It's difficult to remember the last time linebacker play wasn't an issue for the Cincinnati Bengals.
The position was always in need of addressing during every offseason of the 2010s. That Marvin Lewis, the head coach at the time, was a former linebackers coach made this specific area of prolonged incompetency so strange.
The year after Lewis was replaced by Zac Taylor, the team took the initiative to overhaul the position group. Three of their seven picks from the 2020 NFL Draft were used on linebackers, and Josh Bynes was signed a month prior in free agency. In total, the Bengals carried close to 10 linebackers throughout the offseason before settling on six after final cuts.
Along with Bynes, draft picks Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither, and Markus Bailey joined young veterans Germaine Pratt and Jordan Evans to fill out the group.
It was a much-needed makeover, and this time, the Bengals feel like they got it right. At least that's what their actions dictate.
Where there rough patches? Absolutely. Wilson and Davis-Gaither had draft status to back up their early opportunities, but they struggled out of the gate. Injuries took Wilson off the field later in the year just when he was finding his footing, and Davis-Gaither wasn't given more than 17 snaps in six of his final seven games. The seventh game, when he played 54 snaps, was arguably his worst of the season.
First-year woes are far too common for linebackers, but Wilson and Davis-Gaither have each showed enough for the Bengals to feel confident about the position moving forward.
In the newest edition of the Bleav In The #1 Bengals Podcast, hosts Dadio Makdook and Dr. Hodgie the Electric Smodgie discuss how Wilson, Davis-Gaither, and the rest of the linebacking corps will fare in 2021 with Bengals Sans and yours truly.
The biggest change forthcoming is Wilson replacing Bynes as a starter. Pratt is expected to retain his starting spot, but the third-year player could use a breakout season to keep Davis-Gaither and Bailey at bay.
Pratt was fairly underwhelming as a first-year starter last season. Opposing ball-carriers broke 10 of his tackles and gained an additional 92 yards off those missed takedowns (per Sports Info Solutions). He graded out with an abysmal 29.3 in run defense from Pro Football Focus as well. It was not the season Pratt wanted to have, but that can be said for nearly every other Bengals defender.
Now with a full season of starting experience under his belt, Pratt assumes a leadership role as one of the more experienced players at his position. He'll be expected to make notable improvements as a run defender, and with Davis-Gaither subbing in for him on obvious passing downs, the rotation at linebacker should be hitting on all cylinders.
Davis-Gaither's role for his second season is a bit of a mystery, but there's reason to believe it won't change that much from last year. As a rookie, 74% of his snaps were against the pass. Before Week 17, it was 80%. He spent most of his time in zone coverage over the middle of the field with Wilson and was able to make some plays on the ball as the season wore on. SIS credited him with two dropped interceptions.
The duo of Wilson and Davis-Gaither will undoubtedly see the field more often in 2021, but outside of that, not much has changed in the second level of Cincinnati's defense. This comes with the territory of being a losing team; it's hard to adequately solve every issue on the roster in a single offseason. Resources could've been used to shore up the linebacker room, but the team is placing faith in its young players to ascend into solid starters.
If it pays off, it will be a success story several years in the making.