Yesterday's signing of Brandon Johnson by the Pittsburgh Steelers and the announcement that Dontay Moch will be suspended for the first four games of the season officially moved the Bengals worries about their linebacking corps from "a little worried" to "genuinely concerned."
Johnson has been an undervalued piece of Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme since arriving in Cincinnati as a free agent in 2008. His ability to plug in at all three linebacking positions has been a valuable commodity, not to mention his leadership as a special teams player. Adding insult to injury, Johnson signed with division rival Pittsburgh.
Moch will sit the season's first four games because of his use of performance enhancing drugs. He will be eligible to continue working during training camp and preseason games, however. Moch didn't play at all last year after sustaining an injury in preseason.
The only "sure things" at linebacker to this point are outside linebackers, Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga still faces a possible suspension by the league for a since dismissed assault charge. Roddrick Muckleroy, the team's fourth round pick in 2010, is coming off rehab for a torn Achilles.
That leaves Dan Skuta and Vincent Rey as the only other experienced Bengals linebackers. Skuta has shown himself a more than capable substitute, filling in the middle when Maualuga was hurt. Rey has been a contributor on special teams, but hasn't seen much game time at linebacker.
This situation opens the door wide for undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict to step in and contribute right away. If Burfict can learn to play under control, he could potentially be a star in Zimmer's system.
As mentioned above, where Johnson's departure and Moch's absence really will be felt is on special teams. Backup linebackers, with their combination of size and speed, are the lifeblood of any kick coverage unit. Players like Kentucky free agent Micah Johnson and Kansas State free agent Emmanuel Lamur have caught the eyes of Bengals coaches early on. If their effort can translate to covering kickoffs and punts, they could earn themselves a roster spot.
Mike Zimmer has had to juggle personnel throughout his tenure as Bengals defensive coordinator and has done so quite well to this point. He's successfully developed players like Johnson and Skuta into valuable contributors. He will have that task again this preseason as the Bengals try to replenish their depth at linebacker.
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