July 30, 2014

Who Makes The Cut? LB Edition

The Bengals have never had the reputation for having an intimidating group of linebackers like other teams in the AFC North. The last fearsome LB to roam the backfield in stripes was Takeo Spikes… not to slight a great guy like Brian Simmons. I wonder if (and pray that) they might have done something about that this year.

Safeties
Starter On The Roster Camp Battle Long Shot
Manny Lawson
Rey Maualuga
Thomas Howard
Roddrick Muckelroy Vontaze Burfict
Dontay Moch
DeQuin Evans
Dan Skuta
Vincent Rey
Emmanuel Lamur
Micah Johnson
Grant Hunter
Brandon Joiner

This has the makings of a pretty good corps of LBs, but I’m not sure I see a great group coming from this list. (I would love for them to make me look bad for saying that.) Much of just how good they end up being depends on what happens in the middle.

Starter: Manny Lawson

The pickup of Lawson (and Howard) were surprising — and welcome — moves by the front office last year. And he did a solid job of filling Maualuga’s vacated spot. Nothing is impossible, but it is difficult to imagine anyone winning the starting job away from Lawson right now.

Starter: Rey Maualuga

Right after the draft, word circulated that Maualuga was a bit concerned that the front office might be seeking his replacement. While they did not take an obvious rival for his starting spot, he was right to be concerned. He is still struggling to maintain discipline and follow his assignments instead of going on pure instinct, which leads him to over-pursue and make mistakes. I expect Maualuga to start the season as the MIKE (unless he is suspended by the Commish), but I have no confidence that he will end the season as the starter.

Starter: Thomas Howard

Perhaps Keith Rivers’ wrist injury was a blessing in disguise because it forced the front office to find a free agent to shore up the weak side when Moch and Muckelroy were not ready to go. Howard was a contributor in 99 tackles, a needed improvement from Rivers high-water mark of 77. I want to see one of the young guys push Howard, but he will win out and retain his starting job.

Backup: Roddrick Muckelroy

After tearing his Achilles at the beginning of training camp last year, Muckelroy is planning on returning to the field for OTAs later this month, which puts him on a normal pace for returning from an Achilles injury. He will need to set the bar high for backup in the middle, as curiosity (and hopes) from fans will be high for UDFA Vontaze Burfict. But until Burfict wrestles the edge away, we have to give the advantage to Muckelroy to hold the spot.

Camp Battler: Vontaze Burfict

There is no doubt that Burfict is the most intriguing rookie on the roster. Few guys have so thoroughly destroyed their draft value in the span of 15 months, plummeting from being a likely first rounder at the end of his junior year to being passed over 253 times. Now the question becomes whether Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer can sift through the rubble and rebuild Burfict into the former first rounder who was expected to shred his way through the NFL at one time. If they can, Marvin just may have found the closest thing to the middle linebacker that he has been seeking for a decade.

Camp Battler: Dontay Moch

The third rounder was expected to make an impact at the position as the season wore on last year, but he was never able to get on the field with migraine issues. For a guy whose job is to rattle guys’ teeth with hard hits, that kind of an issue is concerning. If the medical staff can help him resolve that problem, his size and speed make him a likely candidate to make the team.

Camp Battler: DeQuin Evans

Evans, a teammate of Micah Johnson (below), created some buzz while on the practice squad last year. He has great size, but faces a huge field from which he will again have to separate himself. If he cannot, he may be facing another stint on the PS.

Camp Battler: Dan Skuta

Skuta may never be a regular starter, but he has the advantage of spending a few years in Mike Zimmer’s system and would be the simplest plug-and-play answer in the middle to start the season if Rey Maualuga receives a suspension
from Roger Goodell. He has done it before, starting 3 games last year when RM was injured. The thought of Skuta starting in Baltimore on MNF doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies, but neither does anyone else right now. Including Maualuga.

Camp Battler: Emmanuel Lamur

This tryout invitee would have been easy to overlook had Marvin Lewis not mentioned him twice for performing well at the rookie minicamp. His scouting report is less than impressive, but he clearly did some things well and impressed the right set of eyes in Coach Lewis, as evidenced by the Bengals signing him to a UDFA deal.

Camp Battler: Vincent Rey

Prior to the draft, Rey was in the running as the backup to Howard at WILL. He appeared in all 16 games last year, but the brevity of his appearances was punctuated by his total of six tackles. Since the Bengals made very few moves at this spot, he is still very much in the running, but he still will have to beat out Moch, Lamur and others in practice and on special teams.

Long Shot: Micah Johnson

Johnson is a big man at 6’2″, 253 lbs and a hard hitter out of Kentucky. He is a step slow at 4.7-4.8 for the 40, but his strength and awareness are assets. Also, playing in the SEC is a plus. I will be interested to see what the kid can do to catch the eyes of coaches.

Long Shot: Grant Hunter

As a DE at Butler, Hunter is undergoing the same conversion to OLB as Dwight Freeney. At 6’2″ and 243 lbs, he has the size for the spot. But the jump from Missouri Valley Conference to the NFL is a long one, and at a crowded position that puts him at an unfortunate disadvantage. Then again, Dan Skuta fought those same odds and won.

Long Shot: Brandon Joiner

Joiner is another DE with nice size (6’3″, 255 lbs) from a smaller school in a mid-major conference (SunBelt) who will have to hold on against a major leap in talent. But if he can show something on the field, his size is certainly working in his favor.

The name missing from this list, of course, is Brandon Johnson, who was a good special teams guy and could fill in at any spot as needed. I was surprised that the Bengals have not seemed interested in bringing him back. Is there something about his health or attitude that we don’t know?