The Cincinnati Bengals go into the off-season with a lot of optimism overall but some question marks at a few spots on the roster. The biggest of these conundrums might be at the linebacker position. A unit of inconsistency in 2012, with missed tackles and struggles in coverage, it will likely see a lot of turnover in 2013. The LB corps next season will probably look much different from last year, but will it be better?
The one sure thing seems to be that Vontaze Burfict, a surprising star, will start somewhere. His emergence last season was one of the keys to the Bengals making the playoffs and he figures to only get better. He played on the outside in 2012 but is a natural middle linebacker, having played there in college at Arizona State. With Rey Maualuga‘s free agency and probably departure, it makes sense to slide Burfict into the middle and build around him. The caveat could be if the Bengals draft a middle linebacker, which would keep Burfict outside. Either way, Burfict will be a major piece on defense for Cincinnati and his continued success is important to team success.
Aside from Burfict, nothing seems to be a sure thing at LB. Maualuga, Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard are all free agents, while the rest of the LBs on the roster are very young and raw. It’s believed that Howard might be re-signed but after a season ending injury, it’s unknown how effective he will be. He led the team in tackles in 2011 but he needs to be fully recovered and able to give maximum effort to be a factor again. Lawson and Maualuga will probably be let go. They both had some good moments but had too many bad ones as well. This will necessitate some additions.
There are some talented young players on the roster but they have their own question marks. Emmanuel Lamur showed flashes of being a good starting linebacker last season and might start opposite Howard in 2013. He received high praise from the coaching staff and looked very good in the playing time he received during the year. Dontay Moch is extremely athletic but injuries have prevented him from making any contribution in his two seasons. The remaining LBs on the roster are developmental and might not make the team.
Linebacker will probably be a position that is addressed in the draft. There are several highly rated prospects both at inside and outside spots that will likely be available when the Bengals select in the first or second round. If they go that route, the rookie will see a lot of playing time and will need to be effective. Free agency could also be a way to add another player should they go another way in the draft. However it goes, the linebacker position is one in flux for the Bengals. The success of the unit might be the deciding factor in just how good this defense can be.