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How can Bengals prevent linebacker from being a question mark?

6/10/2015

CINCINNATI -- With organized team activities nearing an end for the Cincinnati Bengals, we are winding down our position-by-position look at where their offseason roster currently stands.

We started at quarterback, wondering if Andy Dalton really could be pushed by his three backups. Then we looked at running back, where we explored the feasibility of using a true fullback this year. We also questioned whether Marvin Jones and Mario Alford could be difference-makers at receiver. We then asked if the Bengals had enough time to build depth under Tyler Eifert, followed by an inquiry about the help Russell Bodine needs on the offensive line's interior. Next was an exploration into the Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith improve the Bengals?" href="http://espn.go.com/blog/cincinnati-bengals/post/_/id/17490/can-consistency-with-andrew-whitworth-andre-smith-improve-bengals" target="_blank">consistency the Bengals have at offensive tackle with Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith in the final years of their current deals.

On Tuesday, we looked into how Michael Johnson's free-agency addition could help Cincinnati's fledgling pass rush. Wednesday, we broke down what the Bengals needed to do to get Geno Atkins back to Pro Bowl form.

Let's continue at linebacker, where we ask: How can the Bengals prevent the position from being a question mark this year?

LINEBACKERS

LBs on the roster: 12. Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict, A.J. Hawk, Vincent Rey, Emmanuel Lamur, Jayson DiManche, Sean Porter, Nico Johnson, Chris Carter, Marquis Flowers, P.J. Dawson, Trevor Roach

Expected LB rotation: At this stage in the offsesaon, the Bengals don't have a cut-and-dry rotation at linebacker. Much of it hinges on Burfict's return from a January microfracture knee surgery. While the Pro Bowler may want to come back by training camp, there's a chance that won't happen. Burfict could begin the year on the physically unable to perform list. He hasn't done rehab work during open OTA practices since the first week of OTAs, so it's hard to tell exactly how he has progressed lately.

Regardless of Burfict's progress, Maualuga, Hawk, Rey and Lamur likely will factor heavily into the linebacker rotation in the Bengals' base 4-3 and nickel defenses. Depending upon how they progress during training camp, Flowers and Dawson could be key pieces on the back end of the rotation, too. DiManche, Johnson, Carter and Roach could be battling for the last couple of linebacker jobs, that likely will go to players whose contributions will primarily come via special teams. Porter's role hinges upon how quickly he can complete his rehab from an ACL tear he received last October. He spent all of OTAs building back up his conditioning.

Offseason goals for LBs: Linebacker was a very real question mark for the Bengals last year after they were slammed with injuries. It was arguably the team's worst position group, with backups playing meaningful minutes because of the attrition. During Cincinnati's Week 7 game at Indianapolis, three reserves -- Rey, DiManche and Flowers -- played starter's minutes due to injuries to Burfict, Maualuga and Lamur.

The linebackers' goals are defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's goals. All the injuries taught him to do a better job during the offseason and preseason of getting his backups more reps. Part of the Bengals' inability to rush the passer (league's lowest sack total last year) and stop the run (ranked 20th) stemmed from the reserves being ill-prepared to adequately take over.

So for the linebackers to be better this season, they have to be as good as their weakest link. Guenther contends the entire staff has done a better job this offseason of getting the backups more action. Beyond that, the linebackers' goals have to include remaining healthy into the regular season.