April 19, 2014

Draft Strategy: Linebackers

The linebacker group is another position that could be in for a complete overhaul this offseason. All of the veteran players are currently free agents. How many are worth bringing back? Could the Bengals turn them all loose and start over?

The hidden gem of the entire 2012 draft was clearly Vontaze Burfict. He took the “typical Bengals move” punchlines made in the wake of his signing and made them look stupid. Marvin Lewis knew what he could have in Burfict, the enforcer he has been seeking for a decade. Lewis commented this week at the combine that Vontaze could play “wherever he wants”. That’s Marvin-speak to say Burfict is on track to take over at the MIKE position, even in spite of his dominant season at WILL.

Then there is the defamed Rey Maualuga. Rey will explore free agency, but how much interest will there be for a poorly rated backer who is prone to over-pursuit, misses gap assignments and has poor coverage skills? Perhaps his old coach, Pete Carroll, will try to bring the Samoan back to form. If not, the most likely scenario I see is for him to return to the Bengals at a near-minimum deal to compete for the SAM position, where he was better in his first two years. This would simplify his job, since SAM is geared toward stopping the run–which he is better at–and relieves him of captaining the defense.

There there are the duo of Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard, who came to the team together in 2011. Lawson didn’t have a bad year, but it wasn’t a good year, either. And Thomas observed most of the season from the IR list. Either would cost the team about $2.5M/year to bring back. I suspect the team will let Lawson leave, and may try to return Howard to compete with a draft pick for the weak side spot.

Finally, I could see the team wanting to re-sign jack-of-all-trades backer Dan Skuta for a similar $1.3M contract, allowing him to compete for one of the outside positions but mainly keeping him for depth because of his flexibility. He may want to look for a better shot at a starting gig on another team. It’s hard to say if he will find it.

Known for having an affinity for players from Georgia, a number of mock drafts have pegged the Bengals to address their need at LB early with Alec Ogletree. But his recent DUI charge and brushes with the law in college cloud the issue. Is he a basically good kid who made a couple of mistakes? Or is he just a knucklehead, a reincarnation of Odell Thurman? Fans lean toward the latter. Perhaps the Combine will help determine which is true. He and Burfict could make a great pair, but not good enough if Ogletree can’t keep himself out of trouble. (If Pittsburgh does the formerly-unthinkable and cuts James Harrison for his cap space, don’t expect Ogletree to be there at #21.)

If the Bengals opt to take a safety in the first, they will probably target guys like Khaseem Greene or Arthur Brown with the #53 pick.

I have made no secret that I would love for the Bengals to steal Dannell Ellerbe from the soon-to-be cash-strapped Ravens. Yes, he is an inside backer, but the Bengals routinely move guys out of position. Some may think that I am targeting the wrong Raven, preferring Paul Kruger instead. Either would be a phenomenal grab. But cash will likely preempt either deal from happening. Will the Browns get aggressive and snatch one of those guys instead?

The Bengals could find just as productive a player at less money in Oakland’s Philip Wheeler, who leads PFF’s rankings for LBs at +9.9. Or on an even more cash-friendly level, they could try to bring back Brandon Johnson, who was a capable backup at all positions during his time in Cincinnati.

Much work remains to be done with the group. With the right set of moves, the team will improve their #8 ranking in points allowed in 2012 and become the premier defense in the division. A lot is riding on a handful of moves at this position over the next two months.