The Bengals biggest weakness on the defensive side of the ball the past few seasons has been at linebacker.
It finally got to an extremely unacceptable level early in 2019 with Nick Vigil and Preston Brown as the lead linebackers. Brown was eventually cut, and Germaine Pratt was ultimately given a bigger role to end the season.
However, even the slight uptick in play following that change wasn’t enough to save the position from the extreme overhaul we saw this offseason.
“It was a definite need going in. Everybody knew that,” Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “There were a lot of different ways we could have addressed it. We made some efforts in some different areas and the way we came out really worked well. If you would’ve told me when free agency kicked off that we would have the group in now, I would have taken it and not turned back.”
The group they ended up with is extremely young. Outside of veteran linebacker Josh Bynes, they drafted three rookies. Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey should all see varying levels of playing time. The one thing you should expect from all of them is bringing a level of speed to the linebacker position that this team has been missing for quite some time. The other thing they bring is potential.
“I love the potential of the group,” Tobin said. “It’s got a lot of youth to it, but what we’ve seen about those guys is since we’ve had them here in the building is that they are highly competitive. They are very intelligent and they are learning very quickly. That’s a good sign.”
One of the biggest changes to the position will be the absence of Vigil. He signed with the Chargers in free agency, and it is unclear whether the team attempted to bring the veteran linebacker back or not. What we do know is Vigil has been among the team’s leaders in defensive snaps the past few seasons, including just a little less than 1,000 snaps last season that will need replaced.
It appears that defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo doesn’t plan on giving all those snaps to one player.
“You never try to get in a situation where you are fitting a square peg in a round hole,” Anarumo said. “You want it to fit the guys as best as possible. There will be some give and take on what we are doing. For the most part it will be some of the things we’ve hung our hat in the past, but make sure we do it better this year.”
The rookies are all athletic and possess the ability to handle their own in coverage, but that isn’t to say that these guys aren’t better at certain things than others. The fact Anarumo is trying to plan around how to rotate this group is a good sign that all of these young guy will have their shots at gaining some on field experience. It is unfortunate that due to the current circumstances, the only real contact with tackling they’ll experience may be during games.
“The real true test will come when a guard is coming off the ball and how they get off the block and how do they make the tackle,” Anarumo said. “From a knowing what to do, read and react, they’ve done well. I’m pleased with that group so far.”
There will be plenty of growing pains from these rookie linebackers. When you combine their lack of game experience and ability to properly prepare for the season, it doesn’t give them a great shot at putting their best foot forward early.
It is encouraging that Anarumo and Tobin are so excited about the direction of this group, but the keyword for this group in 2020 may be potential. That still shouldn’t prevent them from providing flashes of showing why fans shouldn’t be worried about the linebacker position for awhile.