2017 Bengals positional review: linebackers

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 6: Vontaze Burfict
CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 6: Vontaze Burfict /

The Cincinnati Bengals linebacker group suffered last season due to suspensions and injuries. How can the improve in 2018?

During the 2017 season, the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker group struggled on multiple fronts due to injuries and suspensions. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict spent the first three games away from the team due to a suspension for a hit on Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman in the preseason. Linebackers Kevin Minter and Nick Vigil both missed a significant amount of time due to injuries.

With Vontaze Burfict facing yet another suspension that will land him missing the first four weeks of the season, the team will have to once again find a way to fill the void in his absence. Cincinnati did make a move in free agency once again for another one-year deal on a linebacker by signing former Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati native linebacker Preston Brown. There is still some work that needs to be done to avoid another poor showing from the group.

Brown is another linebacker much like Minter and Karlos Dansby in the sense that he is a good tackler and downhill thumper to attack the run game but is not the coverage linebacker that the Bengals need. Over the course of the last few seasons, the linebackers have been getting torched in the passing game when asked to cover tight ends, running backs, and wide receivers coming over the middle.

Vigil could still use some time to develop and I’m not ready to toss the 2016 third-round pick just yet. In 11 games during the 2017 season, Vigil collected a combined 79 tackles. Linebacker Jordan Evans, 2017 sixth-round pick, and Brandon Bell, undrafted free agent, both saw time on the field due to injuries but were not enough to fill the void. Whether the two second-year linebackers will develop into more, only time will tell.

What changed from 2016

The biggest change was the injuries for the linebacker group. With rookies seeing the field before head coach Marvin Lewis expected, they seemed still to be developing and not ready for the task. Burfict was not on the field for five games in 2016 due to suspension and nagging injuries. This is not an uncommon situation for the Bengals as Burfict hasn’t played a full season since his second year in the league in 2013.

The Bengals moved on from Dansby in order to bring in Minter which had much of the same results. When Minter was on the field, he was a help against the run game but lacked the coverage skills that Cincinnati needed. Everything seems to be pretty similar to the linebacker group moving forward.

How can the linebacker group improve in 2018

The Bengals have decided to expand linebacker Carl Lawson’s roles in 2018 to play more linebacker roles. It will be an interesting move as he played defensive end in college and played the position last year in his rookie season collecting 8.5 sacks. Whether or not he will just be blitzing from possibly outside linebacker positions or being dropped into coverage is still a question and something that is a little concerning as well.

Cincinnati also added their annual inside linebacker signings for a one year deal with Preston Brown. Like mentioned before, he is a good run stopper and tackler but has yet to show coverage abilities that the Bengals lack. The team could still use some talent in the linebacker core if they don’t want to get torched.

There has been a discussion about the Bengals wanting to use more three safety sets which would mean bringing a safety down into the box playing a hybrid linebacker role. That was a big possibility if the team had signed safety Eric Reid this week but he walked away without a deal. The team could still draft a versatile safety if that is the route they want to go to improve the coverage in that area of the field.

Much of the production from this linebacker group will revolve around players they already have been able to stay healthy and show signs of development. Vigil will get another chance likely in hopes that he can stay healthy and Burfict is already missing four games but hopefully will not miss any more after that. The new look for the defense and scheme from new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin could also improve the play of the linebacker group.

Possible draft prospects for the Bengals

Linebacker has been a common pick for many mock drafts regarding the Bengals, the other being the offensive line. Considering the amount of talent at the interior offensive line positions, it’s possible that the Bengals do take a linebacker in the first round. There are also linebackers like Leighton Vander Esch from Boise State that many mocks have them taking in the second round.

He would be a great pickup in the second round with his coverage abilities. Many mocks have him going in the first round but if the Bengals can find him with their second pick it could be a steal. His abilities to cover, get into the backfield and stop the run, and be a sideline to sideline tackler make him a three-down linebacker that the Bengals have been searching for.

Next: 2017 Bengals positional review: defensive line

Another linebacker that would be in the first to second round range is Alabama linebacker, Rashaan Evans. Another linebacker that could be a first-round talent that slides due to the needs of teams in this year’s draft and the talent at the position. He doesn’t have the greatest instincts but has the athleticism to be a player who can work all over the field. Evans also has some good pass coverage which is the biggest concern. He is likely to become a 4-3 outside linebacker so he would have to bump Vigil for the starting job opposite of Burfict.