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Impact of Kevin Minter’s signing and Rey Maualuga’s departure on Bengals linebackers

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A long-standing veteran getting cut and the possibility of the Bengals adding a high profile linebacker in the draft have brought questions to the linebacker position group. What does the addition of Kevin Minter and parting ways with Rey Maualuga mean for the Bengals in the coming months?

One of the Bengals’ moves in free agency this offseason happens to look like one of the better outside signings Cincinnati has made in recent years. Middle linebacker Kevin Minter is young (26-years-old), and has been both productive and durable in his previous four seasons. Those are traits the club has recently needed in the middle of the defense.

Now, it appears that the Bengals’ only two outside free agent signings, Minter and Andre Smith, are pegged for starting positions. But does the the Minter signing fill a starting need, or is it one that simply provides flexibility for the club next month in their often-used best player available draft strategy?

As we’ve chronicled the Minter signing here at Cincy Jungle, we’ve noticed some major questions surfacing with the addition. With many mock drafts pegging Alabama’s Reuben Foster to the team at No. 9, should that be changing due to Minter’s arrival in Cincinnati?

A cloudy long-term outlook:

Since he signed his last surprisingly lucrative contract back during the 2015 offseason, people have wondered what’s ahead for Rey Maualuga, an aging linebacker who was essentially a one-down player last season. With a $3.7 million cap figure this year and zero dead cap hit once released, many thought it was time for the nine-year linebacker to be shown the door. And, on Saturday, the Bengals finally parted ways with veteran Rey Maualuga, granting long-standing fan wishes.

Now that the nine-year veteran is gone, the team has a lot to figure out in the middle of their defense.

Minter’s one-year deal: Minter only inked a one-year deal in Cincinnati. Perhaps he looked at what happened with Brandon LaFell last year and rolled the dice for the years ahead, or maybe he sees himself somewhere else after one productive year with the Bengals.

However, even though he is taking over for Maualuga as the starting middle linebacker, it still provides a major issue when 2018 rolls around. Minter is set to be a free agent next year, so if Minter doesn’t work out as is expected, the team might need to use a high pick investment to secure the defense’s stability in the years ahead.

Frequent snakebites with recent contracts: What is it with this team and injuries striking right after huge deals? Now, most of the injuries that have occurred have been with internal players the team extended before they hit free agency, but guys like Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, Giovani Bernard and even Andy Dalton have experienced a myriad of injuries once they inked new deals with the Bengals.

This has also played into the Bengals’ frustrating inactivity in outside free agency. Whether it was Nate Webster getting a knee injury, or Antonio Bryant experiencing a similar malady, the club just isn’t into giving outside veterans big deals anymore.

Minter has been very durable throughout the first four seasons of his career, but we all know that an injury can strike with even the most reliable NFL players. As the starter, if Minter goes down, the team could be in trouble now that Maualuga is gone. Vincent Rey is a nice fill-in Swiss Army knife, but the team might need additional, young impact defensive players in this year’s draft.

Bengals’ coaches plans with Minter as a starter: Now that Maualuga is gone, the supposed plan of Minter supplanting him as the starter in 2017 has taken shape. When talking with SiriusXM NFL Radio shortly after his signing, Minter noted that both Marvin Lewis and linbackers coach Jim Haslett said he’d be playing in the middle and be “the caller”. Even though this seems to be the case in 2017, the team might need to replenish the position in April. Or might that be the plan in the 2018 NFL Draft?

Is Reuben Foster in the plans?

Regardless of what the Bengals did in free agency, pundits believe the team needs an infusion of youth, physicality and talent in the defense. This has became increasingly apparent with the player attrition experienced over the past two offseasons. But is Foster the best option now at No. 9 overall?

More of the same?: Though Foster has shown a bit more range and pass-rush ability than both Maualuga and Minter, he’s still viewed as an inside linebacker by NFL standards. At this point, the Bengals need speed and coverage ability at the position, hence why they also had Keenan Robinson visit the team around the same time they were talking with Minter. Robinson has since re-signed with the Giants.

Though the team likes the big, uber-physical guys on the front seven of their defense, adding Foster might just be a pick that’s simply adding more of the same semi-limited skill set. That isn’t to knock the former Crimson Tide playmaker, as his ceiling seems to be quite high, but he might be a luxury if other quality players at other needed positions are available at No. 9.

Is Foster even one of the possibilities at No. 9?: With long-term needs at wide receiver, offensive line, running back and defensive end, some feel as if the middle of the defense shouldn’t even be be considered in the top-10. On the OBI podcast, Connor Howe noted that the team has likely been targeting edge rushers in the top-10 all along, while also acknowledging the rumors of the team looking at a top running back.

The Bengals also showed interest in Raekwon McMillian, by holding a private workout with him and watching him participate in Ohio State’s pro day, which the Bengals were in attendance for. McMillan could be had in rounds two or three this year, making the need for the team to select Foster at No. 9 possibly unnecessary.

Should they be reloading the offense?: When one looks at the 2016 Bengals and their six-win season, we have to ask if it was the defense or offense that caused most of the problems? Sure, the defense had issues with consistently stopping the run and getting to the passer early in the year, but they played better down the stretch.

Aside from the tie against Washington in London, six of the team’s nine losses in 2016 were by one possession. In fact, in the five losses from Weeks 8 to 17, the team didn’t let up more than 19 points three times.

As injuries piled up and the team began to miss some of the free agency attrition from the past offseason, the need for offensive explosiveness was evident. Perhaps one of those picks in the first two rounds should be used on offensive weapons instead of a linebacker who will almost undoubtedly sit behind Minter and Burfict in 2017?

Minter’s one-year deal: Yes, we mentioned it earlier, but this could also play into Foster’s corner, in terms of his landing with Cincinnati. The Bengals seem to be making a somewhat-concerted effort to get younger, and while Minter isn’t old, he isn’t locked up long-term. Even though it may be to the chagrin of Bengals fans, the team could take Foster with a high pick and let him sit on the bench for his first year to develop, in the event that Minter isn’t around past 2017.

Though, rumor has it the team initially approached Minter with a long-term deal before he opted for the rental-like one he signed. If he ends up being productive, maybe that’s the long-term end game for the Bengals, as Lewis does like to lean on productive NFL veterans in key spots.

Defensive nastiness in the AFC North: Though the perennial defensive powerhouses in Baltimore and Pittsburgh largely show 3-4 defensive looks, Cincinnati could take a page out of their draft books with their four-man front packages. From 2013-2015, the Steelers have used three first round picks on linebackers. While Ryan Shazier is the shining star in the group of Jarvis Jones (now with the Cardinals) and Bud Dupree, they have attempted to find tenacity and athleticism at the position.

Meanwhile, Baltimore has used four picks in the in first two rounds at linebacker. While this also could play into the Bengals selecting Foster to add with the nastiness of Minter, Burfict and others, the Ravens are a bit more of a cautionary tale. Arthur Brown once looked like a sure-fire NFL player, but has been a disappointment and has moved on to Seattle, while Courtney Upshaw has been a role player and moved on to the Falcons.

Still, while having big play makers on offense is a trademark of the division, so is possessing a stout defense. Even though the Bengals might be able to use some pass-rush help up front, imagine a middle of the defense with Burfict, Minter and Foster in the coming years. Intimidation, anyone?

Burfict’s issues and the Bengals’ penchant for moving players around: For better or worse, what the team gets with a Pro Bowl player like Burfict is his inability to be on the field with regularity. Whether it’s his physical play resulting in injury or suspension, he has missed significant playing time over the past couple of seasons.

Also pointing to the logic of Foster to the Bengals is their placing talented players in unnatural positions to get them on the field. Whether it was with Maualuga at strong side linebacker as a rookie, or the constant search for versatility along the offensive and defensive lines, the Bengals might choose Foster as a way to get their best two or three linebackers on the field at any given time—even if they don’t like playing rookies early on.

What do you think the Minter signing means for the Bengals’ linebacker group going forward?

Poll

What do you think the Bengals will do with the linebacker position before the 2017 season?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Keep it as it is
    (13 votes)
  • 5%
    Add another free agent linebacker after the draft, but not use a high pick on one
    (45 votes)
  • 29%
    Draft Reuben Foster at No. 9
    (250 votes)
  • 60%
    Use a later pick other than Foster to add to depth
    (509 votes)
  • 2%
    Other
    (19 votes)
836 votes total Vote Now