In football, there are certain positions that are deemed to be some of the most athletic in the game. If you were to listen to NFL Network's Mike Mayock during the Combine, tight ends are the biggest physical freaks who also have a huge amount of responsibility on a team. It's no coincidence that the defensive players usually tasked with covering the tight ends--the linebackers--are often equally athletic and versatile.
Because of a number of circumstances, the Bengals might be looking at a linebacker early in this year's NFL Draft. Given Marvin Lewis' decorated history as a defensive guru with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins, the hope upon his hiring was that he would bring more exciting defensive play from another star-studded cast to Cincinnati. While it has been a complete team that has made the past five playoff brackets, Lewis has built a Bengals defense akin to the dominant Baltimore group of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Obviously, the linchpin to the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl run was their defense and the linebacker corps, led by Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, making the position a priority for Lewis since his taking over of the head coaching gig of the Cincinnati Bengals. There have been a number of hits, as well as big misses in Lewis' 13-year tenure, so it's a track record worth noting as the team potentially looks at more prospects at the position this year.
A couple of notes about the linebacker position and Lewis's tenure with the Bengals:
- Cincinnati has selected 11 linebackers in Lewis' 13 NFL Draft classes.
- The Bengals have double-dipped at the position in a single draft twice: Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson (2004), and David Pollack and Odell Thurman (2005).
- Only one Bengals linebacker brought in by Lewis has been elected to the Pro Bowl and it was an undrafted free agent (Vontaze Burfict).
Busts and Other Disappointments:
David Pollack, No. 17 Overall, 2005 Draft: In what could be deemed the "What Could Have Been Class" in 2005, Pollack was an uber-productive player for the University of Georgia taken by the Bengals, but an unfortunate vertebrae in his second season, ended his career. Though he was an end in college and did some of the same responsibilities in the pros, Pollack was a rushing outside linebacker with the Bengals, who showed promise with 4.5 sacks as a rookie. He never played again after a bloodbath game against the Browns in 2016, that also included a concussion to Chad Johnson and another career-ending injury to center Rich Braham.
Odell Thurman, No. 48 Overall, 2005 Draft: Talk about a guy who was his own worst enemy. Thurman was a Rookie of the Year candidate after nabbing five interceptions and helping Cincinnati to their first playoff berth in 15 years. However, after his rookie year, Thurman never played a game for the Bengals again because of drug and alcohol abuse and subsequent suspensions. Thurman is one of the biggest "what if's" in Lewis' tenure who could have been a great one.
Keith Rivers, No. 9 Overall, 2008 Draft: Rivers was relatively productive for the Bengals over the course of four injury-plagued seasons. Still, for a guy taken in the top-10 of the draft, Rivers was a major disappointment--especially once the team began flanking him with a number of talented defenders. The Bengals were so eager to unload him before his rookie contract expired that they traded him to the Giants in 2012 for a fifth round pick.
A.J. Nicholson, No. 157 Overall, 2006 Draft: The Bengals experienced a renaissance under Lewis in his first few years as head coach, but off-field issues marred the success. Nicholson was one of those who had issues like Thurman, Chris Henry and Reggie McNeal, making the team a punchline for national jokes. Though some believed he might contribute as a special teams player and rotational defender, Nicholson played only two games with the Bengals and the bulk of his "bust" status resides in the tarnishing of the Bengals' name with poor off-field choices.
Dontay Moch, No. 66 Overall, 2011 Draft: The Bengals fell in love with a project player, who was a workout warrior in Moch, during their most recent re-build of the roster. Cincinnati gave the "'tweener" player multiple chances to contribute, but the athleticism never caught up to needed football ability.
Mediocre Mid-Rounders and/or No-Shows:
Khalid Abdullah, No. 136 Overall, 2003 Draft: Abdullah might actually be viewed as an overachiever, based on his skill set and draft position, but still wasn't a guy who lives in Bengals lore. He played three seasons for the Bengals, with a lot of time on special teams, but was largely "just another guy".
Caleb Miller, No. 80 Overall, 2004 Draft: Though he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a picture where he is demolishing Hines Ward over a decade ago, Miller didn't heavily contribute to the Bengals. Nagging injuries were a major culprit to his lack of contributions, but fans like him because of his association with the 2005 squad.
Landon Johnson, No. 96 Overall, 2004 Draft: The linebacker out of Purdue actually had a seven-year NFL career with one pretty productive year in 2005 for Cincinnati. Still, he wasn't reliable as a long-term NFL starter and/or someone who a team could hang their hat on, but might be a bit of a poor man's Vincent Rey.
Ahmad Brooks, Third Round, 2006 Supplemental Draft: While Brooks has re-invented himself over the past handful of seasons with San Francisco, his two years with the Bengals were marred by a lack of progress and a torn groin early in the 2007 season when he finally was tabbed as a starter. Brooks blossomed under Jim Harbaugh and made a Pro Bowl, coupled with two All-Pro designations in their 3-4 system, but remains a "what-could-have-been" story for the Bengals.
Roderick Muckelroy, No. 131 Overall, 2010 Draft: Another versatile guy with high promise, Muckelroy's career was derailed by injury. Thomas Howard took over a starting gig from Muckelroy in 2011, especially after the Texas alum tore an Achilles tendon before the 2011 season. Between Howard and Vontaze Burfict, Muckelroy was shown the door after he recovered.
Sean Porter, No. 118 Overall, 2013 Draft: The former Texas A & M standout never translated his college versatility to the pros, and was waived with the Bengals in the middle of last season. While the Jaguars signed him to their Practice Squad, Porter's promise with the Bengals, especially in playing multiple spots, was cut short because of injury.
The Jury is still out:
Marquis Flowers, No. 212 Overall, 2014 Draft: Though he only has just eight tackles with the Bengals in two seasons, Flowers has flashed on special teams and spot rotational duties. Flowers has an uphill battle to climb this year, especially if Karlos Dansby ends up signing, so he'll need to show more special teams ability and, most importantly, stay healthy.
P.J. Dawson, No. 99 Overall, 2015 Draft: Expectations are high for the former TCU linebacker, but maturity concerns and the team tending to prefer veterans, Dawson might fall through the cracks a bit this year. Still, Dawson made a number of big plays in college, and the hope is that it will translate to the pros.
Second Round Producers and Undrafted Gems:
Odell Thurman, No. 48 Overall, 2005 Draft: Thurman is undoubtedly a disappointment, as we mentioned above, but he also proved to be a good pick in a warped way because of his production as a rookie. If he kept his nose clean off the field, Thurman might have been one of the best picks Lewis had made in his Bengals' tenure.
Rey Maualuga, No. 38 Overall, 2009 Draft: While he isn't the perennial Pro Bowl player some thought he would be coming out of USC, Maualuga has been a steady presence for Cincinnati over the past seven seasons. He is a big hitter who has been a part of Cincinnati's defensive re-birth, where they are perennially ranked in the top-10 since his arrival.
Vincent Rey, Undrafted, 2010 Draft: The overlooked player out of Duke is just one coaches and fans have to like because of his story proving that hard work pays off. Rey has become a locker room staple, and is a valuable Bengal because of his ability as a spot starter and special teams ace. He recently signed a three-year deal worth $11.5 million, which is likely his last with the Bengals.
Vontaze Burfict, Undrafted, 2012 Draft: No. 55 is the embodiment of every chance Lewis has taken on characters, and hard work put into project players, culminated by his 2013 Pro Bowl nomination. Unfortunately, Burfict's good play has been overshadowed by on-field cheap shots of late, but he has become the enforcer Lewis has looked for since he had the Hall of Fame player in Ray Lewis within the same division.