In the weeks since the completion of the NFL draft, I have been looking at the various position groups in an effort to shed light on where the team currently stands with their personnel and to foreshadow needed moves once free agency begins. Today, I focus on the linebackers.
Rey Maualuga will have a lot to say about the success, or failure, of the 2011 Bengals defense. As he begins his third season with the team, he will be moving from the strong side to the middle, which means greater responsibility for getting teammates in position and deciphering what the offense is lined up to do on any given play. Maualuga, who starts alongside fellow USC alum Keith Rivers, must prove that he can handle the additional responsibilities while also adding to the 44 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 picks he recorded last season. Rivers will start on the weak side, where he set his career high with 77 tackles despite missing two games with plantar fasciitis (I can testify that it is very painful and hard to recover from). It remains to be seen whether rookie 3rd round pick Dontay Moch will be ready to start to begin the season, but he should get plenty of playing time. Brandon Johnson and last year’s starter in the middle, Dhani Jones, are unrestricted free agents but may choose to stay with the team. 2010 4th round pick Roddrick Muckelroy will scrap for playing time with 2009 undrafted free agent Dan Skuta and 2010 undrafted Vincent Rey. A starter from last season, Michael Johnson, may also switch back to linebacker after finishing 2010 as a defensive end.
Best case scenario: If Maualuga can handle returning to his college position in the middle, then we would have a very young but talented lineup with tons of potential. Moch, the 2009 WAC defensive player of the year, played DE in college but will play as an outside linebacker for the Bengals. Moch is a burner, posting the fastest 40 time at the 2011 NFL Combine among all linebackers and defensive ends at 4.44s (it actually set the Combine record for defensive linemen).
Worst case scenario: Maualuga is the key, as the team may opt to not resign the aging Dhani Jones. Should he struggle, we could potentially have a problem at the position. Moch, who played at Nevada, will be facing a whole different level of competition. Rivers has yet to play up to his potential as a top 10 draft pick.
Another Possibility: I expect Marvin to either bring back Jones or get a mid level free agent to hedge his bets in the middle. Should Michael Johnson move back to linebacker, or Brandon Johnson return, either could potentially start in place of Moch.
Outlook: This unit has the pedigree, but it’s time to see the production. Rivers has been solid but not spectacular, and a linebacker taken that high in the draft should be. The next player selected after him in the 2008 draft, the Patriots Jerod Mayo, just went to his first Pro Bowl. Maualuga seems to have his head on straight after his DUI arrest in 2010. Hopefully, these guys can become the dominant force that David Pollack and Odell Thurman almost were. Throw in Moch and Muckelroy and you have a very exciting, young linebacking corps with tremendous upside.