It's a Young Man's Game

JungleInsider.com takes a look at the Bengals linebacker group to examine if this core of young players can realize its potential and help elevate the defense out from the bottom of the league's rankings.

Landon Johnson led the Bengals in tackles for three of the four seasons after the Bengals took him in the third round of the 2004 draft. Johnson played in the middle of the three-linebacker set and at both outside positions. Wherever the team needed him he played, never missing a game despite fighting shoulder injuries and other nagging bumps and bruises that inflict players.

Yet when it came time for the NFL's free agency period to start this year the Bengals didn't exactly break down the door in their attempt to re-sign Johnson. Instead they decided to bring back veteran Dhani Jones – who didn't join the team until after the second game of last season yet still finished second in tackles – with a three-year contract and go with plenty of youth, inexperience and potential around him.

The Bengals head into the start of OTA workouts with 11 linebackers on the roster, not including former No. 1 pick David Pollack. Pollack remains on the roster even though he has not played since suffering a severe neck/spinal injury on Sept. 17, 2006, in a 34-17 win against Cleveland and is expected to file official retirement papers with the league soon.

If there is such a thing as "blowing up the ship" and starting over in the NFL, this is pretty close to it. Aside from Jones, only backup Jim Maxwell has more been in the league for more than four seasons, and Maxwell will only make this team by proving he is indispensible on special teams.

Nine different players started at least one game at linebacker for the Bengals last season because of various injuries. The team was forced to use safety Chinedum Ndukwe and defensive end Robert Geathers as linebackers at various points of last season. The Bengals had seven healthy linebackers on their 2007 end of season depth chart; five of those linebackers were not with the team during the preseason.

Here's a look at this year's group:

STARTERS: SLB Rashad Jeanty, MLB Ahmad Brooks, WLB Dhani Jones.

KEY RESERVES: Keith Rivers, Odell Thurman, Darryl Blackstock, Brandon Johnson, Corey Mays, Jim Maxwell.

LOSSES: Landon Johnson (UFA Carolina), Caleb Miller (UFA), Anthony Schlegel (released), Roy Manning (released), Lemar Marshall (UFA), David Pollack (expected to retire).

NEWCOMERS: Blackstock (FA Arizona), B. Johnson (FA Arizona), Rivers (Round 1), Anthony Hoke (College FA).

SYNOPSIS: Expect Rivers to be in the lineup for the season opener at Baltimore but for the time being he's not being given anything. His natural position is on the weakside (lined up opposite of the tight end) where his speed and strength can be used in multiple roles and head coach Marvin Lewis is hoping to be able to leave him there for the entire season. Regardless, he will be able to learn from Jones from the get-go.

Ahmad Brooks began last season with the kind of dominating performance in the 27-20 win against the Ravens that coaches and scouts envisioned him capable of: eight tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. Then came the groin injury the following game at Cleveland and Brooks never saw the field the remainder of the season. He said after the first OTA that he is being used on the strong side after playing in the middle last season and that he is having some lingering effects from the groin surgery but if he can get healthy remain that way the Bengals could – emphasize the term "could" – have their most formidable linebacking pair since Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons were drafted four picks apart in 1998.

Jeanty settled into his role as the strongside ‘backer, having converted to the position from playing defensive end both in college and in the CFL, and will still see a lot of action. It's not a position that will produce overwhelming statistics but he has the right temperament – i.e. he understands his role – to be productive whether it's in the regular defense or on special teams.

The most intriguing personal storyline this season will be that of Odell Thurman. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has re-instated Thurman following two years of suspension for repeat violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Thurman led the team in tackles as a rookie and produced several big plays as the middle linebacker. He intercepted five passes, returning one for a touchdown, and broke up a total of nine throws, and forced four fumbles but he also got himself into the coach's doghouse by not adhering to his assignments all of the time. That resulted in several big plays allowed.

Thurman was a fan favorite, however, and he will be welcomed back with open arms if he can keep his personal troubles at bay. If he can keep his assignment troubles at bay he will be a big boost to the defense. The question the Bengals have to ask themselves right now is: how much can we trust Odell Thurman? He has one foot back in the door but there are many more steps to go before he is fully back in the fold.

Darryl Blackstock and Brandon Johnson were signed as free agents after Arizona released the pair. They both have experience and should help immediately on special teams.

Which linebackers make the final roster cut will be as good of a positional group battle this offseason, into training camp and the preseason. There will be seven or eight players kept, with special teams prowess being a deciding factor.

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