The Cincinnati Bengals and its sixth-ranked defense head into the offseason with lingering question marks at the linebacker position.
Between free agency and the draft, multiple holes need to be filled in starting roles as well as depth. With only one starting linebacker currently under contract with the Bengals for next season, there is much work to be done in order to shore up the position.
So, what are some possibilities for the Bengals this offseason? Who will be in the starting lineup in 2013? Let's take a look at some of the possibilities.
First off, the Bengals will need to take a long, hard look at their own free-agent linebackers. Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson, Rey Maualuga and Dan Skuta are all currently without contract. What does Cincinnati do in this situation?
The Bengals first need to cut losses with players who have not quite panned out. This begins with middle linebacker and former second-round pick Rey Maualuga.
This leaves Cincinnati without a middle linebacker for 2013. There are certainly options as to how the Bengals go about filling this void, but the answer could already be on the roster.
Moving Vontaze Burfict from the weak-side position to his natural position in the middle would be the best answer for this situation.
Burfict impressed mightily last season and led the team in tackles without starting all 16 games. He showed the ability to make adjustments in his game and was solid in both the running game and in coverage.
Burfict played with some reckless abandon at times but was able to avoid the mental mistakes that plagued him in college. It seems that he has paid his dues and is ready to become the quarterback of the defense.
Burfict stepped into the weak-side position after the loss of Thomas Howard for the season. With Burfict moving to the middle, this leaves a gap at the position again.
One very simple way to fill this hole is to re-sign Howard.
With so much time to recover, Howard will be ready once training camp begins. He became an instant contributor once the Bengals signed him two years ago.
There is no reason to think that Howard will lose a step after injury. He will be able to step right back into the action and become a solid cog in the Bengals defense.
Re-signing Howard will not break the bank for the Bengals. This should be made a very high priority due to his contributions on the field and veteran experience.
With two positions now filled, what do the Bengals do with the strong-side linebacker position? The best answer here is likely a rotation.
Undrafted rookie free agent Emmanuel Lamur showed glimpses of great ability at the position toward the end of the season in 2012. Lamur brings some natural coverage abilities to the position which is something the Bengals have lacked for quite some time.
Lamur should not be an every-down linebacker, but should certainly be able to contribute in different packages and on special teams.
Lawson is another free agent whom the Bengals should consider re-signing as well. Lawson did not have the most solid season in 2012 and was generally in a rotation toward the end of the season.
This same strategy should be applied once again.
Rotating Lawson and Lamur on the strong side will highlight both players' abilities and allow the Bengals freedom at the position throughout the season.
Another option here is to look for a new strong-side linebacker in the 2013 draft. Many draft pundits such as Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller see the Bengals taking Alec Ogletree in the first round of the draft.
Both of these players would be an instant upgrade and would be a solid starter on day one.
Ogletree has the same kind of viciousness that Burfict brings to the field and would form quite a dangerous duo. Brown is one of the better stack-and-shed linebackers in the draft and can be very disruptive in the backfield.
So, with starters now apparently locked down for next season, what do the Bengals do about depth?
First, if the Bengals draft a linebacker for the strong side, re-signing Lawson still remains important due to depth and experience at the position. He would be able to mentor the rookie and Lamur as they get their feet wet in the NFL.
In the middle, re-signing Skuta should be a priority as well for Cincinnati. Skuta would be the only linebacker with actual NFL experience in the middle on the roster. This becomes massively important because Burfict will need a mentor throughout the season.
With one more spot open for depth at linebacker, there are plenty of options which the Bengals could consider.
Cincinnati has had great luck with undrafted free agents of late, and if one impresses in training camp, he could easily secure the spot.
The Bengals could also consider hanging on to Dontay Moch, but considering his issues with migraines, he could turn out to be a risk. Vincent Rey could be another option here for the Bengals, but he would most likely have to earn his spot in training camp.
The nice thing about this final position for the Bengals is that there will be intense competition between players in camp. This gives the Bengals a great opportunity to closely evaluate each player and select the best out of the group for the position.
One thing Bengals fans can be thankful for heading into 2013 is that this dramatic shift in the linebacker corps will strengthen the unit much more than the 2012 group.
Considering the Bengals make moves similar to the aforementioned suggestions, this next linebacker unit could bolster the already tremendous defense that resides in Cincinnati.