspended for five games, he’ll return against no other than the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 7 at Heinz Field.
If Burfict is to miss five games, the Bengals will need to figure out how to effectively replace the team’s best linebacker, which will be no easy task. What are the team’s current options? Let’s evaluate....
If the Bengals are looking for a reliable veteran to take over, Rey is the obvious choice. Throughout his seven-year career with the Bengals, he has accumulated 37 games of starting experience, starting at least half of the games or more in each of the last three seasons. Many of those starts were due to Burfict being injured or suspended.
Of all the options, Rey makes the most short-term sense. If Burfict is suspended, he will certainly have his job handed back to him when the suspension is over. Who better to fill that role than a player like Rey who has built a thriving career on temporarily filling starting roles for the team?
Then again, there are young guys looking to prove they are worthy of earning a greater role with the team, whereas Rey should have a firm understanding of his career trajectory at this point. The question really boils down to whether the Bengals are looking for stability or development if they are forced to replace Burfict in the starting lineup. On the bright side, Rey was PFF's 15th highest graded linebacker in the NFL in 2016 and received an 84.2 grade from the analysis website. If he’s to start in place of Burfict in 2017 last year’s success should carry over to this year and his surrounding talent will hopefully be better than it was last year, too.
The Bengals’ No. 116 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft has been an absolute sensation in training camp and the preseason. In the limited playing time he has had so far, he has recorded two tackles, a tackle for a loss, and a sack. Lawson has proven he is ready to stand up to NFL competition and could give the Bengals an opportunity to replace Burfict (in the short-term) with another very exciting player.
That said, Lawson’s inexperience and need for further development could possibly make the Bengals wary of giving him so much responsibility so early. So far, Lawson has flashed star potential, although entirely at practice speeds and hardly against starters in preseason games. If the Bengals play their cards right, Lawson could develop into one of the top players on the team for many years to come. But, if they try to throw too much at him right away, it could backfire. Also of note is that Lawson is converting to play linebacker after being primarily a defensive end in college. He’ll need to work on his coverage skills to play consistently at linebacker and there will be a learning curve there.
Evans is a young rookie the Bengals could potentially ask to fill Burfict’s vacated role, or at least take on more snaps than anticipated through the first give games. Although he does not have as high a pedigree as others, nor has he produced significantly in the preseason, the Bengals might want to stick with their succession plan, as currently defined on the depth chart.
At the moment, Evans is listed as the third string player at Burfict’s weakside linebacker role. However, there is a chance he could be beat out for the job by second-stringer Marquis Flowers. In that scenario, Flowers would be the natural choice to replace Burfict as he is already in place as the designated backup for the position. But, the current depth chart really doesn’t mean much as it was constructed before the first preseason game. It’s clear Evans is ahead of Flowers on the current depth chart and it’s unlikely Flowers would be relied on to start or receive significant playing time in the regular season.
It’s also possible the Bengals use a combination of all three players to replace Burfict with each getting time in varying situations that best suit their strengths. Burfict missing time is far from ideal, but if it happens, the Bengals will need to devise a plan to best replace his presence on-the-field.