With the offseason here, we've been spending the last several days taking a position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season and give a sneak peek at what may lie ahead in 2014.
The good: There are several points of pride the Bengals' linebackers can single out from the 2013 season. The biggest was second-year player Vontaze Burfict's campaign that included the league lead in tackles with 171, a mark that set a new franchise record, and his first Pro Bowl berth. In the Pro Bowl, Burfict had a diving interception and four tackles. Along with Burfict's emergence came Rey's. A fellow undrafted linebacker, the former Duke standout had a career-high 57 tackles and four sacks in his most extensive defensive minutes of his career. He had been primarily used in special teams, but due to injuries, shifted into the regular rotation in the middle of the season, and remained in the mix even after Cincinnati got healthier.
The bad: Injuries ruined a lot of the Bengals' plans for their linebackers this season. During the final preseason game, Emmanuel Lamur, a player used primarily as a cover linebacker in nickel situations, was lost for the year because of an injury. For about three weeks the Bengals scrambled to figure out how they would make up for his loss, even going as far as moving safety Taylor Mays to Lamur's old spot. There also was the James Harrison issue early in the year. The Bengals couldn't figure out where to properly line up the newly signed veteran as he continued to learn the complex defense. With the Bengals facing so many spread, multiple-receiver offenses early in the year, too, the run-stopper had issues getting on the field. By the middle of the season, though, he hit a stride, mostly once he had some defensive line obligations following defensive tackle Geno Atkins' ACL injury.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Rey Maualuga ($3.9 million), Harrison ($2 million), Sean Porter ($602,325), Burfict ($570,334), Lamur ($570,000), Jayson DiManche ($500,000), Brandon Joiner ($495,000), J.K. Schaffer ($495,000). It's amazing at how much of a discount the Bengals are getting Burfict. Since he went undrafted in 2012, he had to make the league annual minimum, per the recent collective bargaining agreement. With his contract expiring at the end of next season, Burfict is sure to see a significant pay raise sometime in the relatively near future. After his latest season, Rey made a good case for being brought back. Boley, who signed a one-year deal in part to add depth to the thinning linebackers corps also is eligible for free agency. He either could be signed by another team, or the Bengals could decide to pass on him. Whatever Cincinnati decides with the two upcoming free agents, it's clear that a foundation has been set for the near future with the rest of the linebackers group. Maualuga, Harrison, Porter (who was on injured reserve last year and should be healthy for training camp), Burfict, Lamur and DiManche certainly aren't going anywhere. Like Lamur and Porter, Joiner also was on injured reserve last year and should be back. Schaffer, a Cincinnati native who bounced on and off the practice squad, seems to have done enough to warrant remaining on the 53-man roster.
Draft priority: Low. As long as the Bengals' trio of IR players make it back healthy, the Bengals don't have a great need to claim a linebacker in the draft. Their lack of depth at the nickel spot still leaves something to be desired, though, and so they could seek an athletic linebacker who can specifically cover.