While the signing of free agent Kevin Minter will have an impact on the look of the linebacker corps this season – and already has with the subsequent release of Rey Maualuga less than a week later – it won’t affect the way the Cincinnati Bengals approach the draft.
The team is still expected to target the position, perhaps as early as the first round with the ninth overall pick.
The Bengals haven’t drafted a linebacker in the first round since Keith Rivers in 2008 – ironically with the ninth overall pick – but they have placed a premium on the position of late, taking P.J. Dawson in the third round in 2015 and Nick Vigil in the third round last year.
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Dawson has yet to fulfill the potential the Bengals believed he had two years ago, having been released and re-signed a year ago, and Vigil was slow to develop in 2016 but did show promise toward the end of his rookie campaign.
And the prize piece of the group, Vontaze Burfict, is entering the final year of his contract. Vinny Rey has been a solid contributor as a backup at all three spots, but the only other two linebackers on the roster are Marquis Flowers, who has five tackles in three season, and Bryson Albright, whom the team signed to a Reserves/Future contract in January.
Look for the Bengals to use more than one of their 11 draft picks on a linebacker. As part of our continuing series previewing each position, here is a look at the top linebacker prospects available:
Reuben Foster, Alabama
While being sent home from the Combine for arguing with medical staffers is a red flag, it’s doubtful it will be enough for teams to take Foster off their draft boards.
He’s a big-time thumper, but he also can play in coverage, which is what makes him an elite prospect. He has a history of going for the big shots more than relying on solid technique, which has led to having to fight numerous stingers.
At 6-feet, 229 pounds, Foster played 15 pounds lighter in 2016 than he did the previous season, leading to an outstanding campaign in which he won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, was the MVP in the SEC championship game and earned first team All-American recognition.
PREVIOUS POSITION PREVIEWS:
Hasson Reddick, Temple
From a 185-pound college walk-on to a first-round pick. Reddick worked his way up from a reserve who saw most of his action on special teams to the team leader in sacks and first team All-American Athletic Conference selection as a senior.
The 6-1, 237-pound Reddick played running back in high school, which is where he gets the quickness and great change of direction scouts rave about. He’s a bit undersized for an NFL linebacker, but he should be able to add strength after a year or so in the league.
He wasn’t an every down player at Temple and tended to miss quite a few tackles, but he’s a playmaker who impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl and the Combine, so some team is going to take a chance on him in the first round.
Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
The 6-3, 234-pound Cunningham could become the first Vanderbilt defensive player to get drafted in the first round since cornerback Leonard Coleman in 1984.
An Alabama native who was passed over by the Crimson Tide, the guitar-playing Cunningham took his talents to Nashville and became a star for the Commodores, earning first team All-American honors.
Scouts rave about his instincts and superior intellect, which allow him to make quick reads and play downhill. He struggles at times to disengage from blocks, but in space he’s a dominant force.
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Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
McKinley is going to be drafted lower than he should be due to undergoing shoulder surgery last month, which means some team is could be getting a steal with a player who explosive off the edge.
Scouts rave about his motor and refusal to take plays off and the way his long arms and speed increase his tackle radius. After failing to qualify academically, the 6-2, 250-pound McKinley played one season at Contra Costa College before transferring to UCLA and becoming a first-team All-PAC 12 pick last year with 18 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks.
Tyus Bowser, Houston
Bowser played basketball and football his first two seasons at Houston before leaving the hardwood to focus solely on the gridiron.
He missed the first five games of his senior season due to broken orbital bone suffered in a fight with a teammate but was his usual explosive, dominant self when he returned, leading the Cougars with 8.5 sacks while finishing second on the team with 12 tackles for loss.
At 6-3, 247 pounds, Bowser is a bit undersized for an outside linebacker, which could be an issue given that one of the knocks on him is that he struggles against bigger blockers. But scouts love his footwork and agility, which likely were enhanced by his basketball background.