The Bengals needed some change to their linebacker corps. They added some veterans and attacked the position in the draft. @JoeyTheToothIDP breaks down the depth chart here.
Between injuries and just pure lack of production, the Bengals linebacker group was one of the absolute worst in the NFL in 2019. Management knew they had to make a change for 2020 and it showed this off-season. They added two veterans to the group and used three draft picks in the 2020 draft to help cure this problem. Lets take a peek at how I think the Bengals linebacker depth chart will will shake down.
Age: 24 years old
Weight: 245 lbs
2019 Stats: 76 tackles (50 solo) and 4 tackles for a loss
Germaine Pratt was a late bloomer in 2019 for the Bengals after being selected 72nd overall in the 3rd round of the 2019 draft. He started eight of the last eleven games, though he never played more than 75% of the team’s defensive snaps. This was mainly because of Pratt’s lack of ability in coverage. Pratt is very tight hipped and has poor pedal when dropping in zone coverage. Pratt also lacks route anticipation, he is best suited covering running backs out of the backfield on screens where he can use his athleticism to keep up, as opposed trying to cover a tight end actually running a route. The Bengals used Shawn Williams in a bit of a linebacker role in 2019, on third downs and in sub-packages, as the coverage linebacker.
What Pratt does well is fill and shoot gaps in run defense. He showed great straight line speed at the combine running a 4.57 second 40 yard dash. Watch how quickly he gets into the backfield:
Germaine Pratt is the freaking man pic.twitter.com/c3mmAVeV0u
— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 29, 2019
His lateral movement is slower than you would hope for an inside linebacker and he seems like his feet are made of anchors when asked to change direction. He is best used as a base-down run defender with room to improve in coverage. Pratt made strides his rookie season but will face some stiff competition from the youngsters in 2020.
Age: 31 years old
Weight: 235 lbs
2019 Stats: 46 tackles (23 solo), 6 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 4 passes defended and 2 interceptions
Josh Bynes is a journeyman linebacker, having played for three teams (two different stops in Baltimore) over his nine NFL seasons. This does not mean that he was not productive because he was a usable fantasy asset for at least one season with each team. Bynes provides everything you look for in a cheap veteran presence. He provides a little bit of everything from the linebacker position. Just two years ago, with Arizona, he proved to be an asset in both run defense and coverage. Check out this graphic from Pro Football Focus:
Not a lot went right in Arizona this year – but Josh Bynes' play at linebacker was certainly one of them pic.twitter.com/sxkFYzoRyu
— PFF (@PFF) January 22, 2019
Josh Bynes is the perfect veteran presence for this team. He can teach the youngsters something in each area of the game and is the type of veteran who will not be a cancer if he is replaced in the starting lineup.
Age: 23 years old (24 in July)
Weight: 241 lbs
2019 Stats (Wyoming): 105 tackles (62 solo), 8.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 7 passes defended, 4 interceptions, 1 forced fumble and a touchdown
The Bengals selected Logan Wilson with the first pick in the 3rd round (65th overall) in the 2020 NFL draft knowing they needed a retooling at the position. Logan Wilson had an incredibly productive career at Wyoming coming up with 409 tackles, 34.5 tackles for a loss, 7 sacks, 14 passes defended, 10 interceptions, 4 fumble recoveries, 5 forced fumbles and 3 touchdowns. Logan Wilson has an incredible football IQ. His processing of plays pre-snap and his ability to adjust during the play are some of the best in this draft class. Wilson also does a phenomenal job squaring up and driving through his tackles, finishing well and rarely misses tackles. Watch some clips here as he remains patient, squares his shoulders and drives for the tackle in textbook fashion:
#GoWyo LB Logan Wilson (no. 30) is one of the better tacklers and run defenders I've watched in this class
PFF has him logged for 3,618 snaps in his four year CFB career and it's evident on tape how pro ready he is pic.twitter.com/fsbcwWoL7w
— Connor Rogers (@ConnorJRogers) March 26, 2020
Wilson also showed great athleticism at Wyoming and it showed in his coverage ability. He is great in zone coverage with a good pedal and loose hips to turn and run with receivers. His man coverage is spotty but probably the best of any linebacker on the Bengals. He had 10 career interceptions in college and is a perfect fit for today’s NFL linebacker.
Age: 25 years old
Weight: 242 lbs
2019 Stats: 12 tackles (6 solo and a pass defended
Jordan Evans has been the quintessential back-up Bengals linebacker. He has played in 45 games for the Bengals, starting 9 of those games. His best season came in 2018 when he played 14 games, only starting 4, though he accumulated 61 total tackles and an interception. Jordan Evans is a downhill thumper in run defense but is a huge liability in coverage. This is the main reason Evans has not been able to lock sown a starting role with the Bengals. He is capable of making game changing plays, watch the hammer he lays down here:
— Sooner Gridiron (@soonergridiron) September 14, 2018
Evans is the type of guy that is great to keep on the team. He can fill in a starting role in a pinch while also providing depth at the position. You can plug him in on base downs to give the starters a breather, but 2nd string is all he will be.
Age: 26 years old
Weight: 240 lbs
2019 Stats: 40 tackles (30 solo), 4 tackles for a loss, 1 sack and 1 pass defended
Austin Calitro is with his third team in his third NFL season. I personally think that Calitro does not get enough respect from a fantasy standpoint. Sure he has his deficiencies but when given the opportunity he produces. He does a solid job at reading the run game and is productive shooting gaps. Watch here as he gets the running back behind the line of scrimmage:
I'm re-watching film to evaluate Poona Ford, but Austin Calitro has been on my radar for most of the first half. Flying all over the field… he kind of looked like Wagner pausing for a second and then bolting into the backfield on this play. pic.twitter.com/2tKrusZqv2
— Corbin Smith (@CorbinSmithNFL) December 5, 2018
Calitro has produced 63 total tackles over his nine career starts. That is an average 7 tackles per game which is nice to see from a fantasy perspective. Calitro did miss about 15% of his attempted tackles in 2019. The fact the Bengals drafted three linebackers makes even making the roster for a Calitro, an uphill battle.
Age: 23 years old
Weight: 219 lbs
2019 Stats ( Appalachian St.): 101 tackles (49 solo), 14.5 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 8 passes defended and an interception
Akeem Davis-Gaither was the second Bengals linebacker selected (4th round 107th overall) in the 2020 draft. Davis-Gaithers is a small school prospect with a big boy attitude. He lined up all over the field for Appalachian St. in 2019, from inside linebacker, to outside linebacker, and even cornerback at times. Watch here against an SEC team in South Carolina where he was lined up in multiple linebacker positions and made a living in the backfield:
Akeem Davis-Gaithers was living in the backfield against SC.
Still not talked about enough. pic.twitter.com/iYBMJFzac4
— J.R. (@JRDrafts) February 24, 2020
Though a bit undersized at 219 lbs Davis-Gaithers plays much larger. He never shies away from contact, he actually loves initiating contact. His length is solid and has terrific lateral agility. Davis-Gaithers was also solid in coverage as well, coming up with eight passes defended. He has great range and speed to keep up with tight ends and running backs. Davis-Gaithers is likely to start the season on the bench but can easily be the first linebacker off the bench for the Bengals.
Hardy Nickerson Jr.
Age: 26 years old
Weight: 235 lbs
2019 Stats: 6 tackles (5 solo)
If Hardy Nickerson Jr. was half of the player his father was he would be a clear cut starter for the Bengals. Unfortunately for him, this is not the case. That does not mean that Nickerson Jr. does not have a role with the team. He showed in 2018 that he can fill in as a starting Bengals linebacker in a pinch. He played in all 16 games making 7 starts and totaled 57 tackles. Nickerson Jr.’s biggest impact was felt on special teams as he is a core special teams player for the Bengals. He was on the field for over 85% of the teams special teams snaps and because of this he likely remains with the team.
Age: 23 years old
Weight: 240 lbs
2019 Stats (Purdue): 14 tackles (10 solo), 2 tackles for a loss and a sack (2 games)
Markus Bailey was the third Bengals linebacker drafted, falling all the way to the 7th round. This does not mean that Bailey is not talented, he just missed most of 2019 to a knee injury. Had Bailey played all of 2019, he probably would have been a mid-round selection as he is a complete linebacker. Check out this compilation of clips of Bailey, it shows his excellent range in coverage as well as his ability to get into the backfield:
— Purdue On BTN (@PurdueOnBTN) April 16, 2020
Bailey had six career interceptions and 14.5 career sacks to go with 28 career tackles for a loss. He averaged about 8 tackles per game over his career at Purdue. He has sideline to sideline range and is super intelligent. His play processing is top notch and is natural in coverage as well. Even though he was a 7th round draft pick, he may be the team’s most complete draft pick.
Vonn Bell – Sub-packages
Age: 26 years old
Weight: 205 lbs
2019 Stats: 89 tackles (66 solo), 4 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 5 passes defended, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries and a touchdown
When looking at the defense of the Bengals I would have said that safety was the last position they would have addressed in free agency. They had both Jessie Bates III and Shawn Williams who have produced handsomely together for the past two years. Combined, over the past two years, the duo has combined for 435 total tackles, 28 passes defensed and 12 interceptions. The signing of Vonn Bell tells me one thing, the Bengals are going to get creative on defense. With how weak the Bengals linebacker unit was last year, they may choose to run more three safety sets with Williams and Bates in the secondary with Bell moving up in the box. He is vicious in run defense as you see here:
🌰Back in OH-IO. 🌰🐯
— NFL (@NFL) March 29, 2020
Bell also seems to be around when the ball is loose, he has 7 career forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries in four seasons. Bell has the pop in his tackling to line up in the box and it would put the teams best personnel on the field.
My View Of The Depth Chart
Strongside Bengals Linebacker
1st Team: Germaine Pratt
2nd Team: Jordan Evans
3rd Team: Austin Calitro
Middle Bengals Linebacker
1st Team: Josh Bynes
2nd Team: Markus Bailey
3rd Team: Hardy Nickerson Jr.
Weakside Bengals Linebacker
1st Team: Logan Wilson
2nd Team: Akeem Davis-Gaithers
3rd Team/Sub-Package: Vonn Bell
The Bengals spent three draft picks on the linebacker position and I feel all three will contribute at some point. Germaine Pratt showed solid instincts in run defense but proved to be a liability in coverage. His knowledge of the defense likely gives him a starting gig though he will be on a short leash. When third downs come or when the Bengals choose to go with their sub-packages Pratt will be the one to leave the field being replaced by either Vonn Bell or Shawn Williams, whichever safety is not on the field. Josh Bynes will use his veteran leadership to man the middle of the field and call the defense while the rookies and other youngsters get up to speed. Logan Wilson is the most versatile of the group and will use his athleticism and processing to make an impact on the weakside.
For the second team rookie Markus Bailey will be in charge of the unit. His intelligence and instincts could eventually land him a starting gig if he can learn the defense quick enough. Bynes is solid but Bailey is the more versatile Bengals linebacker. Akeem Davis-Gaithers will play direct back-up to Wilson and will also have the opportunity to play third safety in sub-packages if something were to happen to Vonn Bell. Jordan Evans and Hardy Nickerson Jr. will continue to play depth roles and special teams players.