Cincinnati Bengals: Revamped linebacker corps turning heads

The Cincinnati Bengals began addressing issues with the linebackers last year when coach Zac Taylor put the group on notice with the surprise release of veteran Preston Brown.

That process continued with a major overhaul this offseason, and now the Bengals will be looking for better production from a group that includes just two returning contributors from last year. Backup Jordan Evans and second-year player Germaine Pratt are all that remain from the weakest part of the defense in 2019 when Cincinnati ranked last in run defense, 25th in points allowed, 29th in yards surrendered and 28th in turnovers.

Seven newcomers will be joining the mix to try to turn things around, but defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said he’s seeing some early gains a week into full team sessions.

“Running around in shorts, meetings and stuff – those guys have done well,” Anarumo said. “The real true test will come when there is a guard coming off the ball and how do they get off the block and how do they make a tackle. But from knowing what to do, reading and reacting and being where they are supposed to be -- they have done well. I’m pleased with that group so far.”

Much of that has to do with veteran Josh Bynes, a 10th-year player who signed as a free agent from Baltimore in March and is the most tenured player in the linebacker corps by six years. Evans is a fourth-year player, and Pratt was a third-round pick in 2019. They are joined by four rookies, former practice squad player Brady Sheldon and third-year player Austin Calitro, who appeared in 29 games with Seattle and Jacksonville over the last two years before the Bengals claimed him off waivers.

Cincinnati used three of seven draft picks in April to help rebuild the linebacker unit, including third-round pick Logan Wilson, fourth-round pick Akeem Davis-Gaither and seventh-rounder Markus Bailey, and added former Iowa State linebacker Marcel Spears Jr. as a college free agent.

The young players already are leaning on Bynes for leadership, and he’s answered the call.

“He’s a guy that’s done it, he’s a high-character guy, he can really help these young guys out in how they approach not only the stuff on the field but off the field as well,” Anarumo said, noting the decision to bring in Bynes is worthy of praise. “My good friend James Bettcher had him in Arizona (in 2017 and 2018) and had nothing but great things to say about him. He’s a huge asset, both on and off the field. He’s going to play a pivotal role, not only on the field but in the locker room as well.”

The rookies will need to learn quickly watching Bynes, as Wilson and Davis-Gaither especially are expected to compete for significant playing time. Wilson might be the only true three-down linebacker of the group, and the Bengals considered Davis-Gaither a steal in the fourth round.

Asked what he’s seen from the two rookies, Anarumo said they both came in ready to go physically and mentally, as far as knowing the playbook.

“There’s obviously gonna be little things that they go through each day that we have to correct, but you know they’re moving around a little bit more like veterans than they are rookies right now, which is a good sign,” he said. “They’ll have a learning curve, you know how it goes, but they are doing well.”

Bailey could end up being a surprise contributor if healthy. He was considered to have second- or third-round talent but fell to the final round because of his history with two serious knee injuries in college. He is still coming back from an ACL tear that sidelined him in the second game of his senior season at Purdue and is currently on the active/non-football injury list.

If anyone benefited from not having a normal offseason, it might have been Bailey because he didn’t miss any actually workouts with the team. Bailey focused on his rehab and now enters camp appearing healthy.

Anarumo said the rookies all enter on the same level and don’t necessarily need to show anything specific to earn a spot.

“Let’s go out and play football,” Anarumo said. “Let’s see them run, hit, tackle, get off blocks, command the huddle -- all the things a linebacker has to do. Set the front, set the blitz, all the things we ask them to do, it’s way too early to even know the clock’s ticking, you get that, but that’s why going back to the earlier question, it’s a luxury to have a guy like Josh Bynes, but we’ll keep progressing those guys in as soon as possible.”

Entering training camp, the starting spots appear wide open. Anarumo doesn’t have a timeline for when he would like those positions settled.

“It’ll sort itself out,” he said. “…We try to temper our enthusiasm on a normal year in the spring, when guys are just running around in shorts and then tagging people off as opposed to tackling. You really don’t want to make hard and fast personnel decisions until you see them play football. And that includes tackling and getting off blocks and all of the things you have to do. We’ll balance it out, but right now, we’re still a ways away from that.”

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