It could easily be said that the Bengals’ biggest need this offseason is at linebacker.
There’s a good chance that the polarizing Vontaze Burfict will be released as the quality of his play dropped severely in 2018 and his ever-present durability concerns persisted as well. Preston Brown’s contract will expire and his 2018 showcase did not warrant a long-term deal. If both of those two are gone that would leave Nick Vigil along with Hardy Nickerson and Jordan Evans, who haven’t showed much of anything, and Malik Jefferson, who is largely an unknown.
The Bengals could be looking to add at least two players to this position group. If they were to add one via free agency, these are the top five players that could be available for them to sign in March.
1. C.J. Mosley
The Bengals could kill two birds with one stone with this signing, simultaneously bolstering their linebacker group and hurting a division rival in Baltimore. The Ravens will of course make every effort to bring him back into the fold as Mosley is one of the better young linebackers in the NFL.
If he is allowed to test the waters, the Bengals should sell him on becoming the heart of the Bengals defense and offer him a contract worthy of one of the top linebackers in football. With Burfict’s contract off the books, it would essentially be bringing in a replacement for a slightly more pricey contract. And if he continues playing at the level he did in Baltimore, he’d be more than worth it.
2. Kwon Alexander
It has already been reported that Alexander and the Buccaneers look unlikely to reach a deal, as Alexander’s asking price seems to be too high for Tampa Bay’s front office. The Bengals typically don’t contend for players hoping to reset the market at their position, but this is the year, and position, to break that trend.
Breaking the bank for Alexander would be betting on his continued growth as he has shown more flashes than consistent play so far in his career. His flashes have been very good though and his athleticism would be a big boost to the Bengals’ linebacker corps.
3. Jordan Hicks
If the Bengals want to take a bit of a risk they could sign a guy like Hicks. The fifth-year player should be cheaper than Mosley or Alexander if he leaves the Eagles, but he presents his own risks.
When healthy, Hicks has been an effective all-around defender, but he has only played a 16-game season once in his career and has played in eight-or-less games twice. Signing him to a multi-year contract would be a sizable risk as the Bengals would be betting on him staying healthy for more games and more consistently than he has before. If he can stay healthy, he has potential to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL and the Bengals stout defensive line and solid secondary would help him shine.
4. Anthony Barr
If the Bengals want to steal a player from their former defensive coordinator, it looks like Barr will be allowed to walk from the Vikings. They wouldn’t let him walk for no reason though, as his play on the field has not quite matched the top ten selection used on him.
For what the Bengals have at the position, Barr would be a big upgrade and still has the potential to grow into an even better player. Funnily enough, Barr was actually the first pick that Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer made after he left Cincinnati.
5. Jake Ryan
If someone has been reading this article the whole time going “Where is the bargain bin guy the Bengals will sign?” Ryan is one that fits the bill.
Unlike previous signings like Preston Brown and Kevin Minter, Ryan provides actual athleticism, which might help him be different than signings from the past. The Packers look poised to let him walk after he missed the entire 2018 season and his backup filled in admirably for him, and they have a 3rd round pick ready to step in as well. If the Bengals want to give a young athletic linebacker a chance to revitalize his career then Ryan would be a good choice, and likely very cheap as well.