The Cincinnati Bengals have been searching for a linebacker recently and have possibly found their guy in former Pittsburgh Steelers pass-rush specialist James Harrison. If the Bengals do sign Harrison, how would that affect their plan for the position going forward?
Currently, Cincinnati has been linked to possibly taking a linebacker early in the draft. With the subpar play of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and the lack of a strong-side linebacker after the departure of Manny Lawson to the Buffalo Bills, the Bengals could go after either position in the draft.
In free agency, aside from the interest in Harrison, Cincinnati has also expressed interest in middle linebacker Karlos Dansby. It would appear that if the Bengals do sign Harrison, Dansby would no longer be in play for the team.
So, if Harrison is signed, what will change for Cincinnati?
Two things would potentially shift in the Bengals' plans. First, the draft would become more of a wide-open venture for the Bengals. They would not be so hard pressed to find a linebacker early this year and could afford to wait until 2014. Second, the starting lineup would have several options with Harrison in play.
Let's take a look at these two options and analyze where the Bengals stand.
There have been plenty of names linked to the Bengals early in the draft at the linebacker position. Arthur Brown, Alec Ogletree, Kiko Alonso, Khaseem Greene and Manti Te'o have all been mentioned by various experts in mock drafts.
The signing of Harrison would allow the Bengals to steer away from these players in early rounds if they would so choose.
Harrison is 34 years of age and would likely receive a short-term deal. However, it would be enough to allow the Bengals to wait a year to draft a linebacker early and concentrate on other needs in 2013.
Cincinnati currently has very strong needs at the safety, running back and offensive tackle positions. They would be afforded the luxury of filling those needs with early picks this year if the draft would happen to fall that way.
The linebacker position is currently incomplete. The Bengals simply do not have three players on their roster that could be considered full-time starters in the upcoming season. The Harrison signing would give them an immediate starting trio.
However, one question remains—in what position would these players be starting?
The options become rather clear with Harrison in the fold.
Harrison will most certainly be the new SAM linebacker. This is his strong suit. He will be brought in to close in on the backfield and get after the quarterback and ball-carrier. The Bengals could use second-year player Emmanuel Lamur to spell him when needed to drop back into coverage.
The other two starters that are currently on the roster are Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict.
The thing about these two players is that they both have experience starting at two positions. Maualuga is able to start at SAM and MIKE, whereas Burfict is able to start at WILL and MIKE.
There was talk about Maualuga moving out to the SAM position this year and allowing Burfict to make the slide in to the MIKE position. However, that will certainly be put on hold if Harrison is signed.
Being that Harrison will be cemented in the SAM position, that leaves Maualuga with the MIKE role which would keep Burfict at WILL.
Bengals fans would not get what they would be hoping for in a new middle linebacker, however, the linebacker corps would be significantly upgraded to where it was last year.
What Does Harrison Bring?
Pro Football Focus ranked Harrison as the 10th best outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme last season (subscription required). He was one of only 14 players to get a positive overall rating.
One thing that may surprise some fans is that Harrison is actually a very stout player against the run as well. Pro Football Focus ranked Harrison third overall against the run for 3-4 outside linebackers last year with a plus-12.1 rating (subscription required).
His ability to rush the passer and provide a stout presence against the run would make him ideal in the Bengals 4-3 system. There will be no learning curve for Harrison coming from a 3-4 as he will be asked to do the same things that he has always done.
This signing may hold up certain transitions and changes in the Bengals linebacker corps that fans were looking forward to. However, this gives Cincinnati the ability to compete and become a better team immediately.
Changes will still continue to happen on this young team, but this move will give the Bengals the best chance to win football games immediately.