Bengals Gab Looks at the Linebackers

As the offseason activity dies down and we roll towards the promise of football again under the summer sun, let us look to the future! Bengals Gab will be looking at each of the individual position groups on the team over the next several days, providing readers with a grade on each and a primer as training camp and the preseason approaches.

Next up, the linebackers.

Great defenses are often dependant upon a versatile and athletic group of rovers in the linebacking corps.  The Steelers and Ravens have had powerful defenses for years, with playmakers like Ray Lewis, Adalius Thomas, James Harrison and Joey Porter.

The Bengals can boast no such superstar names on their roster, but they nonetheless finished fourth in overall defense in 2009 and look to improve even more in 2010.

It all starts in the middle, and for the men in stripes that spot has been adequately filled for the last two years by world traveler, renaissance man, and bow-tie aficionado Dhani Jones.  Jones is no Ray Lewis, but he makes up for a lack of game-changing skills by being a consummate professional; the kind of veteran that coaches can rely on. To his credit, his 113 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 passes defensed and 1 forced fumble were all solid stats. However, the main issue with Jones is age.  He’s 32 years old.  The team must start looking for an adequate replacement. Back-up Abdul Hodge is intriguing, but hasn’t make much of an impact to date beyond special teams.

It was assumed by many that Jones’ heir-apparent was drafted last year in USC’s Rey Maualuga. In an effort to get him on the field as fast as possible, Maualuga ended up playing the majority of the season as a strong-side backer, notching 63 total tackles, 1 sack, and 3 forced fumbles before going down to a leg injury late in the year. Luckily, the team had, and continues to have, a strong reserve in Rashad Jeanty. In addition, the team has been toying with moving 2nd year DE Michael Johnson, who has ridiculous size, speed and athleticism, to linebacker.  Johnson, who’s coincidentally now listed at LB on the most recent official roster, has impressed coaches in recent mini-camps with the speed at which he’s picked up the playbook.

All of which is to say that Maualuga may slide to the middle in 2010 with Dhani Jones taking on a reserve role.

On the weak side, former first-round pick Keith Rivers continues to put in solid effort. Rivers had 72 tackles, 1 sack and 1 interception in 13 games last year. Rivers tends to remind me of former Bengal Brian Simmons—he comes up with impressive plays out of the blue, but most of the time you hardly know he’s out there. Nonetheless, number 55 should continue to work as the starter on the strong side. Backing Rivers up again with be former Cardinal Brandon Johnson. The rangy Johnson brought in 58 tackles and 1.5 sacks in a largely reserve role last year.  He’ll be back to do it again in 2010.

In addition to those guys, the team invested a fourth-round draft choice on University of Texas OLB Roderick Muckelroy. Muckelroy’s arrival may mean an end to Jeanty’s time in Cincinnati. The team also has Dan Skuta, a second-year player from Grand Valley State, and undrafted rookie free agent Rey Vincent from Duke on the roster.

The linebacking corps is well-coached by Jeff Fitzgerald, who came from the Ravens having helped players like Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, and Adalius Thomas reach their full potential. Coach Fitz will have this unit ready to play for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer every Sunday.

Overall Position Group Grade: B-

This is a solid group, but no one has distinguished themselves as a bona-fide pro-bowl level player to date. Several of the players (Maualuga, Rivers, Jeanty, and Brandon Johnson) have a history of injuries, and there isn’t a clear pass rush threat in the group.

However, Maualuga is a thumper that could become the fiery, intense leader in the middle this defense needs. Michael Johnson could become a feared pass rusher from the outside as well.

At a minimum, this linebacking corps will give Mike Zimmer the troops needed to maintain the defense.  The question is, will they be able to take it to the next level?

Only time will tell.

What do you think?  Vote on a grade and leave a comment!

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