With Cincinnati’s recent problems at linebacker, what are the team’s best solutions in free agency and the 2017 NFL Draft?
When Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu walked in free agency following the 2015 campaign, the general consensus was that receiver would be the Bengals’ No. 1 problem the following season. While Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell performed better than expected, some of their counterparts on the other side of the ball did not. For the first time in a while, it became clear that linebacker was a problem for the Bengals, and it wasn’t going away on its own.
Exacerbated by a Vontaze Burfict suspension at the beginning of the year, last season made it painfully obvious that the Bengals’ linebacking talent isn’t anywhere near a playoff level. Ineffective in both pass rush and coverage, the Bengals current rostered options at linebacker just aren’t good enough.
After eight years in a Bengals uniform, Rey Maualuga is definitively not the star the Bengals thought they were getting when they drafted him in 2009. At 30 years old and in the last year of his contract, it doesn’t look like the Bengals will be bringing him back on a new deal next year. With just six starts in 2016 after at least fourteen per year in every previous season, his time in the Queen City looks to be just about up.
Karlos Dansby was a middle-of-the-road role player for the Bengals last year, earning his keep with a few solid plays here and there. In the end, though, his mistakes in coverage cost the team on multiple occasions. Signed to a one-year deal last March, at 35 years old, his time with the Bengals is likely now done for good.
With both major veterans likely out the door within the next year, it’s evident a changing of the guard is on the horizon.
If the Bengals wanted to reinforce their linebacking corps through free agency, there would be no shortage of options. However, most unrestricted free agent inside linebackers are around Dansby’s age, and would simply be stopgaps for the Bengals—not long term solutions. Stephen Tulloch, D’Qwell Jackson, and Daryl Smith could all fill the Bengals’ one-year veteran linebacker role.
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But, if the Bengals wanted to break the trend and sign a badly-needed franchise linebacker in free agency, this would be a good year to do it. Zach Brown, Dont’a Hightower, and Lawrence Timmons are all inside linebackers poised to hit the open market, but they’d all require some pretty heavy spending for a team that hardly ever makes a splash in free agency.
All things considered, while there are options available to them, free agency won’t be how Cincinnati’s linebacking problem gets solved. Plugging in some of the league’s oldest journeymen year after year isn’t really a solution. While neither the Bengals’ time with AJ Hawk or Karlos Dansby hurt the team, they prevented Cincinnati from moving forward and addressing their problem at linebacker long-term. The Bengals need more youth at the position.
Sitting at nine overall, the Bengals have their best draft position since the departure of Carson Palmer. They’ve got a lot of options with this pick, but among the most popular is taking Alabama LB Reuben Foster.
Foster is a monster in the center of the field. He’s known for his hard-hitting play style and physicality. Hailed as one of the best linebackers to come out of Alabama (think CJ Mosley and Dont’a Hightower), Foster’s for real. The Bengals snagging him at nine would be an amazing pick but isn’t entirely unlikely. His opting to undergo rotator cuff surgery this offseason will likely affect his draft stock.
If Cincinnati can’t nab Foster, there’s another player that should warrant strong consideration. Zach Cunningham could be the Bengals solution on defense. Deemed to have the potential for a three-down starting role, Cunningham’s ability in coverage could be the answer. Zach could solidify a Bengals linebacking corps that gets consistently burned by opposing wide receivers.
With multiple veteran linebackers likely out the door in the next year, the Bengals need to develop a succession plan. Either through free agency or the draft, the time has come. Cincinnati needs some new blood in the middle of its defense.