Bengals Will Face Difficult Linebacker Decision

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Sep 14, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Jayson DiManche (51) reacts to a defensive play against the Atlanta Falcons at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals‘ linebacker room is suddenly very full.  Although the position suffered some difficult injures in 2014, Cincinnati has done well investing in quality linebackers over the past handful of years.  Because of this, when the Bengals begin their training camp this year, Marvin Lewis and the front office are going to be faced with the difficult decision of who they will carry on the 53-man roster this year.

In past years, the Bengals have carried seven linebackers.  Despite largely employing the nickel set, which requires only two linebackers, keeping extra linebackers is important both to mitigate any potential injury and because these players are especially important and productive on special teams.

Last year, Cincinnati used four linebackers regularly on special teams and another two who chipped in.  Here’s an exact breakdown of the numbers (per Football Outsiders).

[table id=98 /]

The Bengals currently have 12 linebackers on the roster: Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga, Emmanuel Lamur, A.J. Hawk, Vincent Rey, Paul Dawson, Jayson DiManche, Marquis Flowers, Nico Johnson, Chris Carter, Sean Porter, and now reportedly undrafted free agent Trevor Roach.  Let’s take a moment to break down some of this group.

Five of these players are roster locks: Burfict, Maualuga, Lamur, Hawk, and Dawson.  This leaves presumably two roster spots open and seven players vying for it.  Veteran Chris Carter will likely be cut and Johnson, Porter, and Roach will likely be practice squad players at best.  This leaves three players competing for two slots: Rey, DiManche, and Flowers.  Deciding between the three will prove to be difficult, but let’s attempt to do so.

Five-year veteran Vincent Rey has been a key contributor to the Bengals in recent years.  Although each of these players has made significant contributions on special teams, Rey gets the edge here, as he has been a captain of the unit.  Although his contribution to the unit has waned in recent years this is only because he’s been a bigger part of the defense.

Rey stepped up admirably in 2013 when Maualuga went down with an injury and did the same in 2014 when both Burfict and Maualuga were injured.  Over the past two seasons, Rey has produced 178 tackles, four sacks, and two interceptions.  He’s been highly impressive over the past two seasons, and on special teams before that.  He’s been solid both against the run and pass, so cutting him before the coming season seems highly unlikely.

The other two players are young linebackers who offer more promise than proven productivity.  Cincinnati acquired Jayson DiManche as an undrafted free agent following the 2013 draft.  He came to the team as a speed-rushing defensive end out of Southern Illinois, but has been training at linebacker (SAM) for the past two seasons.

During this time span, DiManche has done largely what he could to prove himself worthy of his spot.  He’s made 17 special teams tackles over the past two seasons and has filled-in admirably when the Bengals suffered from injuries, i.e. Week Seven versus the Colts last year.  Although DiManche hasn’t found his consistent opportunity on defense, he could offer the Bengals a speed-rusher off the edge and may not have yet hit his proverbial ceiling yet as a young player (24).

DiManche will be in a battle with his young counterpart Marquis Flowers.  As a former safety, Flowers fits best at the WILL position.  Given his athletic ability and capability in coverage, he could develop into a usual player for the Bengals.  He could help cover tight ends, something the Bengals have struggled with, and could develop into a nickel backer.

The problem for Flowers is the Bengals just invested in Paul Dawson who is likely a WILL and should make things more difficult for Flowers to find his niche on defense.  The Bengals also have Emmanuel Lamur, who likely best fits as a nickel backer himself.  But in a pass happy league, a team can’t really have enough quality players in coverage, which applies to both players in the secondary and linebackers who excel in coverage.  Marquis Flowers offers great upside, an important skill set that could ameliorate a Bengals’ weakness, and the kind of attitude the defense needs.

Deciding between a wily, productive veteran (Rey), a SAM linebacker who’s done all he can to prove his merit (DiManche), and a potential high upside WILL linebacker (Flowers) won’t be easy, but it must be done.

Flowers is signed through the 2017 while both Rey and DiManche become free agents following this season.  I expect the Bengals to retain Rey given their loyalty towards players who’ve been productive and given the insurance he’s provided the Bengals over the past two years.

When it comes down to DiManche versus Flowers, the Bengals will likely keep the player who they think is more likely to be plucked from the practice squad while they try to sneak the other onto the practice squad.  Because of this, I expect the Bengals to keep Marquis Flowers and try to sign DiManche to the practice squad.  Although either player is a prime candidate to be plucked away, having not played DiManche on defense for two year may turn some teams off.

That said, the decision could go the other way given the team has more linebackers capable of playing the WILL position than they do the SAM position while none could be characterized as speed rusher.  We’ll have to wait until August to find out how the Bengals choose amongst their crowded linebacker room.

Next: Marcus Hardison Addition Raises Defensive Line Questions

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