The Bengals have four undrafted free agents all vying to be the next Vontaze Burfict – a UDFA who becomes an established starter.
The Bengals linebacking core has some established veterans, but there is potential for an unheralded prospect to make the final roster. At the top of the position is Vontaze Burfict, followed by Nick Vigil, Preston Brown, and Jordan Evans. Veteran Vincent Rey will likely make the team as well, although nothing is guaranteed now that George Iloka has been cut. Third round rookie Malik Jefferson also is a near-lock for this team, but he may be an inactive this season.
The Bengals may keep seven linebackers, though, especially if the seventh backer can play special teams (or if they cut Rey). There are some UDFAs who have an outside chance to make this roster.
The most likely by far is Hardy Nickerson, Jr. Nickerson, a UDFA from 2017, was actually a practice squad guy for the Bengals who ended up playing 14 games. Nickerson was primarily a special teams guy, which is a valuable skill for the team and a boost to his chances to make the roster. As a linebacker, Nickerson plays as a MLB. He’s a better run stopper than he is in pass protection. Nickerson will get a real shot to make this final roster because of his experience and his value on special teams.
Brandon Bell is the other 2017 UDFA with a decent shot at making the team. Bell, a Penn St. grad, also got some playing time on the Bengals last year. He only played three games, but made ten tackles. Bell plays mainly at strong side linebacker, but brings a similar skill set as Nickerson. He’s an excellent tackler, but has flashed in pass protection. Bell snagged an interception for the Bengals against Chicago, and has made a few picks in camp. Bell is on the outside looking in, but he will have a crack at the team.
2018 UDFAs Junior Joseph and Chris Worley will also have their shot to make the Bengals. Joseph may be battling head to head with Nickerson for the backup middle linebacker role. Joseph, a UCONN grad, is a textbook tackler with more range in the passing game. He had a great pass deflection against Chicago in addition to five tackles. Joseph is slightly bigger than Nickerson, so if he can play special teams, he may have an outside shot to make the Bengals’ roster.
Worley is a former Buckeye, so he has school ties to the Bengals. The only weak side linebacker here, Worley has the most competition to deal with. Burfict, Evans, and Jefferson all stand ahead of him on the depth chart, which makes it hard for him to stick. Athletically, Worley profiles similarly to Evans, which makes him an intriguing player. If he can separate in camp, Worley will have a shot – it just doesn’t seem likely at this point.
These four UDFAs all have NFL skill and the potential to contribute to the Bengals this season. However, only one (if any) can make the final roster. Keep an eye on these guys, though, as any one of them could rise up the ranks with some impressive performances.