Linebacker was the Bengals’ weakest position last season and a huge need heading into the offseason. In addressing the issue, the Bengals avoided a big splash in free agency, per their usual tactics. They released long-time starter Vontaze Burfict and re-signed Preston Brown, but that basically all they did prior to the draft. In short, they did nothing.
When healthy, Brown was the team’s best linebacker last season, but he is much stronger against the run that the pass. Other returning players who saw a lot of action include Nick Vigil, Jordan Evans, and Hardy Nickerson. All three have seen their share of struggles, some more than others.
Malik Jefferson and Chris Worley were both rookies last season and showed some promise. Early in the draft process, Jefferson was even seen as a potential first-round pick, but ended up going in the third round an up rarely saw the field.
This year the Bengals dipped in the third round for a linebacker again and selected Germaine Pratt. The former NC State linebacker had great film and athleticism, much like Jefferson. They also selected Deshaun Davis on Day 3 and added a trio of UDFA linebackers with Sterling Sheffield, Noah Hawkins, and Curtis Akins.
So even after the draft, the Bengals did relatively little to address this massive need. But one addition has gone unnoticed for how much it could positively impact the position: defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.
Anarumo was nobody’s first choice for the job, it’s true. His name was probably a trending topic in terms of google searches when he was announced as the hire. Obviously it is very early, but there have been some positive signs about new head coach Zac Taylor and his staff.
Vigil told Bengals.com that Anarumo was “making it simple for us so we don’t have to think as much.” Players thrive when they can move fast, and thinking too much does not encourage smooth athletic performance. It makes players mechanical and slow.
The evidence is there that Jefferson is a much better player under these conditions. He faced a similar situation in college. A star recruit, he struggled early in his career but shined in his last season when new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando came in and allowed him to play fast. Jefferson works best with simple “if than” reads that he can read quickly. This allows him to make full use of his athletic ability.
It could also be great for players like Vigil and Evans who have shown potential, but had a lot of problems. Simplifying their reads will help the Bengals to optimize their talent.
There are two ways to repair personnel problems. The first is to invest draft capital or actual capital. Now that we’re in June, that ship appears to have sailed for the Bengals this offseason. The other is to develop the players that you have. Vigil and Evans are still fairly young and malleable and including the UDFAs the Bengals have seven first or second-year players at the position.
If Anarumo can get the most out of these young players by letting them play fast, there may be hope at linebacker.