Out of the numerous free agents the Bengals will have to decide upon within the next several weeks is linebacker Preston Brown. After starting for the Buffalo Bills in his first four seasons in the NFL, Brown was Cincinnati’s splash signing (by their own standards) in 2018, but it was only a one-year deal.
The Bengals are in a position where they don’t have many high priority free agents after extending Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap before the 2018 season. Outside of tight end Tyler Eifert and Darqueze Dennard, Brown sticks out as one of the bigger names. It doesn’t seem like many teams will be hammering the phones to add Brown at the start of free agency if Pro Football Focus’ list of their top 10 free agent linebackers is any indication of outside interest. Brown ranks 10th on the list.
Rounding out the list is Brown, who joined the Bengals on a one-year deal before the 2018 season. Unfortunately for Brown, after playing 1000-plus snaps in four seasons with the Buffalo Bills, the injury bug finally hit as he missed nine games. A career-worst 55.8 overall grade in the shortened season means he’ll need to prove he still deserves meaningful playing time in 2019.
Brown’s 2018 season started out well. He was inserted at the MIKE linebacker spot and also played on third downs in place of Vontaze Burfict, who was suspended the first four games of the season. Brown missed the second and third game due to injury, but he returned in Week 4 to play until he was placed on injured reserve following the Saints game in Week 10.
Though he wasn’t the worst linebacker for the Bengals last season, it’s hard to really judge his performance because it seems like he played through his lingering injury until he couldn’t anymore. It would still be hard to sell re-signing Brown and declaring the linebacker position fixed because of it.
What Brown does provide is a food third linebacker option when teams aren’t in three receiver sets as well as great intangibles. He grew up in Cincinnati as a Bengals fan. When a team is going through a serious transition like the Bengals are about to be, it is invaluable to have veterans to keep morale high. But Brown simply provides exceptional veteran presence period.
Still, the Bengals could choose to dip their toes in free agency for a different veteran linebacker, and Pro Football focus’ list has some pretty interesting names. Of the top three, C.J. Mosley can be eliminated as an option as he has been committed to staying with Baltimore and vice versa. Jordan Hicks and Anthony Barr should be targets Cincinnati keeps their eyes on.
Hicks had an outstanding bounce back season after missing 2017. Pro Football Focus applauded his improvement against the run after already being a good coverage linebacker. Barr on the other hand has made steady improvements since 2016. Considering he had only played two seasons of defense prior to being drafted, you could easily see him continuing to improve. Last year, aside from allowing three touchdowns against the Rams, Barr was lights out in coverage. He only allowed those three scores in one game.
A top free agent linebacker isn’t as costly as other positions. Last offseason Anthony Hitchens was the only inside linebacker to break the bank with a five-year $45 million contract. Every other inside backer got three years at most working out to no more than $8 million per season. Outside linebackers also only saw one deal reach about $8 million per season.
When you look at the extension they gave Burfict, which was three years worth $32.5 million with about $11 million guaranteed, you could float that same offer on the open market and probably end up a Hicks or Barr. Even less could net them a higher risk free agent like Kwon Alexander or Denzel Perryman who are both young linebackers with promise who could use a change of scenery.
The Bengals need to address their linebacker woes early and often. It has been a position of steady decline for years, and now that Burfict looks like a shell of himself and likely won’t be on the team after suffering his seventh concussion as a professional, Cincinnati really needs to bring in as much competition as possible.