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The linebackers tasked with stepping up in the absence of Vontaze Burfict

Russell Heltman

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Another year, another multi-game suspension handed down to Vontaze Burfict.

2018 marks the third-straight season the Bengals star linebacker has been sidelined by a suspension. 2016 and 2017 were marred by on-field transgressions, but this time around Burfict has no one to blame but himself after testing positive for an illegal substance on December 27th of last year. The Bengals are a whole different monster when Burfict’s consistent play is available and they’ll have to navigate some tough opponents without him.

Burfict tested positive for a banned substance that stemmed from a medication he took after suffering a shoulder sprain against the Detroit Lions. The really frustrating part about this is Burfict could have refrained from taking the medication for a few more days and been safe from any potential league penalty.

Sadly, hindsight is 20/20 and that’s exactly the kind of precision the rest of this Bengals linebacking corps needs to have if they are going to weather the storm during the first four games. There is talent on that side of the depth chart so lets take a look at who Teryl Austin is counting on to pick up the slack.

Preston Brown

Nov 12, 2017; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Preston Brown (52) on the field prior to a game against the New Orleans Saints at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals followed the trend they have established over the last few years by signing a proven middle linebacker to a one-year deal.

First it was Karlos Dansby then Kevin Minter and now Preston Brown.

What sets Brown apart from the previous two stopgaps is durability, Brown was the leader of the Buffalo Bills defense last year and has started 62-of-64 games since being drafted by the Bills in 2014. On top of that durability, Brown has always been around the football and he tied for the league lead in tackles with 144 last season. On first glance, the Brown signing seemed like a home run, but despite notching all of those tackles, Brown really struggled in pass coverage last year. That was a big reason why he ranked 42nd among linebackers according to Pro Football Focus.

For Brown to live up to expectations, his pass coverage in space has to improve. Look for him to pick up the pass defense production a little bit after a full offseason with linebackers coach Jim Haslett, and rest easy knowing he won’t add to the countless missed tackles we’ve seen from this defense in the Marvin Lewis era.

Vincent Rey

Jan 9, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vincent Rey (57) misses an interception during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The longest tenured player in this linebacker corps, Rey has been a model of consistency for this Bengals defense, missing just two games since dealing with injuries in his rookie season. It might be too much to ask of a 30-year old but Cincinnati needs Rey to show more productive stability than the consistency we so often talked about with former-Bengals center Russell Bodine.

Both players have been lauded for essentially showing up everyday.

Sure Rey has made some impact plays here or there but not enough to move the needle in the eyes of evaluators. The former Duke Blue Devil received a 45.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus last season, that ranked 62nd among qualified linebackers.

Rey makes up a third of the veteran presence in this linebacking corps and that gives him an advantage on some of the younger talent heading into the Summer. Consistency is his calling card but that only gets you so far in this league and there are plenty of hungry young players waiting behind him.

Nick Vigil

Oct 29, 2017; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Nick Vigil (59) against the Indianapolis Colts at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Vigil was a versatile, every-down linebacker when the Bengals drafted him out of Utah State in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. After a developmental rookie year, the former Aggie became a weekly starter until his season ended due to injury in Week 11 and finished fourth on the team in tackles despite missing the final five games.

On the surface Vigil seems like a solid option on the strong side but he’s never made an impact around the ball like his counterpart Carl Lawson. That is a big reason why he was ranked 84th among linebackers according to Pro Football focus last year. The experts at PFF pegged him as the lowest of low-end starters and it was a contributing factor in the decision to use another third round pick on a linebacker this year.

Malik Jefferson is one of the most intriguing athletes to be drafted in 2018 and Nick Vigil likely needs to prove he belongs in a starting role early on to stave off the rookie. The spotlight will be especially bright on him with Burfict on the sideline. One of these young linebackers needs to step up and Vigil should get the chance to be that guy.

Malik Jefferson

Oct 28, 2017; Waco, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns linebacker Malik Jefferson (46) in action during the game against the Baylor Bears at McLane Stadium. The Longhorns defeat the Bears 38-7. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of the athletic rookie, I truly believe the Bengals used a second-day pick on the former Longhorn because they think he can be a solid contributor for a squad with eyes on the playoffs.

Rey is expected to handle the bulk of the snaps left behind by Burfict, but a strong camp and some early impact plays could vault him into a starter’s role. The physical gifts are there, 4.52 40-yard dash, 27 reps on the bench press, and a 36-inch vertical pop off the page. While many will see those numbers and the 110 tackles (10 for loss) and think “third-rounder, what gives?”

What gives is one key attribute of an NFL linebacker: Focus.

Too often Jefferson struggled to make quick decisions during his time with the Longhorns, relying on his physical gifts to make the majority of his plays. Jefferson’s playing time this season will largely boil down to his willingness to slow things down and absorb all of the knowledge Haslett is dropping on him.

As the former number one high school linebacker in the country and a top-20 recruit in his own right, Jefferson has the talent to craft a similar success story to his oft-suspended teammate.

The first page is ready to be written on September 1st.

A Cincinnati sports fan since before he could walk, Russ grew up in Anderson Township and currently attends Ohio University where he is pursuing a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Aside from cheering on all of the lovable losers in Cincinnati, Russ is an avid golfer and diehard Charlotte Hornets fan. When he's not breaking down the Bengals on 97 WATH you can find his analysis and thoughts on everything Orange and Black right here.

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