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Linebacker remains the Bengals’ biggest roster hole

The Bengals did plenty of improving this offseason. They were far more active than usual in free agency, and they hired Zac Taylor as their new head coach. One problem still remains, though.

Oakland Raiders v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The offseason portion of teams acquiring players has pretty much come to an end. While an NFL roster is always in constant fluctuation, free agency and the NFL draft is where we see teams change the most. We now have a pretty good idea how each team’s 90-man roster will look.

ESPN recently went through and found the biggest hole still left on every teams’ roster. The Bengals hole really shouldn’t come as any surprise to those who have been paying attention.

Nick Vigil had a promising start to his career but hasn’t been healthy and hasn’t been good enough to warrant a huge financial commitment yet. With Vontaze Burfict mercifully released, the team has nothing but stopgaps and low-round picks at the position. Preston Brown is a stopgap solution, while Hardy Nickerson Jr. and Jordan Evans didn’t play well at all in 2018. Maybe Malik Jefferson, a 2018 third-rounder, gets out of the rookie growth box the Bengals seem to put most of their picks in. But you can argue that the Bengals shouldn’t expect a single member of this unit to play well in 2019.

The linebacker position has been a prominent issue for the Bengals for a few seasons now. It has become a more glaring issue in recent years as NFL offenses are passing far more frequently (especially to running backs and tight ends). Vontaze Burfict covered this issue for a few seasons, but then it became hard to rely on him to be available due to suspensions and injuries. Towards the end of his time with Cincinnati, he was even a liability when he could make his way on the field.

The Bengals essentially repeated their 2018 strategy to address the issue this year. They drafted a linebacker in the third round and signed Preston Brown, only this time, they re-signed him to a multi-year extension after he spent most of 2018 injured. It just doesn’t seem like the Bengals view this as much of an issue as they should.

Look at how they addressed the offensive line in the past two years. They traded for left tackle Cordy Glenn, drafted a center in Billy Price and a tackle in Jonah Williams in the first round, signed John Miller to start at right guard and spent a couple of Day 3 picks on interior linemen Rod Taylor and Michael Jordan. You could even throw in there that they decided to give a competitive contract to Bobby Hart (although I prefer to try and repress that memory).

The difference in apparent urgency is obvious when you compare the two position groups. In fairness, the Bengals didn’t have an opportunity to draft either Devin Bush or Devin White after both were selected in the first round. However, they still could’ve made more of an effort to bring in outside help via free agency. Offensive line and linebackers were the two position groups that simply weren’t good following the 2017 season, but only one has seen at the very least the attention it deserves.

There is just so much unknown going into 2019 as far as linebackers go. How much will the change of the defensive scheme help this group after former-defensive coordinator Teryl Austin failed to get anything out of them? Can Nick Vigil take that next step into becoming a reliable three-down linebacker? Can Malik Jefferson prove he should’ve gotten a chance last season? How much of a learning curve will Germaine Pratt have in his rookie season? Can Jordan Evans, Chris Worley or even rookie Deshaun Davis push for the second nickel linebacker position as well?

These are all questions that we really won’t know until the pads come on. However, for the Bengals to be successful on defense they probably need at least three of these guys to emerge as players who can make an impact or at least cover someone. It is no secret that last year the Bengals’ linebackers couldn’t cover anyone, and other teams knew that. For the Bengals defense to take that next step, that issue needs to be resolved.

Fans have to hope that a year of development and a change to Lou Anarumo as the defensive coordinator will help a position group that has simply been one of the worst in football the past few seasons. We will have to wait and see if any of these linebackers can rise to the top and prove the Bengals didn’t need to make huge wholesale changes to their linebacker personnel.