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Thursday, April 18, 2013
Bengals' decision: Harrison or Dansby?

By Jamison Hensley

The Cincinnati Bengals have a decision to make on who will be their next starting outside linebacker.

The talks with free agent James Harrison have apparently broken off, and the NFL Network is reporting the Bengals remain interested in Karlos Dansby, who visited Cincinnati last week. This sounds like the Bengals' not-so-subtle way of letting Harrison and Dansby know they have all of the leverage in this situation. The Bengals also have the option of finding a starter in the first round (perhaps Georgia's Alec Ogletree) or second round (Kansas State's Arthur Brown).

In choosing between Harrison and Dansby, The Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy put it best when it's a matter of wanting production and familiarity in a 4-3 defense (Dansby) or attitude and intensity (Harrison). Dansby, 31, will also be four years younger than Harrison by the time the season starts. He also figures to carry a higher price tag than Harrison, too.

Another big difference between these linebackers is in pass defense. Harrison is a better pass-rusher, while Dansby is more reliable in pass coverage.

According to ESPN Stats & Information's Michael Bonzagni, Harrison has 44 sacks since 2008, the third-most by an outside linebacker over that span. But, last season, Harrison finished outside the top five in sacks as an outside linebacker for the first time in the past five seasons (he was tied for 17th with six sacks). Dansby led the league with five pass-breakups when lined up as an inside linebacker last season. He broke up six passes last season when his defense had at least five defensive backs on the field, the most of any linebacker.

In terms of run defense, Dansby had 66 solo tackles on rushing plays (while mainly playing inside), which was sixth most in the league. Harrison had 32, tied for 73rd. Dansby also proved more durable, playing 90.4 percent of his team’s defensive snaps since the start of the 2011 season, which is 25th among linebackers. Harrison has been on the field for 77 percent of his team’s defensive snaps during that same span, which is 56th among linebackers.

Neither Harrison nor Dansby is a perfect fit. Harrison has played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense for his entire NFL career, and Dansby is versatile, but he primarily played inside last season in Miami's 4-3 defense. The Bengals are trying to plug a hole at strong-side linebacker, where Manny Lawson (signed with the Bills) started last season.

Let me know what you think the Bengals should do by recording a vote in the poll. You can send me your thoughts by dropping me a line in the AFC North mailbag. Your comment could be used in a blog post later this week.