INDIANAPOLIS - The Bengals linebackers room is about to undergo a massive change and it could start a good month before the NFL draft when they eye a raft of veterans as free agency opens March 18.
So they'll draft accordingly starting April 24, the night of the second and third rounds, and on into the final four rounds on April 25.
Speaking here this week at the NFL scouting combine, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo observed of his entire outfit, "I don't want to pigeonhole it like, 'We need this.' What happens if there's a better one of that?"
No matter free agency or the draft, they're looking at three classes of linebackers:
- A SAM backer: a guy that can drop into coverage as well rush from the edge on passing downs. Think Zack Baun of Wisconsin. Also in that mix is Alabama's Terrell Lewis, a player the Bengals coached in the Senior Bowl and a selection of the Bengals with the 33rd pick in last week's Bengals.com Media Mock Draft.
- A MIKE backer: an inside guy that is a monster against the run, a relentless physical presence. Try Kenneth Murray of Oklahoma.
- A WILL Backer: a speedy guy that can hit, run and cover tight ends. Maybe another guy the Bengals coached in the Senior Bowl, Akeem Davis-Gaither of Appalachian State.
The Bengals have several different eyes on staff since some rather high-profile picks struggled at the position, such as 2013 fourth-rounder Sean Porter, 2015 third-rounder P.J. Dawson and 2018 third-rounder Malik Jefferson.
There's Anarumo, new linebackers coach Al Golden, and in his second season defensive assistant Mark Duffner, a 22-year veteran of coaching NFL linebackers. He and Anarumo were in on drafting middle linebacker Germaine Pratt, last year's third-rounder they felt improved enough late last season that he can be a starting factor this season. Golden arrived last month from the Lions, a club that took Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai in the second round last year.
Anarumo's checklist starts with intangibles. Spoken like a man burned by too much pre-snap uncertainty last season. And the only other requirement seems to be they want backers that play all three downs. It sounds like they're looking for a defensive quarterback after they get that other quarterback at No. 1.
"Start with before the ball is ever snapped stuff," Anarumo said. "Command of the huddle, command of leadership. Communicative guy. A guy that can cover a back or a tight end or fit a gap. Leadership. Playmaking."
That certainly sounds like a guy like the 6-3, 235-pound Baun, a former high school quarterback who sounds so good, how could he be there at No. 33? He had 12.5 sacks last season, but there is also tape of him breaking up some deep passes. He said one team this week (he can't remember which one) called him, "The Toy," because he's so versatile. The Bengals saw that up close when he played off the ball for the North while they were coaching the South.
"I feel completely comfortable and just willing to do whatever it takes," Baun said Thursday during his media availability at the combine. "All of our plays came in from the sideline. But I understand what's going on, why the calls are the way they are … There are calls that come in from the sideline that need adjustments during the play or pre-snap. I definitely make those calls and do that."
You've got to love Baun, a Milwaukee kid. His first letter from Wisconsin was addressed to "Zach Brown," and he kept his mouth shut to play like the Badger greats. In fact, he's a big film study fan of Cleveland's Joe Schobert, the Pro Bowl middle backer. Baun figured since he's been so productive on the pass rush, he could pick up something from him in space.
"(Schobert) said the best thing for him was just diving into his playbook and learning it as much as you can from the older guys," Baun said. "We from Wisconsin are smart enough and intelligent enough to make any transition it may be, and I think that's why guys get a leg up being from Wisconsin because we run such an intricate scheme and just having that advantage going into the next level, whether you're playing the same position you are or making a transition it's pretty flawless."
Baun and the 6-2, 243-pound Murray may be gone but there is a belief that there's depth for all three spots. More than depth than last year, anyway, when there was a plunge from Devin White and Devin Bush in the top 11 picks to Pratt in the third round before another dive.
It remains to be seen how the 6-2, 215-pound Davis-Gaither survives the questions about his lack of size. There's no question he can play, just how high does he go in the draft?
"He's flexible," said Anarumo, although he's not the cut of Clemson's hybrid safetyish Isaiah Simmons, the head of an emerging class of defenders known as "position-less," because they play more spots than one.
He may not be as big (it is said his frame can add 20 pounds), but Davis-Gather has that Swiss Army Knife aspect to him that Anarumo seeks. The Bengals moved him inside during Senior Bowl week and he didn't seem flustered or overmatched.
"I think a lot of guys think I'm not as big or strong as the other linebackers," Davis-Gaither said. "(Friday) I'm going to show in the bench press that I'm just as strong as the guys that are 240, 250. Like you said, I can play bigger. A lot of guys don't think I'm as strong. I definitely want to show that."
He's a coach's son and he showed in Mobile he could run things in the middle.
"I think it went pretty good playing for them that week and playing in their scheme," he said of the Bengals. "Just really learning — because I was playing outside linebacker — just moving into the box. They showed me some good tips and what I need to be better at with my eyes. I feel really comfortable with their scheme."
This is the way it's going. The linebackers are getting smaller, not bigger, so Davis-Gaither isn't the outlier he would have been a decade ago.
"Ten years ago, Baun would have been on the lighter side," said a veteran NFL linebacker coach Thursday roaming the halls. "You look at the formations and the personnel groups now without two backs and the game has more open spaces you need to put those guys."
Like Pratt, Davis-Gaither moved during his career from the defensive backfield and he says that helped him develop patience.
"I played a lot in that nickel spot, so I really had to protect the strong safety in (run-pass options)," Davis-Gaither said. "So I really had to be patience and strong with my eyes and be quick enough to fill the edge, if need be."
But the Bengals aren't ditching size, either, particularly at SAM backer, where they already have the 280-pound Carlos Dunlap, 265-pound Sam Hubbard and 260-pound Carl Lawson. The biggest test of their scouting skills may come when they're trying to judge guys like 6-4, 265-pound Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem and 6-3, 259-pound Tennessee defensive end Darrell Taylor, among others, to see if they're able to drop into coverage.
"They have to have that athleticism," says the NFL vet.
But then that's where this thing all started. The backers room is going to change.
"We're looking for three-down guys," Anarumo said.
And the other quarterback.