The Cincinnati Bengals were hurting at the linebacker position a few short years ago, particularly with regard to speed.
They drafted Germaine Pratt in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, but they needed someone to put next to him. In 2020, many of us were pounding the table for free agents like Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkowski, Joe Schobert, and Blake Martinez.
Instead, the Bengals drafted Logan Wilson in the third round, Akeem Davis-Gaither in the fourth round, and Markus Bailey in the seventh round. And they say you can’t triple-stamp a double-stamp.
What became of the aforementioned free agents?
Martinez was the best of the bunch. He signed a 3-year deal worth more than $30 million and had an excellent first season in New York. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL the following year and was eventually released.
The Raiders signed Littleton to a three-year deal worth roughly $35 million and Kwiatkowski to a 3-year $21 million dollar deal. Neither played out their contract or lived up to their previous success.
Then there is Joe Schobert, who signed a five-year deal with the Jaguars worth nearly $54 million. His first and only season in Jacksonville was a disappointing one. He was traded to the Steelers, where he bounced back for a season, but since then, he has been waived by multiple teams.
Meanwhile, Wilson is still the Bengals' starter and has played exceptionally well. Davis-Gaither and Bailey have each started games and contributed in roles on defense and special teams.
Now, each member of the trio enters the final year of their rookie deal. While Pratt just signed a 3-year $20 million contract to stay in Cincinnati.
Step aside, John Hughes. This is a coming-of-age story.
- Clay Johnston
We are always talking about cornerbacks and pass-rushers, but don’t you forget about linebackers. If the Bengals linebacker room was The Breakfast Club, Germaine Pratt would be Judd Nelson. He is a bad dude in all the right ways.
Pratt has the edge that any great competitor should have in him. He had the expected struggles during his rookie season in 2019 but showed consistent improvement. That year, I wrote an article to that effect, using clips that I had tweeted as I often do. Pratt “liked” my tweets of his negative reps but only the negative reps.
I don’t know if this was a simple acknowledgment that he made a mistake or an “I’ll show him,” but either way, I love it. True competitors see their mistakes and learn from them and often live to prove their doubters wrong (although I was never actually a doubter).
Pratt established himself as a quality starter in 2020, but then rookies Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither became the team’s third-down linebackers. Pratt was indeed much stronger against the run, but he continued to improve his pass defense despite not getting these reps.
In 2021 and 2022, Pratt and Wilson were the starters, but Pratt was often subbed for an extra defensive back on third downs, while Wilson stayed on the field. Pratt saw this too as a challenge.
When he spoke publicly about wanting to play on third down, I truly believe that was the competitor in him speaking, not the businessman playing in a contract year. The funny thing is that he was right. He has improved immensely in his pass defense. He wasn’t just talking. He backed it up with his play. This guy has what it takes to be a champion.
Logan Wilson wears the green dot on his helmet, which means he is the one who gets the defensive call from the sideline. He had a tremendous season in 2022, but his ascension was stifled by injury last season. This could be his breakout year.
Wilson thrives in zone coverage and makes excellent reads on the quarterback. This gives him opportunities to get interceptions. He has the speed to cover receivers in the slot and the strength to take on lead blockers in the gap. Athletic, smart... I guess he’s a little Emilio Estevez and a little Anthony Michael Hall. He’s the total package. With some injury luck and hard work, he could establish himself as one of the best linebackers in the NFL in 2023.
Lou Anarumo loves versatility, and he has a Swiss Army Knife in Akeem Davis-Gaither. He is a true 4-3 outside linebacker, which is a position that barely exists anymore with the prominence of running nickel defense as base (and the Bengals running a 5-man front to stop the run). However, Davis-Gaither made his first NFL start when the Bengals ran a traditional 4-3 to stop Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' potent rushing attack.
Overall, Davis-Gaither is better outside the box. He can cover from the slot, hold the edge, or rush the passer. Pure Emilio.
Markus Bailey was projected as a second-round pick but returned to Purdue and promptly blew out his knee, falling to the Bengals at the end of the next year’s draft.
The Columbus native is a tremendous all-around linebacker and an extremely intelligent football player. Outside of being a touch on the short side, he is exactly what teams look for in a middle linebacker.
If given an opportunity, he could surprise a lot of people.
I don’t have a good Breakfast Club comp for Bailey.
Thankfully, there is no Molly Ringwald in this group (nothing person, that character just doesn’t project well as a linebacker), but I do think they could use an Ally Sheedy.
The Bengals were one of the last NFL teams to move from big gap-filling linebackers to speedy sideline-to-sideline types, but they found the right guys in a hurry.
They hit on four players in two drafts without using a single first- or second-round pick and established their new expectations for the position. Bengals linebackers are smart, athletic, and excellent tacklers.
Many of us expected Logan Wilson to take a big step forward in 2022, but his injury hindered his development. With the improvement shown by Germaine Pratt a year ago, this duo could establish themselves as the top tandem in the league in 2023.
The future is really up in the air.
I think that the Bengals' top four linebackers are all capable of being good NFL starters. This offseason, Joe Goodberry and I debated about who would emerge as the starter next to Wilson if Pratt did not re-sign. A good case can be made for both Davis-Gaither and Bailey.
Wilson, Davis-Gaither, and Bailey are all in contract years. Pratt just signed three-year deal, but there is an out in it that makes it possible for the team to cut him after the season with no salary cap ramifications.
I doubt all four are here in 2024. Three would be nice. Two would be fine. One is absolutely possible. Zero is doubtful.
Who will return is anyone’s guess.