The Bengals have a lot of established veterans at linebacker. Are there any young guys who can break through and make the team this year?
At Stripe Hype, we’ve taken a hiatus from roster projections, but we are back to analyzing which Bengals players will make the team. We left off at defensive linemen, so we’ll pick up with the linebackers today. Overall, the position actually breaks down pretty cleanly, with just a few UDFAs scrapping for the finals spots.
The starters should return as expected. Last year’s breakout star, Carl Lawson, headlines a strong starting core. Lawson piled up 8.5 sacks in an unbelievable rookie season, and looks prepared to up his game next season. He’s been bulking up in the offseason, which would allow him to be more effective in run defense. If he’s big enough, Lawson could even drop down and play some defensive end in special packages. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will certainly find some creative ways to deploy Lawson.
Starting opposite Lawson will likely be Vontaze Burfict. Bengals fans have been through the ringer with Burfict, and this year is no different. He’s suspended for the first four games of the season for PED usage, which is nothing new. Burfict is hard to rely upon, but when he plays, he’s a monster. Burfict is the perfect complement to Lawson as someone who can play the whole field and make all the tackles.
Austin will presumably use a 4-3 system like he did in Detroit, so the Bengals did well to grab the perfect MLB in free agency. The team signed Preston Brown to a 1-year deal this offseason. Brown has really exploded the last couple years with Buffalo, and like Burfict, he’s a tackling machine. He also brings some consistency to the table, which pairs nicely with Burfict. Brown, Burfict, and Lawson could be the perfect starting linebacker trio for the Bengals.
With the reserves, there should be very little competition as well. Behind Lawson and Burfict should be third-year linebacker Nick Vigil. Vigil actually started 12 games last season before an injury knocked him out for the rest of the season. He was among the team leaders in tackles, although he graded out poorly in PFF’s rankings. Vigil will likely see a lot of field time as a rotation linebacker, especially in obvious run situations, in which he’s better than Lawson.
Another backup whose name Bengals fans are familiar with is Vincent Rey. A 2010 undrafted free agent, this will be Rey’s seventh season with the team. He has never had a starting role with the Bengals, but has been a key backup for the last few years. Primarily a middle linebacker, Rey can line up all over the field. Rey’s versatility and cool demeanor on the field are perfect for a backup linebacker. Having Rey on this roster is like having a good backup quarterback – the defense won’t collapse even if the starters sustain an injury.
Entering the fold this year is third round rookie Malik Jefferson. After leaving Texas this year, Jefferson was a projected second round selection who fell all the way to the 77th pick. He had a really strong combine, putting up a 4.52 40-yard dash and a 36″ vertical leap while measuring 6’2″ and 236 pounds. Jefferson is an elite athlete with an NFL-ready body. His biggest issue remains his technique, though. At Texas, Jefferson missed some open field tackles, which will not fly in the league. With a year to develop behind some of these starters, Jefferson could definitely develop into a starting outside linebacker down the road. For now, expect Jefferson to see limited playing time while he’s still learning.
Traditionally, the Bengals carry only seven linebackers, and the last spot will likely go to Jordan Evans. Evans, a sixth round pick last year, flashed in limited playing time. He proved to be a steal in the draft and seemed like a rotation linebacker for years to come. However, he will definitely have some camp competition. His stiffest competition will be Hardy Nickerson, Jr., the last linebacker to make the roster last season. Nickerson was a UDFA out of Kansas who played essentially only on special teams. Other contenders for the last spot are UDFAs Brandon Bell, Junior Joseph, and Chris Worley. Worley and Joseph, both rookies, had incredibly productive college careers, but may be better suited for the practice squad. It will be hard for Worley, Joseph, or Bell to upend Evans and make this roster.
Overall, I expect the Bengals linebacker core to look like this: Carl Lawson (OLB), Vontaze Burfict (OLB), Preston Brown (MLB), Nick Vigil (OLB), Vincent Rey (MLB), Malik Jefferson (LB), and Jordan Evans (OLB). I don’t see any way the Bengals take fewer than 7 linebackers on the final 53-man roster. If they decide to take 8, the final spot will likely go to either Nickerson or Joseph. Linebacker might not be the Bengals’ biggest strength, but this core should be ready to make an impact in 2018.