For the last few years the Bengals have run a very successful program of sorts. Largely unknown to those outside the Bengal fan base, the program is beginning to take shape and may produce the most underrated linebacking core in the NFL. Despite the calls from draftniks for high linebacker picks, the team has focused its defensive drafting on linemen and defensive backs. But this doesn’t mean Marvin Lewis and the rest of the staff have ignored the unit. Quietly the team has built a diverse and talented unit by picking late in the draft and signing players who went undrafted.
The unit is headlined by Vontaze Burfict, an undrafted free agent in 2012. He’s an instinctual player with an incredibly high football IQ. He led the league in tackles last year while playing nearly every snap. He’s versatile having played WILL backer and MIKE backer at different points in his career. He’s the leader of the defense and was voted to the All-Pro second team as a middle linebacker in 2013. People are only beginning to get to know who he is and it won’t be long until they all do.
Vincent Rey had his breakout year in 2013 when Rey Maualuga suffered a knee injury and concussion. Over the course of three starts he had 32 tackles (22 solo), 3 sacks, 4 QB hits, 4 TFL, 4 PD, and 1 INT. He also had 1 INT returned for a TD late in the season. He’s always been an integral part of the ST unit since arriving in Cincinnati in 2010 as an undrafted free agent. It’s because of his great production that many fans hope he will become the full-time starting MIKE backer, allowing Maualuga to move back to his SAM role where he began his career and had his most productive years. 2104 should prove to be another successful campaign for Rey.
Emmanuel Lamur arrived with the Bengals as the “other” undrafted linebacker in 2012. He was essentially redshirted for a year while he developed and continued his transition from a college safety to NFL linebacker. He came into the 2013 season with increased expectations after impressing coaches with his Kam Chancellor-like skills and adding significant bulk while keeping his trademark speed. Unfortunately a shoulder injury ended his year early after he was projected to be one of the team’s primary nickel linebackers. Because the Bengals most often utilize the nickel set, this meant he probably would’ve played more downs than any linebacker not named Vontaze Burfict, clearly a strong endorsement. He was slowly becoming a favorite of Marvin Lewis and after a successful recovery, there’s no reason to believe Lamur can’t live up to the expectations he established for himself.
Jayson DiManche, yet another undrafted free agent, came to the team with great pass rushing abilities but would’ve been undersized as a DE in the NFL. The team has begun the process of moving him to SAM backer. The transition went so well last year that he earned a spot on the roster for the year and contributed greatly to ST with 12 tackles (second on the team) and a blocked punt that was returned for a TD. He played well when playing on defense, though there wasn’t many opportunities because of this loaded group. If he continues to improve as a LB it won’t be long before he’s contributing at a greater rate on defense.
Sean Porter suffered a season ending shoulder injury prior to the start of the 2014 regular season. He is the second highest drafted linebacker (behind Rey Maualuga), being selected in the fourth round of last year’s draft. According to the Bengals, he was drafted due to his ability to play all three linebacker positions. Porter’s versatility and speed will allow him to come right in and contribute on ST much like DiManche and Rey. He will be a solid backup to all three positions in 2014 and contributor to the defense down the road.
One of the likeliest PS players will be Marquis Flowers, a sixth round pick in this year’s draft. As a converted safety, his path to earning a spot on the team will mirror that of Emmanuel Lamur’s. He has the speed to make an impact, but lacks the size. If he can continue to transition well to LB and add weight without losing his speed, he’ll have a great opportunity to earn a spot on the roster as current players possibly move on in the coming years.
Rounding out the group are hopefuls JK Schaffer, Brandon Joiner, Bruce Taylor, and James Davidson. All are past UDFAs. Schaffer, the only player lacking PS eligibility after playing in nine games last year, is a long shot to make the team lacking the versatility to play anything but middle linebacker. After spending time in jail stemming from an issue years earlier (2007), Brandon Joiner has been a reclamation project for the team since being added as a UDFA in 2012. He is a sack specialist battling for a spot as a SAM backer. Bruce Taylor was another UDFA picked up in 2013 alongside Jayson DiManche. After a strong preseason, making it to final cuts, the team decided against his retention. He was added to the PS in the later half of the season. The final player is yet another UDFA, James Davidson. It’s easy to see, when watching his film, why the team added him following this year’s draft. His abilities mirror those of Jayson DiManche. Davidson will need to transition to LB as an undersized DE himself. He’ll have a great role model in DiManche and may be able to find a spot on the PS.
This team has created a quality linebacking unit from what was thought to be scraps and high-risk guys. Marvin Lewis and, new defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther can be credited for this (along with former DC Mike Zimmer). Having these coaches as leaders in this organization is a huge advantage when assembling a team. They enable their defensive drafting focus to be on linemen and backs, hence simplifying the process. This unit will surprise the NFL in 2014 and improve last year’s third ranked defense.