2015 NFL Draft: Bengals Must Find Answer at Middle Linebacker


Vontaze Burfict currently headlines the Bengals linebacking group.  But what does the need to add in order to strengthen the unit. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into this year’s draft, the Cincinnati Bengals have several needs to fill.  Those needs primarily lie on the defensive side of the ball.  A year ago, the outlook for the Bengals’ linebacking group looked strong. Vontaze Burfict was the headliner and burgeoning into one of the league’s best.  Because of this, Rey Maualuga was given responsibilities more befitting of his skill set.  Emmanuel Lamur was supposed being looked at as an up-and-coming player.  Vincent Rey was demonstrating he could be a quality and consistent player when filling in well for Maualuga in 2013.  And the team had promising depth within the youth they had acquired: Jayson DiManche and Marquis Flowers, and even hybrid linebacker/safety Taylor Mays.  But a year later, things look starkly different due to Vontaze Burfict’s knee injury.

A significant injury to such a key player would change the dynamic of any team, but it especially changes the Bengals’ linebacking situation.  Burfict’s stellar play and ability to play nearly every snap single-handedly made things easier for every player.  Once he disappeared due to injury, it became evident that the other linebackers were merely complements, role players to Burfict’s leadership.  His absence also indicated the need to strengthen the unit with further investment.

The defense would most benefit from a renewed focus on the defensive line’s interior.  It seems the defense’s lackluster performance last year all stemmed from the line’s incompetence.  But after reinvesting in the line’s interior, the Bengals most significant need could be at linebacker.  The team currently has the outside linebacker positions pretty well covered, though this statement does hinge on whether or not Vontaze Burfict can reclaim his pre-surgery form.

Burfict has proven to be an elite weak side linebacker while Marquis Flowers possesses the kind of promise that could also make him into a quality weak side player.  In fact, if Paul Guenther can work his linebacker magic once more, Flowers’ emergence could give the team the option of using Burfict as the team’s middle linebacker during three-linebacker sets: Burfict handles most of these duties anyway.

The Bengals primarily employ the nickel set, and Taylor Mays offers great ability befitting of this role.  He’s been the one player who’s had some success when covering opposing tight ends, something the Bengals have historically struggled with.  Giving him snaps at nickel backer only makes sense.  His presence on the roster further solidifies the team’s depth at outside linebacker.

On the strong side, the Bengals possess a capable run-stopper in Rey Maualuga.  He’s proven to be a valuable asset in such situations, as the Bengals struggled to stop the run when Maualuga was off the field.  Meanwhile, Vincent Rey has proven to be capable at the position as well, and is the better option when facing a passing situation.  Emmanuel Lamur had a down year in 2014, but this shouldn’t define him going forward.  It was his first year as a starter, and when Burfict went down, he was often given the leadership duties.  All this responsibility proved too much for Lamur.  Going forward, it’s plausible that Lamur improves and becomes the quality linebacker the Bengals believe he can be.  As a converted safety, he has all the skills to become the team’s best option as a coverage linebacker.

Finally, the team has Jayson DiManche who has shown some potential.  Over the past two seasons, he’s turned into a key component of the special teams unit and has slowly gotten better as an outside linebacker.  He also possesses potentially effective pass rushing skills, which were fostered from his college days as a defensive end.  The Bengals are pretty well stocked at the outside linebacker positions.

The problem with the Bengals is in the middle of the linebacking group.  Although the Bengals primarily employ the nickel set, which only calls for two linebackers, and though Vontaze Burfict often becomes the team’s de facto middle linebacker handling much of those responsibilities, the team needs depth at the position.  They need an intelligent thumper who can be a playmaker.

This type of player would give the Bengals insurance with a player capable of handling the middle linebacker responsibilities.  He’d allow the other linebackers to maintain their proper positions rather than be forced into roles they aren’t best suited for, i.e. Rey Maualuga at MLB.  Finally, he’d give the Bengals the depth and talent they need in the middle to deal with what the AFC North best employs, powerful running attacks.

In the upcoming draft, the Bengals will need to solve the defensive line issues first and foremost.  This means the team won’t likely turn its attention to linebacker until the middle rounds.  Because of this, the team must apply much time and effort towards identifying linebackers who can be found in the middle rounds to man their middle position.

Next: Stephone Anthony: The Bengals Answer at Middle Linebacker

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