After seven rounds of the 2012 NFL draft, former Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict found himself without a team. Burfict had been a top prospect entering his final year in college, but personal problems with his coaches and a lack of discipline on the field saw him fall from the very top, to the very bottom. Burfict was a highly sought after undrafted free agent, but an undrafted free agent nonetheless. Eventually, he landed with the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that has never been scared of a character issue or two. Burfict was the talk of the off-season buildup, but nobody really expected him to turn his career around before it had even begun.
Come the next calendar year, the Bengals are looking at Burfict in a completely different light. Burfict is no longer the problem child with an abundance of physical talent fighting for a roster spot. Instead, he is the proud owner of plenty of positive experiences and overwhelmingly impressive play on the field from his rookie season. Burfict showed so much as a rookie, that the team is likely going to pass on re-signing current starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga as he enters free agency.
Instead of moving to re-sign Maualuga, the Bengals will spend this off-season instilling Burfict as their starting middle linebacker, while building a new duo of starting outside linebackers to bookend him. With Manny Lawson, the team’s starting weakside linebacker from this past season, also hitting free agency, the Bengals have plenty of options. Lawson could be re-signed, but if he is not and the team looks to promote from within, then either Dontay Moch or Emmanuel Lamur could take his place. Moch was a third round draft pick in 2011, but has missed essentially all of his first two seasons because of migraine issues. Ironically, Moch being placed on IR this year allowed the Bengals to bring in Lamur, who went on to impress in a situational role.
Lamur would have to prove an awful lot in the off-season if he is to enter next season as the starter, while Moch would have to prove his durability before even getting on the field. The reality is that neither player is likely to start, which means the Bengals would need to add two more linebackers who currently are not set to be under contract for next season.
Re-signing Lawson makes a lot of sense, but the team could chose to go with Thomas Howard, another of their prospective free agents, if Lawson’s finances don’t fit. Howard was a starter for the team, but tore his ACL early last season. How his rehabilitation has gone will determine if he fits with the defense into the future. Even if one of the two re-signs, the Bengals will still face the prospect of starting one of their inexperienced youngsters.
Instead, they should look to sign prospective free agent Daryl Smith of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Smith isn’t a well-known name, but he has been one of the very best 4-3 outside linebackers over the past nine years. Being a 4-3 outside linebacker typically means you won’t get the due you deserve, but being one in Jacksonville with a character that is generally understated means you will essentially be an unknown.
Nonetheless, Smith is still a top talent in this league. He missed most of last season through injury, starting just twice, and the Jaguars’ defense suffered massively because of his loss.
At 30 years of age, he likely won’t want to return to another rebuilding project in Jacksonville. Instead, he could be tempted to join a competitive team where he would get an opportunity to make a rare playoff appearance. Smith is a quiet person, but a leading player on the field. He has a wealth of experience that would benefit all of his teammates, while his window of opportunity to still start in the NFL fits perfectly with the development curves of the Bengals’ current young linebackers or one taken in this year’s draft. Critically, Smith is also very adaptable. He has primarily played strong-side linebacker during his career, but switched to weak-side in 2009, when he finished the season with 107 tackles, 1.5 sacks, six pass deflections, one interception and three forced fumbles.
Smith isn’t the type of linebacker who needs to be catered for. If the Bengals need him to play in space, he’ll do it. If they need him in tight taking on blockers, he’ll do it. Smith should be the steal of this free agency class if he leaves Jacksonville. Much like Red Bryant in Seattle, his lack of a reputation amongst his piers should actually work in the favor of any team that is willing to make a play for him.
One thing is certain: that play in free agency would result in a lot more plays on the field.