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2018 NFL free agency profile: Linebacker NaVorro Bowman

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One of the biggest positions of need for the Cincinnati Bengals this year is at linebacker. Might a talented veteran towards the end of his career be a short-term answer?

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals are amidst some changes in their organization, but we’re not sure if the free agency approach is one of them. After some smoke signals pointing to the team focusing inwardly again next week, they’ve also begun clearing a bit of space in the form of not exercising the option for Adam Jones.

Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis successfully pitched to defensive tackle, Chris Baker, as he recently signed a one-year deal as an early foray in bringing in outside help. Still, the team will probably bring in varying degrees of help and linebacker might be one of those areas.

Not too long ago, the San Francisco 49ers were a dominant force in the NFL—largely thanks to a ridiculously good defensive unit. NaVorro Bowman was an integral part of their successful run from 2011-2014, as he and Patrick Willis manned the interior levels of their defense.

After many successful seasons with the Niners, Bowman hit a couple of professional speed bumps in the form of injury. He suffered a gruesome injury in the 2013 NFC Championship game, as he tore both his ACL and MCL. Bowman subsequently missed the 2014 season and then missed a significant chunk of the 2016 season because of a torn Achilles.

After some issues with San Francisco’s coaching staff, he was traded across the bay to the Raiders after Week 5 of the 2017 season. He now is looking for a new home—likely to end his career.

Player Profile:

College: Penn State

Years Pro: Entering 9th season

Scheme: Mostly 3-4

Age: 29

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 242 pounds

NFL credentials: Former third round pick, three-time Pro Bowler (2012, 2013, 2015)

Previous contract: One-year, $2.6 million (2017), four-year, $77 million (2016)

Potential benefits to the Bengals:

Leadership and production: Look, if you’re a Bengals fan, it’s time to face facts: this team has always been on the lookout for leaders. Unfortunately, Lewis and Brown have relied on either less-than-reputable characters, or lower-producing veterans to fill this need, but a signing like Bowman would make sense on both levels.

Bowman has been on squads who have tasted the Championship and Super Bowl levels, while also having quite the amount of accolades to his name. Yes, he’s at the end of his career, but should have a couple of productive years left in the tank.

Yes, there are leaders like Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins and others on the roster, but Lewis has unwisely also relied on Jones, Vontaze Burfict and others as well. Bowman could be some good locker room glue for a team that needs it, as they attempt to rebound from the past two seasons.

A solid bounce-back year after horrific injuries: How about 127 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two passes defended and many other stats, as pointers to a nice year from Bowman in 2017? He was disgruntled in San Francisco, but it seemed like a change of scenery really lit a fire under him.

This is after ACL/MCL tears in the 2013 NFC Championship game, as well as an Achilles injury in 2016. There’s something to be said in Bowman’s ability to come backa nd be a productive player after these two injuries.

As it stands, Bowman will likely be looking for two things in free agency this year: comfort in a geographical region and a team on the verge of a championship. The Bengals don’t have any clout in the geographical region, per se, but some may argue they have clout in the latter category.

On one hand, the Bengals are coming off of two consecutive losing seasons and have also lost many high-volume contributors over the past couple of offseasons. It’s been quite the fall from grace by Cincinnati since their crushing 2015 Wild Card loss.

On the other, this team may be just a few players away from becoming the postseason constant we saw from 2011-2015. And, guess what? Linebacker is one of them.

The need for a physical middle linebacker: When healthy and/or not suspended, Burfict is a top-five linebacker in the NFL. Unfortunately, that stipulation has hurt the Bengals’ defense since he entered the league back in 2012.

We’ve talked about the idea of Burfict flanking a guy like Roquan Smith in the middle, as we know the Bengals like to rely on the draft to stock their roster. But, we know April is a crap shoot, and the last time the Bengals tapped the University of Georgia for linebackers, it blew up in their faces for varying reasons (David Pollack, Odell Thurman).

Since he took over as the team’s head coach in 2003, Lewis has been looking for some form of the next Ray Lewis. Burfict has shown both the talent and nastiness, but his inability to consistently be on the field has marred his career. Then there is the graveyard consisting of Pollack, Thurman, Nate Webster and Keith Rivers who also bring a ton of frustration.

Yet, despite these misses, Lewis has been able to get some production out of re-tread linebackers. Dhani Jones had a career renaissance with Cincinnati, while Kevin Hardy, Manny Lawson and James Harrison all had varying degrees of success.

If the Bengals were to sign Bowman and get something resembling his All-Star years, it would immediately bolster a defense that finished 30th against the run last year. The move would also open up the draft for a team that needs to plug many roster holes.

Potential deterrents to Bengals:

An extensive NFL injury history: It’s been said above, but Bowman has had his share of significant injury issues in his career. Even though he’s on the back-nine of his football career and the fact he turns 30 before the season begins, one is inclined to think he has at least two more solid seasons of football left.

Still, as he approaches the age in which NFL careers go to die, he’s had two huge injuries in the recent years of the resume. Can he continue to be as productive as he was with the Raiders after a change of scenery?

Whether it’s in the Bengals’ inability to properly diagnose injuries, or in their bringing in of players who have bad luck in this regard, they need this aspect to change, if they are to win a championship. It’s also an aspect they’ll need to analyze if they’re thinking of bringing in Bowman.

A simple band-aid over a long-term problem: If the Bengals do sign Bowman, it would be nothing more than a short-term solution. With Lewis working on a simple two-year extension, a Bowman signing seems to be the perfect bridging solution.

Still, with Burfict in and out of the lineup and the Bengals still attempting to figure out what they have in the other linebacker spots, having a lynchpin in the middle would settle some long-term questions.

Yes, Bowman can be a solid player in the middle of a defense for the next year or two, but a guy like Georgia’s Smith could anchor a defense for the next decade.

Scheme misfit?: When Bowman and the 49ers were at their best, it was in an aggressive 3-4 defense. Bowman and Willis were forces to be reckoned with and they relied on each other’s respective skill sets in an effort to make each other successful.

Part of the unfortunate legacy of Lewis and the Bengals’ defense is in his attempting to fit square pegs into round holes. Harrison might be the best example, as the team tried to turn a 3-4 edge rushing linebacker into a 4-3 player. It didn’t work.

Bowman’s ability to play inside likely provides more of an easy transition to a defense like the Bengals’ , as well as their hiring of Teryl Austin, but the team will need to have a clear vision of his future with the club.