Bengals linebacker Germain Pratt is headed to free agency where the Bengals will allow him to test the market. It’s unclear as to whether or not they’ll be able to re-sign him once free agency starts on March 15 and may choose to allocate their money towards extending quarterback Joe Burrow, a decision nobody could argue with.
Pratt made huge strides between the 2021 and 2022 seasons, and that’s not just from the eyeball test. Pro Football Focus gave Pratt an overall defensive grade of 54.0 in 2021 (53.1 rush defense and 56.2 pass defense), but they gave him a grade of 78.4 overall in 2022. His rushing defense jumped to 64.3, but his ability to drop back into coverage is where he mostly earned his higher grade this past season. with a pass defense rating of 87.2.
Pratt was the 11th ranked linebacker in the NFL who had over 900 snaps, and had a higher grade than fellow Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson (74.6), and was the third highest rated linebacker in coverage of any linebacker in the NFL with over 500 snaps on the season. He has rightfully earned a large contract entering his fifth year in the league.
The Bengals selected Pratt in the third round of the 2019 draft and while it’s true that a mark of a good team is drafting and then retaining talent, it’s not every year that one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL is up for his first big-time extension. I’m sure the Bengals would love to re-sign Pratt on a long-term deal, but they have Burrow to worry about as well as Tee Higgins and then Wilson next season and D.J. Reader and Chidobe Awuzie are both entering the last years of their deals. All this added together could unfortunately mean that Pratt has priced his way out of what the Bengals are willing to pay, and even though he said he wants to stay in Cincinnati, the business side of the NFL often moves players to new cities against their will.
If Pratt does in fact leave in free agency, the Bengals may not have to look at other free agent linebackers or even to the draft to replace him. His replacement could already be on the roster.
Enter Akeem Davis-Gaither.
Drafted out of Appalachian State in 2020 in the fourth round, Davis-Gaither hasn’t been able to make it on the field as much as Pratt or Wilson, but he’s been a solid backup linebacker for the Bengals. When he did make it on the field, though, he made the most of his time.
He finished the 2022 season with an overall grade of 64.2, but he really shined in the Bengals home playoff win against the Ravens, earning a score of 87.1 (92.8 passing/45.8 rushing). In the game he played the most, Week 3 against the Jets, Davis-Gaither had a grade of 72.6 in his 54 snaps. While those numbers aren’t as good as Pratt’s, he could have a similar story arch.
Pratt started his professional career by backing up former Bengals linebacker Preston Brown and didn’t step into a consistent starting role until the 2020 season, and he didn’t really start to blossom until the following year. Davis-Gaither has backed up Pratt and Wilson since he was selected and could make a similar jump if he’s given the opportunity to start in 2023.
Davis-Gaither is considerably smaller than Pratt, weighing in at 228 pounds to Pratt’s 250, but he has made up for that size disparity with quickness and had developed a nose for the football. He has also benefited from having the same defensive coordinator his entire professional career and has backed up two of the best coverage linebackers in the league over the last two seasons to help hone his craft.
I’m not saying that I want Pratt to find a home elsewhere, because that’s not the case. I would love to see the Bengals and Pratt come to an agreement on a long-term deal that keeps him in Cincinnati for the next few seasons. However, if that long-term deal comes at the expense of being able to keep weapons around Burrow or if it prevents them from bringing in free agents that could help in other possibly more important position, like the offensive line, it may not be worth it.
ADG (I’m tired of typing out Davis-Gaither) knows the system well and won’t have to get used to an outside playbook. He had success when filling in at both linebacker positions this past season and is a logical choice to step into a starting role if the Bengals and Pratt can’t come to an agreement on a new contract. The Bengals may draft a linebacker or even being in a couple in free agency, but ADG could be looking at a huge role in Lou Anarumo’s 2023 defense.
Of course, if ADG does become a starting linebacker in 2023 and has a breakout year, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent once the season ends, so the Bengals could find themselves in a very similar situation.