LBs in the youth-veteran debate

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on July 31, 2011 – 10:49 am

The Bengals are mulling the backup linebacker situation and if there’s any case that highlights the daily internal debate between youth and experience, this is it.

Before Roddrick Muckelroy tore his Achilles Saturday night, they thought he was on the verge of backing up all the spots while reprising his role on special teams after he was runnerup to Dan Skuta for the tackling title.

With Skuta shaping up as one of the starters at outside backer, the Bengals need backers that can run and cover on special teams and while you’d love to have him for all his intangibles and leadership, Jones may not fit the bill. As a 33-year-old who has tackled the globe on TV, he’s also got a lot of NFL mileage.

Skuta has been a Mr. Everything for special teams coach Darrin Simmons, but now that he’s going to be a head-banging-first-and-second-down guy from scrimmage, he won’t be. Go young or veteran? It’s not baseball where you can send them down and develop them while the vet plays. But except for the preseason, all the games count, so how do you find out who can play without getting smoked?

Skuta, middle backer Rey Maualuga, and newly-signed outside backer Thomas Howard look to be the starters. Third-rounder Dontay Moch, a college defensive end making the switch to the outside, is the fourth guy who’ll have to be a special teams staple while he’s brought along slowly in this fast-forward preseason.

(The Bengals have two other rookies who have never played the position in a pair of undrafted defensive ends: Kentucky’s DeQuin Evans and Baldwin-Wallace’s Keith Darbul.)

So there are four locks. Now you have to find two more guys active on game day and one should be able to back up Maualuga in the middle. Vincent Rey, a free agent from Duke who flashed when he was active last year as a rookie, looks to be more suited to the outside. He’s instinctive, but can he play? There are a slew of backup special teams/linebacker types out there in free agency, but do you sign them and bench your kids?

Maybe you do, but that means Rey’s development is nipped.

Plus, there’s the unsigned Brandon Johnson, an extremely valuable third-down player and special teams player. When the Bengals won the AFC North in 2009, he may have been their most productive backer and while his play may have fallen off last year as he gamely battled some nagging injuries, the guy is your special teams captain and a valued elder. Always hard to put a specific price on that. If they can’t re-sign him, is Rey versatile enough to handle it? How do you know if you can’t play him?

So it goes as they look for two more linebackers. Are they here or elsewhere? In the end, do they return to what they know in Dhani, opting for familiarity over youth and special teams? Here we go. Five more hours to the next practice.

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