POSITION(11): Vontaze Burfict, Jordan Campbell, Jayson DiManche, James Harrison, Brandon Joiner, Emmanuel Lamur, Aaron Maybin, Sean Porter, J.K. Schaffer, Bruce Taylor, Vincent Rey
James Harrison (FA)
Bruce Taylor (UDFA)
Sean Porter ('13 NFL draft)
Jayson DiManche (UDFA)
Jordan Campbell (UDFA)
Aaron Maybin (FA)
One of the more disappointing themes from the defense last season was the play of the linebackers, save for Vontaze Burfict. Manny Lawson's defensive decline continued, evident from a reduction in playing time. Thomas Howard, Cincinnati's best linebacker in 2011, suffered a devastating injury that prematurely ended his season last year. Rey Maualuga always seemed to be in the wrong position. However, since we've already touched on the middle linebacker position, lets look at the outside spots, which highlights an optimistic future.
After Thomas Howard's season-ending injury last year, a well-known undrafted free agent beautifully slipped into the lineup as the team's weak-side backer. Vontaze Burfict was a tackling machine last season, sporting a team-high 174 stops as a rookie. Burfict, who had the four highest tackle totals last year, set the franchise record for most starts (14) by an undrafted rookie. There was a belief that Burfict would make the switch inside, but Cincinnati re-signed Maualuga and the coaching staff has since publicly stood behind their starting inside backer.
The addition of James Harrison, Cincinnati's biggest free agent acquisition, has brought the buzz that you'd expect. While expectations are tempered for an aging linebacker, the Bengals will benefit with the attitude and work ethic that Harrison is known for. The experience, attitude and presence on the field should make this an improvement at the SAM position.
An undrafted free agent, Emmanuel Lamur arrived at OTAs this year twelve pounds heavier and even more impressive. There's a potential that Lamur plays significant snaps during nickel situations. Seeing as how he played some safety last year, there's a wealth of talent that Cincinnati has with Lamur. It's just a matter of finding snaps for him.
Sean Porter, selected in the fourth-round of the 2013 NFL draft, is already drawing comparisons to Thomas Howard. Porter's role appears to be as a backup weakside backer and a special teams contributor.
Vincent Rey, a 2010 college free agent, is a special teams contributor that finished last year third on the team with 12 special teams tackles. Rey also led the team in special teams tackles during Cincinnati's wild card loss to the Houston Texans. Look for much of the same this year. However, he'll have to get through the preseason first, surrounded by young and enthusiastic college free agents.
After the Bengals signed Brandon Joiner as a college free agent following the 2012 NFL draft, Joiner was sentenced to three years in prison for aggravated robbery and felony drug possession from a crime that he committed in 2007. He was released in January and began his offseason work for the first time with the Bengals last month.
Jordan Campbell and Jayson Dimanche are college free agents that Cincinnati signed soon after the draft. Campbell was an absolute monster behind the line of scrimmage with New Mexico Highlands. He totaled 104 tackles, 24 tackles-for-loss and ten quarterback sacks.
At Southern Illinois, DiManche finished fourth in school history with 38 career tackles for loss and seventh with 16.5 sacks. DiManche was targeted by the Bengals early, who offered more money than competing teams following the 2013 NFL draft. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer loves what he's seen.
"He had the numbers of a fourth-round pick. The position drills, the pass-run reaction, the 39 (inches) vertical and the almost 11 (feet) broad jump were obviously impressive. And the way he flipped his hips and exploded off the edge, you just had to get teams to watch him."
Aaron Maybin joins Bengals as a free agent in 2013 after playing 48 career games for the Bills and the Jets. He led the Jets in 2011 in sacks, QB hits and forced fumbles.
J.K. Schaffer, a Cincinnati native and former UC Bearcat, joined Cincinnati's practice squad last season for the final eight games and the team's playoff loss. Schaffer worked middle linebacker during the team's rookie minicamp in May.
Bruce Taylor, an undrafted free agent, is rumored to be working at both inside and outside linebacker positions. Unless something significant happens on the team's depth chart, it's highly unlikely that he makes the 53-man roster. Practice squad might be a more accurate prognostication.
The starters should be set with Burfict and Harrison playing weakside and strongside backer respectively. Where the interesting position battles begin will the backups. Figure Lamur's athleticism, size, and versatility gives him the biggest edge, as may Vincent Rey's special teams work. But at this point training camp and the preseason will dictate those positions.
As the defensive machine comes together, the defensive line will dictate what kind of freedom the linebackers will have to disrupt the opposing offense. Edge rushes from the outside can impact an opposing offense, especially with someone like Harrison creating havoc in the backfield. We're looking at improving production from the linebackers this year, from the second-year growth by Burfict and the overall enhancement that Harrison brings over Lawson.