After a series of free-agent pickups and draft picks, the Bengals head into 2020 with a linebacker room they hope is better equipped to deal with what is trending with NFL offenses. Improvement will not only depend on the development of promising young players like Germaine Pratt, Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither, but also the integration of a savvy veteran Josh Bynes.
"When we mix in some of our veterans with them, it'll be fun to see the competition and how they bring each other along," Bengals Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin said. "It was a definite need going in. Everybody knew that. There were a lot of different ways we could have addressed it. We made some efforts in some different areas and the way we came out really worked well. If you would've told me when free agency kicked off that we would have the group in now, I would have taken it and not turned back."
The first goal by Tobin to address the linebacker room was to get faster throughout its depth chart.
The Bengals selected three speedy backers in Wilson, Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey. All three earned high marks from scouts heading into the draft for their ability to cover running backs and tight ends in space.
"I love the potential of the group," said Tobin. "It's got a lot of youth to it, but what we've seen about those guys is since we've had them here in the building is that they are highly competitive. They are very intelligent and they are learning very quickly. That's a good sign."
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has to get creative getting a young group of linebackers ready for the season with fewer padded practices and zero preseason games. If there is no tackling, it makes it difficult for the coaches and front office to evaluate a player's ability to read a defense or cover in space.
"The real true test will come when a guard is coming off the ball and how they get off the block and how do they make the tackle," said Anarumo. "From a knowing what to do, read and react, they've done well. I'm pleased with that group so far."
The addition of Bynes adds experience to the group of young players. Bynes signed in the offseason after spending 2019 with the Baltimore Ravens. Since 2011, Bynes has played in 101 regular season games, including seven in the playoffs, bringing valuable experience to the locker room. To put that in comparison, the rest of the Bengals' linebackers have 93 regular-season games combined.
"Coming from a great defense, we like his leadership, his instincts and ability to bring the young guys along, which is good," Tobin said. "When we had the opportunity in free agency come up, we jumped on it. There's a good piece for us going forward. I'm excited to see him in Bengals stripes."
This is the first offseason in three years the Bengals have had the same defensive coordinator they had the year before. That gives Anarumo a lot of flexibility to mix and match linebackers and craft sub-packages to better throw off opposing offenses.
"You never try to get in a situation where you are fitting a square peg in a round hole," Anarumo said. "You want it to fit the guys as best as possible. There will be some give and take on what we are doing. For the most part it will be some of the things we've hung our hat in the past, but make sure we do it better this year."