Rookie Marquis Flowers' speed flashed a lot of promise at backer. Can he take the next step?
Matt Burke counted 14 different players in his room last season during his first year as the Bengals linebackers coach. So he's a bit relieved to not only see his youngsters recovering and developing but to also welcome one of the NFL's most durable players of the last decade in former Packer A.J. Hawk.
The addition of Hawk and the re-signing of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga have brightened a position that still is shadowed by the questionable status of Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict's microfracture knee surgery.
But even that seems to be taking a turn. Burke has visited Burfict and his rehab specialist in California and says the rehab is going as planned. It's believed the plan is once Burfict is more mobile, he'll head to Cincinnati to rehab. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has also been out to visit and was treated to a tour of where the upbeat Burfict grew up.
After last season's shoestring season where the backers missed a total of 34 games, the top six backers heading into the spring camps look identifiable with Burfict, 24, Maualuga, 28, starting SAM Emmanuel Lamur, 25, Hawk, 31, Vincent Rey, 27, and Marquis Flowers, 23.
"That's what you're saying. I'm not saying that," Burke says. "In spring ball, there are no starters."
Hawk, signed earlier this week, has missed two games since Green Bay took him with the fifth pick in the 2006 draft and last year didn't miss a game despite bone spurs in his ankles that hounded him.
"He'll be the first to tell you he fought through it. I mean, he's a tough guy. He's missed what, two games in his career?" Burke says. "It's a testament to who he is that he played through some of that stuff and maybe he wasn't as effective as he's been at times, but we feel good about where he is physically and his skill set. I don't foresee that being an issue."
Burke coached the Lions linebacker for five seasons and saw Hawk play twice a year. He also coached Bobby Carpenter, one of Hawk's running mates at Ohio State, so he knows full well about the intangibles.
"He's a versatile player that (the Packers) used in a lot of different positions," Burke says. "That's the one main value, besides his knowledge and the character and the intangibles he brings to the table. That's immeasurable.
"We all saw what happened last year in this room and that was part of the reasoning to sign him," Burke says. "If we have some injuries, he's a guy that can come in and be a Swiss army knife and to some extent help us out in different areas. You can never underestimate those types of guys with their immeasurables. I've seen it time in and time out."
Hawk heard the whispers in Green Bay as the season played out. One newspaper gave him an "F," and Profootballfocus.com ranked him 52 out of 60 NFL inside backers. But he has responded with his typical class and grit. He won't blame the ankle. Yes, ask him about his age. He turned 31 two months ago.
But here's a guy who can't ever remember missing a practice.
"I 100 percent respect and understand the question," Hawk says. "My second year in the league I was saying the same thing when I saw dudes that were 31. I thought that was ancient. Now that I am that guy, I feel like I'm 18. I look at myself the same way. Hopefully with a lot more experience on the field. It would be something to worry about if I was a guy like some old guys I played with that can't seem to get through.
"Like in camp, they practice one day and have a day off. Practice another day and they have to take these days off and do all this stuff to take care of themselves. Their knees are banged up and they're just trying to struggle through to Sunday. That's never been my plan…I don't ever want to be that guy. When that time comes, it's time for me to get out of the league because I need to be out there every single day working. (Age) in my eyes is just a number. It doesn't matter to me."
So it is no surprise that the switch from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3 doesn't matter to him, either. He can play all three spots in a 4-3, where he provides insurance for Burfict and an option on run downs at SAM.
He says "a linebacker is a linebacker. Football is football." When he and Guenther got to know each over dinner Sunday night, they clicked as Guenther drew on the napkins at Ruth Chris Steakhouse.
"You can complicate it too much," Hawk says. "Coach Guenther has a set plan on what he wants and how he wants his guys to execute it. To be violent, to go out there and be great at what they do and try not to overcomplicate it, and try not to get guys thinking and guys worrying about their assignments. Just go out there and learn exactly what you have to do and rep it a million times so when you hit the field Sunday you're flying around and having fun and that's what I see when I watch them play.
"(Guenther) got me excited. I feel energized," Hawk says. "I could feel his passion and how much he wants to win."
As important as Hawk is, the re-signing of Maualuga for three years is as big a move for the room. Burke believes his presence against run is critical and as he moves into his seventh year he seems to be hitting his stride.
"I think how we feel about him is validated by how our run defense changes when he's in the game," Burke says. "There's some clear evidence to show how we play with him in the lineup. It's just like with any human being. To have a longer term contract, there's a comfort level there and he can settle in. And, I saw his interviews. He's not complacent or satisfied."
The 6-4, 240-pound Lamur struggled with his consistency in his first year as a starter, especially on the run where profootballfocus.com graded him next-to-last of 40 outside backers in a 4-3. Even though he had much higher grades against the pass (26th in the loop), Burke isn't ready to pigeon hole him as a nicker backer.
"People forget with him because he's such a talented athlete that he didn't play much linebacker in college. I thought he grew a lot and developed a lot," Burke says of the old Kansas State safety. "I respect his toughness because he played (14 games) through some pain and didn't complain. I think for him, it's just a matter of getting more snaps."
Rey, heading into his fifth full season, has done it all. He backed up Maualuga in 2013 in a three-game stretch and became the first Bengal ever to have three sacks and a pick in the same game. Last year he made 11 starts in place of Burfict and finished with the 12th most tackles in the league while playing 952 snaps, double his NFL total (451) since he came into the league in 2010. Now the hope is with more depth he can go back to being a core special teamer while offering spot duty.
Flowers, a sixth-rounder out of Arizona last season, had the obligatory fire-by-baptism rookie year when he walked into a room strewn with bodies. It was typified by getting hauled off the bench to play 20 more snaps in the playoff game when Maualuga went down and Rey had to go to the middle and Flowers had to fill for Rey.
But it was a rookie year that left Burke excited about his progress.
"He can run as well as anybody in the room and across the league in terms of his position," Burke says. "The coverage element of things he's got a pretty good feel for. He's obviously got to get a better read in the run game and being physical and taking on blocks. But I saw flashes of it. I think he has to keep developing and he's got a chance. He's like Emmanuel. He didn't always play linebacker in college. He needs snaps.