The Cincinnati Bengals have done a lot in free agency, but they’ve failed to address the linebacker position. Does the team view it as that big of a need?
The Cincinnati Bengals have bucked historical trends, backing up the brinks truck to D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes, as well as doling out cash for Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Su’a-Filo. While these moves certainly help the team, it seems that they have put addressing their biggest need, linebacker, on the back burner.
If the front office wanted to secure one of the hot linebacker names on the market, such as Cory Littleton, Joe Schobert, or Nick Kwiatkoski, they probably could have. Littleton won’t carry a cap hit greater than $11.75M, Schobert’s cap hit maxes out at $13.65M, and Kwiatkoski could have been had for just $7M per year. Meanwhile, Waynes has cap hits of $16M in the last two years of his deal.
It’s still not certain what will happen with Dre Kirkpatrick, but the Bengals could have kept him over signing Waynes and spent the money acquiring one of the previously mentioned linebackers. So why didn’t they?
The answer may be as simple as they were unable to convince any of the desired linebackers to come to Cincinnati. Still, there are other linebackers on the market. They surely could’ve convinced one to sign by now. By digging a little deeper, it reveals the potential answer for why they haven’t done so yet.
Dating back to when the Bengals hired Zac Taylor, he inherited a linebacker group that was fairly weak. His first order of business? Cut the best player in the unit, Vontaze Burfict. It’s an understandable move given the history and Taylor’s outspokenness to build a culture to his liking. However, it’s a gutsy play, considering how poor it made the position group overall.
Two of Taylor’s biggest moves at the helm in Cincinnati seem to suggest that he, or defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, simply don’t value the linebacker position as much as some of the others. Considering how the defense played after cutting ties with Brown, they may be correct in their thinking.
Before switching their philosophy on the linebacker position, the defense was giving up an average of 28.7 points per game and 173 yards on the ground. After cutting Brown, the defense surrendered just 23 points and 117 rushing yards, on average. How did they manage this?
Well, they started playing to their strengths. Rather than trotting out incapable linebackers, they went with an extra lineman or defensive back, especially on third downs. Safety Shawn Williams was vital in this strategy, as his hybrid ability allowed him to accomplish the in-the-box role of a linebacker, while also holding his own in coverage. Outside of him, however, the secondary wasn’t put together with this playing style in mind.
After this free agency period, that’s no longer the case. Waynes, according to Pro Football Focus, had an outstanding run defense grade of 84.5 a season ago. In fact, since his entrance into the league, he is second in run stops at the corner position, per their measurements. Alexander definitely isn’t a slouch when it comes to run defense either, as he’s known for his ability to step up and make a tackle when called upon.
These signings weren’t made by accident. The Bengals went out and signed two of the better run defending defensive backs in the league, primarily because they probably plan on playing with an extra corner rather than fielding the traditional three linebackers.
The Bengals could still go out and re-sign Vigil or one of the other players still available. They could even select a linebacker with premiere draft capital in April. However, as things stand, the defense only wields Pratt. They may be fine with that, as they’ve employed a defensive strategy that only required two linebackers and saw pretty good results. Add in the fact that they added three defensive players that fit this strategy, and there’s reason to believe the Bengals can improve even further without adding a bunch of players to the linebacker core.