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Bengals top 5 2016 offseason priorities, No. 3: solidifying the linebacker corps

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The Cincinnati Bengals need some depth and sizzle at the linebacker position and it's a spot they'll likely target in free agency as well as the draft. Doing so should increase the tenacity of an already stout defense.

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A direct correlation can be made to some of the best defenses in NFL history gaining notoriety while being anchored by dominant players at the linebacker position. The 1985 Chicago Bears had Mike Singletary, while the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defensive squad was spearheaded by the always-animated Ray Lewis. There's also the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s and early 1980s who fielded the intimidating duo of Jack Ham and Jack Lambert.

Since he left his post as the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis has had a bit of trouble coming up with his next Hall of Fame 'backer. Some believe there is a protege in the making with Vontaze Burfict, who went undrafted unlike some former and current stars at the position. Unfortunately, a string of injuries, a growing reputation as a dirty player, and the inability of the team to win a playoff game has Burfict still chasing that "elite" status.

Still, with Burfict and Rey Maualuga as starters, the Bengals are in pretty good shape at the position at first glance. Neither are perfect linebackers, but they work very well together, have been integral parts of a top NFL defense and Burfict keeps flirting with superstardom. But, No. 55 is facing a three-game suspension to start the 2016 season, while spot starters Emmanuel Lamur and Vincent Rey are impending free agents.

It's likely Cincinnati will need to use both the NFL Draft and free agency to remedy the oncoming issues they are facing this year.

In-house and outside free agency:

Being a former coach myself, I can readily identify players I would want on my team had I still had the say-so. Rey is one of those players who doesn't always wow on the field, but is heady, coachable and a stand-up citizen who has the utmost respect of his teammates. In this vein, I can understand why the Bengals are going to push hard to re-sign him.

Emmanuel Lamur has a completely different skill set and is proving to be more of a niche coverage linebacker for certain packages. His career has had its ups and downs, but he can run well and create some nice plays. Still, it looks like the high hopes the team once had for him are beginning to dwindle a bit and it will be interesting to see if and how hard the Bengals pursue him this offseason.

And, re-signing both and then potentially going passive at filling out the group begins to beg my favorite question of this offseason: how are you improving to win one or more playoff games?

There are a number of options out there in free agency that might provide an on-field improvement at the spot that both Rey and Lamur have manned over the past two seasons. Whether it's throwing big money at one of the talented Bronco linebackers set to also hit free agency in Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, or going for a lower-tier option, Cincinnati has decisions to make. You do have to wonder about scheme-fit and overall cost with Marshall or Trevathan, though.

One intriguing name beyond the names in the spotlight, is Lions outside linebacker Tahir Whitehead, who is 26-years-old and shined for Detroit when given the chance through the second half of last year. Because of the limited sample size, he might come at a decent price and bring a little more pizazz to the position group.

However it plays out, the Bengals will be inking players at the position in free agency, it's just a matter of whom and at what price.

Difficulty with this year's draft class:

Three prospects I really like in this year's class all have their warts--two of which revolve around injuries. I've talked at length about Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith, but my takes on him were before some unfortunate news regarding his health emerged after his medical checks at the Combine. After suffering a torn ligament in his knee in the Fiesta Bowl, the thought now is that he won't be able to play at all in 2016.

And, there's fear regarding if he'll ever be the same kind of player again, with some reports having teams taking him off their boards completely. Is he worth the gamble for the Bengals at No. 24 for a player some thought would go No. 1 overall before the injury? Could he tumble to the Bengals in the second or third round?

UCLA's Myles Jack is dealing with a knee injury issue as well, but it isn't as severe as Smith's and many believe he'll still be a top pick.

Aside from those two, USC's Su'a Cravens is a guy I like, but I'm not even sure at which NFL position. Over the past couple of seasons, the Trojans have used versatile defenders to aid in their pursuit of wins and Cravens was one of those tools used in 2015. Current Bengals defensive back Josh Shaw played corner and safety, while Cravens primarily lined up as an outside linebacker, but also rushed off the edge and even lined up in direct coverage like a corner would at times. He did all of it pretty well with 86 total tackles, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions last year, but how much does "good value" matter for a guy whose skill set might not translate to the NFL as well as it did in college?

The Ohio State linebackers, Darron Lee and Joshua Perry are also interesting, but you have to wonder if they were a product of a stacked roster, or if they have the ability to stand out on their own. Fortunately, since we're talking about the Bengals' defense, they would be going to a similarly talented unit.