I was trying to think of the last time I felt really good about the group of linebackers that the Bengals had. Boy, it’s been a while. This year’s crew was as good as they’ve been in a while, but I’m not sure that many of us would say we felt really good about how they performed in 2011.
Like the defensive line, important decisions must be made about the LB corps. Strengthening this group will toughen the entire defense. They don’t need an overhaul to get there, but what move will they make to take another step forward in 2012?
Rey Maualuga: 13 games. 0 sacks, 88 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 1 INT.
Rey made the transition to MLB where we all believed he would be best, but the transition was not perfect. He is still prone to over-pursuit. His -6.3 rating by PFF was the worst among all LBs, leading to speculation that the Bengals may draft a MLB and move Rey back outside. He has one year left on his rookie deal.
Thomas Howard: 16 games. 1 sack, 99 tackles, 2 forced fumbles.
When Keith Rivers was not able to start the season with an injury, the Bengals scrambled and brought in Howard on a 2-year deal. His performance, however, was not as solid as we had hoped. Offenses would try to match up their tight end on him. It’s never good when opponents want to run the play at you.
Manny Lawson: 16 games. 1.5 sacks, 52 tackles.
Lawson’s +10.2 rating shows that he was a solid pick up in free agency. But he had less than 500 snaps, around the same number as the heavily rotated Fanene and Rucker. Lawson is a free agent.
Brandon Johnson: 16 games. 0 sacks, 31 tackles, 1 forced fumble.
Johnson has been a solid backup in his 4 years in stripes. He is adequate at all three positions, posting a +0.6 rating. He has not missed a game in his time in Cincinnati. Before signing his current contract, he was not satisfied with his role as a backup. As a free agent, we will find out if he has embraced that role or if he is still unsatisfied. (At a glance, his numbers are not good enough to garner many offers to be a starter.)
Dan Skuta: 16 games. 0.5 sacks, 31 tackles, 1 forced fumble.
Early on I didn’t take Skuta seriously, but he has shaped up to be a solid backup. He isn’t flashy, but he gets the job done when he is needed without looking like a backup. He is a restricted free agent, but I expect the Bengals to make sure he is back next year.
Vincent Rey: 16 games. 6 tackles.
VR saw the field very little, mainly on special teams. He is an exclusive rights free agent this year, meaning that he can only market himself if the Bengals choose not to make him an offer. That offer may not happen.
Keith Rivers: IR
Rivers never saw the field this season due to a wrist injury. Fan rumblings that Rivers is a bust has been growing, but as the #9 pick in 2008, I say the Bengals really over-reached for him. He and Thomas Howard likely will compete to start next year.
Roddrick Muckelroy: IR
A ruptured Achilles tendon took Muckelroy off the field for 2011, setting back his development. He will be a backup as well in 2011.
Dontay Moch: (no stats)
A foot injury and migraine headaches kept Moch inactive in 2011, so we have yet to see if he will live up to the praise in his scouting reports that led the Bengals to take him in the third round of last year’s draft.
Looking to 2012
Everything hinges on what the Bengals decide to do at MLB. If they conclude that they need to move Maualuga back outside, which would mean that the entire back 7 is again learning to follow another leader. If they were going to draft that guy, there is really only one option: Luke Kuechley of Boston College, who is projected to go in the top 20.
There are several options if the Bengals dipped into free agency for a MLB. The top rated options are:
- Stephen Tulloch of DET (+20.8)
- London Fletcher-Baker of WAS (+19.8) [old!]
- D’Qwell Jackson of CLE (+18.4)
- Curtis Lofton of ATL (+12.9)
- Joe Mays of SEA (+10.8)
Of the few positions on the field where I would risk going after a top free agent, MLB is one of them. With the Bengals signaling that they have no plans to do such, free agency would likely net someone more like Dhani Jones than Connor Barwin. And at that rate, it’s probably better to stick with Maualuga.
Once the middle is settled, the outside can be worked out. According to his scouting reports, Moch has a lot of promise, but he is completely unproven. Lawson, Johnson, Skuta and Rivers are all nice support players.
My suspicion is that this group is one player and/or a little reshuffling away from being a much better group in 2012. But because there is not a glaring need like at other positions, I don’t see this position being picked until the 4th or 5th round, if at all. I suspect we will see a trio of Rivers-Maualuga-Lawson as they work Moch into the mix. Hopefully they get some more discipline from Maualuga, and a guy like Moch or draft pick/free agent can be a catalyst to change in the middle of the field in 2012.