AFC North Positional Rankings: Linebacker

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Oct 12, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker

Vontaze Burfict

(55) and middle linebacker

Rey Maualuga

(58) prepare to take the field against the Carolina Panthers at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals and the Panthers tie in overtime 37-37. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

4. Cincinnati Bengals

SLB: Emmanuel Lamur

MLB: Rey Maualuga

WLB: Vontaze Burfict

Other notable linebackers: A.J. Hawk, P.J. Dawson, Vincent Rey

The Cincinnati Bengals’ defense has its strong points, but linebacker is one of the weaker points in the unit. Despite Vontaze Burfict’s presence in the linebacking corps–Burfict being the best linebacker in the AFC North when healthy–the unit is relatively weak in comparison with the other defenses Cincinnati faces in the AFC North.

Oct 26, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 27-24. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Emmanuel Lamur has been touted the Bengals’ best coverage linebacker, but he has been a major liability on the defense, especially against the run. Lamur missed a key tackle on Doug Martin last week that led to a long run in Cincinnati’s Week 2 preseason loss; the Bengals can’t afford to keep putting Lamur on the field if he keeps missing tackles, so he’ll need to improve on his tackling if the defense is going to improve.

Rey Maualuga, although not an incredible player, has proven to be a solid contributor on the Bengals’ defense. Cincinnati was able to appreciate the type of play he brings to the field when Maualuga missed four games in 2014; the team’s run defense suffered tremendously from the Samoan middle linebacker’s absence. But when Maualuga returned, the Bengals’ defense showed some decent improvement.

Vontaze Burfict is one of the NFL’s best linebackers when healthy, which hasn’t meant much as of lately. The former undrafted free agent out of Arizona State quickly emerged as one of the NFL’s best linebackers; he is an instinctive tackler and can lay the wood when he hits opposing players. Burfict recorded a league-high 171 tackles in 2013, along with three sacks, six pass defenses and an interception. However, the Pro Bowl linebacker will have to prove that he can stay healthy before he is officially touted the best linebacker in the AFC North. His value would certainly increase if Cincinnati moved him to middle linebacker; the Bengals need to move him soon so P.J. Dawson can start playing at the weak side.

Cincinnati’s three next linebackers–A.J. Hawk, Vincent Rey and P.J. Dawson–provide depth but are not quality players who should see significant playing time. Bengals fans, however, want to see Dawson take the field as soon as possible; he looks like one of Cincinnati’s most promising selections from the 2015 NFL Draft. Cincinnati could kick Maualuga to the SAM, move Burfict inside at the MIKE and promote Dawson to the WILL.

Overall, Cincinnati has one of the division’s best linebackers–if not its best–but its linebacking corps has been plagued by the injury bug for the past two seasons. In order for Cincinnati to have more success at linebacker, the team will have to hope that its linebackers can stay on the field.