A linebacker group filled with Undrafted Free Agents and later round draft picks look to make an impact for the Bengals’ new and improved defense in 2018.
The Bengals will look to the defense as a strong point of this years’ team, and this group of linebackers will have plenty to do with that. The part of the defense could be lacking to start the season with Vontaze Burfict suspended for the first four games. Hopefully, the younger players will step up in these first couple games. Could one player stand out or will it be a group of guys that will have to fill the need?
Let’s take a look at the starters: Vontaze Burfict, Nick Vigil, and newly acquired Preston Brown.
Vontaze Burfict is one of the stars of the defense, but he does struggle to stay on the field. Burfict has missed 28 games over the last four seasons and add four more games to that after he serves his suspension this year. Burfict is expected to play preseason, but has been dealing with injuries leading up to the season. He is a leader of this defense and will be looked to play a big role coming back from suspension. Burfict did mention in an interview that is the best group of linebackers that he has been around.
The Bengals brought in Preston Brown this offseason, a hometown product from Northwest High School. Brown played for the Buffalo Bills over the past four seasons and decided to leave in free agency and sign with the Bengals. There was a three-way tie for league leader in tackles last season and Brown was part of that with 144 tackles. This signing will bring stability to the young group of linebackers and give them an experienced player to help them grow. If he proves to be more of an all-around linebacker, he could earn a contract to be the starting MLB for the next couple seasons.
Nick Vigil is entering his third season with the Bengals after being drafted in the third round in 2016. Vigil will need to make a good impression for the coaches this season, his play is going to have to step up from the 72nd ranked linebacker last season, according to PFF. He didn’t have a bad season as his first season as a starter, but his play has been replaceable. The Bengals have a few linebackers on this roster that could be pushing for Vigil’s starting spot.
Nick Vigil was among the Bengals’ defensive leaders in snaps last season, despite missing the last 5 games. He was also 4th in tackles with 77. Vigil is still only 24 years old and has plenty of room to grow as a player and will have the chance to this season. This could be a breakout season for Vigil, playing on a defense that is looking to be a top of the league by years end.
The Bengals core of linebackers is deeper and more experienced this year than the previous. The Bengals will have more versatility at this position with acquiring more speed. The linebacker that could possibly get the starting spot while Burfict is suspended is the quickest of them all in Jordan Evans, with 4.50 40 yard dash. Evans was a 6th round draft pick in 2017 out of the University of Oklahoma.
Evans played in 15 games last season with 33 tackles and 3 pass deflections and started 4 after Nick Vigil was put on IR. He showed flashes in his play, but still is a raw talent. His ability in pass coverage and elite speed gives him a chance to be a star on the weak side, but before he secures more playing time he will need to improve his physicality in between the trenches.
In this years’ draft, the Bengals selected Malik Jefferson in the 3rd round out of the University of Texas to add ever more speed to this group. Jefferson ran a 4.52 and posted a 36 inch vertical in this years’ combine. Another versatile and athletic linebacker on this roster with a lot of raw talent, like Evans. Jefferson will get his chance to play with Burfict’s suspension, but will likely lean towards more of special teams role for the rest of the season. Jefferson is a project for the Bengals and will have to take time getting accustomed to the NFL.
Vincent Rey has been with the Bengals for 9 seasons now. Rey will have a reduced role this season after starting 11 games last year. He has been a quality veteran for this team and is in more of mentor position at this point of his career. This is a contract year for Vincent Rey, so we could see a step up in his play to earn another contract with the Bengals, or this could be his last year with the team.
With the last three preseason games we will see who stands out and makes the cut for the last 53. With a group of linebackers that do have the talent to succeed in this league, this defense has a chance to play at an elite level.