Originally posted on 60 Max Power O  |  Last updated 7/11/12

Since the Bengals' defensive line got most of the attention for the team's defensive success in 2011 and while the secondary needed the most work in the offseason, the team's linebackers kind of flew, and are somewhat still remaining, under the radar. Rey Maualuga was underwhelming in his first year as a starting middle linebacker and outside linebackers Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard both played well enough to lead the team, but neither of them were close to being considered Pro Bowlers.

To continue our training camp preview, we take a look at the Bengals linebackers.

Player Age Season Acquired School Rey Maualuga 25 4th '09 Draft (2nd) USC           '11 PFF Overall '11 PFF Run D '11 PFF Pass D '11 PFF Pass Rush '12 Salary* -6.3 2.7 -5.7 -1.5 $615,000

Maualuga was the big story heading into the 2011 season. With the team allowing Dhani Jones to leave, they handed the job to Maualuga in hopes that he would step into the role that the Bengals drafted him to fill. Maualuga played middle linebacker at USC where he was known as a hard hitter and made himself out to look like a future NFL star. However, there were quite a few scouts who saw things they didn't care for in Maualuga, like his consistency and playing out of control, and, unfortunately for the Bengals, those were the things that stuck out in 2011.

Maualuga had some great games (his performance against the Houston Texans in the regular season comes to mind) and some terrible games (his game against the Baltimore Ravens and others) in 2011. While he showed flashes of brilliance, he hasn't proven that he has what it takes to lead a defense as the starting middle linebacker in the AFC North for an extended period of time. This will be a big year for Maualuga.

Player Age Season Acquired School Manny Lawson 28 7th '06 Draft (1st) NC State           '11 PFF Overall '11 PFF Pass D '11 PFF Rush D '11 QB PFF Pass Rush '12 Salary* 10.7 -0.6 8.1 1.2 $2.1 million

Manny Lawson, a former first-round pick, was acquired by the Bengals as a free agent from the San Francisco 49ers, where he never seemed to get things together. The Bengals started him as their SAM linebacker, taking the spot that Rey Maualuga left open when he moved to the middle linebacker position. Lawson, who was the lesser talked about free agent addition at linebacker, had a solid season in Cincinnati. He excelled against the run and while he only sacked the opposing quarterback twice, he added some much valued pressure much more often.

Lawson was re-signed by the Bengals after rumors swirled that the Packers may be interested in bringing the linebacker to Green Bay. He will more than likely keep his starting position as the teams strong-side outside linebacker and could easily carve himself a long-term position with the team.

Player Age Season Acquired School Thomas Howard 28 7th '06 Draft (2nd) Texas-El Paso           '11 PFF Overall '11 PFF Run D '11 PFF Pass D '11 PFF Pass Rush '12 Salary* 2.4 0.7 -0.6 -0.2 $2.4 million

Even though his PFF rating doesn't show it, Howard was the team's best linebacker in 2011. As the teams starting WILL linebacker, taking over for Keith Rivers, who was eventually traded to the Giants largely thanks to Howards' play, Howard showed that he could not only play against the run, but excel as a pass defender. Howard led the team in tackles with 99 and showed Bengals fans that Keith Rivers may not be the answer they were hoping he would be.

With Howard back as the team's starting WILL linebacker opposite of Lawson at SAM and next to Maualuga at MIKE, the linebackers have a chance to grow as a unit and help usher in a new era of Bengals defense under the rule of Mike Zimmer.

Player Age Season Acquired School Dan Skuta 26 4th '09 Undrafted Grand Valley State           '11 PFF Overall '11 PFF Run D '11 PFF Pass D '11 PFF Pass Rush '12 Salary* 2.5 2.9 -3.2 2.7 -

Skuta is the last linebacker who received considerable playing time as a linebacker in 2011. He served as Rey Maualuga's backup and started in three games but played in all 16 regular season games. He doesn't have the ability to start at the position, he did play well as a starter when needed and he contributed as a special teams asset. Skuta is a good backup for the Bengals and a solid special teams contributor.

The other linebackers that could be in the mix in 2012 didn't do much -- actually, they didn't do anything -- in 2011. Roddrick Muckelroy ruptured his Achilles in the preseason and was placed on IR. Dontay Moch, a rookie last year, failed to make it on the field for any extended period of time thanks to an injury in the preseason and a nasty case of migraines that kept him off the practice field. Vincent Rey saw 99.999 percent of his action in special teams except for a few short yardage plays in the regular season.

And then there are a handful of rookies that may have a chance to impact the team in 2012. Of all the rookies coming into training camp, the most popular is Vontaze Burfict, the tough but troubled middle linebacker from Arizona State that went undrafted in 2012. Joining him are Grant Hunter from Butler, Micah Johnson from Kentucky, Brandon Joiner from Arkansas State and Emmanuel Lamur from Kansas State.

The linebackers are the binding that connects the defensive line and the secondary and are arguably the most important unit on the defense due to the fact that they make the calls and the adjustments before the snap. There may not be a Ray Lewis on Patrick Willis on the Bengals roster, but a unit of two guys trying to reignite their career and one guy trying to prove he belongs mixed with some very talented specialists and freak athletes has the potential to be one of the best in the league.

 

Check out other great articles at 49erslines.com.

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