Vontaze Burfict’s five-game suspension for yet another violation of the NFL’s player safety rules comes with both troubling and calming notions for a team who has been through this before.
Assuming the suspension is not overturned when Burfict has his appeal hearing Tuesday, it will be the third year in a row the Bengals will open the season without him. So it’s not as though head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther are scrambling to put together a Plan B.
Vinny Rey, who like Burfict entered the league as an undrafted free agent, is in his seventh season with the Bengals. He’s appeared in 98 games, which is the ninth most on the team, and nine of his 37 starts have come when the Bengals have had to open the season without Burfict.
Rey started the first six games in 2015, when Burfict was the Physically Unable to Perform list while recovering from microfracture surgery. Rey had a game-clinching interception against San Diego in Week 2, and he recorded 15 tackles (a team high for the season) in a Week 4 triumph of Kansas City, followed by 13 stops the following week in an overtime win against Seattle as the Bengals started the year 8-0.
Rey also started the first three games last year while Burfict was suspended three games for repeated violations of the player safety rules following his hit on Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown in the wild-card playoff game.
In addition to starting in the base defense, look for Rey to fill Burfict’s spot alongside Nick Vigil in the nickel package.
The bigger question who be who replaces Burfict on the back end when the team has to announce its 53-man roster by 4 p.m. Saturday.
The expectation is that the Bengals will keep six linebackers, with Rey, Vigil, Kevin Minter and fourth-round rookie Carl Lawson being locks. Sixth-round rookie Jordan Evans, who was a solid bet before the Burfict suspension, becomes close to a lock.
That leaves one spot for either Marquis Flowers, P.J. Dawson, Bryson Albright, Hardy Nickerson or Brandon Bell.
Nickerson and Bell, who are both undrafted rookies, have been impressive in the preseason. But Nickerson is hurt, as is Dawson.
Flowers has primarily been limited to special teams play since the Bengals took him in the fifth round in 2014, and he’s listed as Burfict’s backup on the depth chart. But Bell is the better bet to earn the final spot.
He’s entered the preseason games ahead of Flowers and had nearly twice as many snaps (27 to 14) in Sunday’s dress rehearsal game at Washington. Albright only played on special teams against the Redskins.