State of the Cincinnati Bengals – Where Could Changes Occur at Linebacker?

Three of the top five linebackers for the Cincinnati Bengals will be free agents, so changes could be coming to the middle of Lou Anarumo's defense.

CINCINNATI – The Cincinnati Bengals have some decisions to make at linebacker, but it’s a position group likely to look much the same as it did in 2023.

A big reason is Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt each signed contract extensions last offseason and are in no danger of losing their starting spots.

State of the Bengals Franchise | Linebackers

The other part of the equation is that the two linebackers from the 2020 draft class — Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey — have a good chance of re-signing as free agents, as does 2021 waiver claim Joe Bachie.

The Bengals were in nickel 71.1% of the time in 2023, up from 62.9% in 2022 and 63% in 2021. The stat alone highlights a lack of urgency to stock the room, although at some point soon, a succession plan for Pratt will need to be in place.

It looked as though Davis-Gaither would be the guy. Still, Cincinnati’s inability to re-sign some of their top targets last offseason led to them extending Pratt, delaying ADG’s opportunity.

Previous Position Breakdowns

Let’s look at each linebacker on the 2023 roster and what to expect in 2024, followed by an overall assessment of the group and where it could be headed.

Logan Wilson (Signed Through 2027)

Despite a lack of production in the pass rush and chaos behind him in the secondary, Wilson still put up some of the best numbers of his career, tying his high of four interceptions while setting new marks for tackles (135) and passes defensed (nine).

Wilson’s cap hit jumps from $3.3 million to $7 million this year as his four-year, $36 million extension kicks in. But he’s still a value for an upper-level linebacker, and his number will only increase incrementally until topping out at $10.2 million in 2027.

Germaine Pratt (Signed Through 2025)

After Vonn Bell and Samaje Perine shunned offers to stay in Cincinnati and signed elsewhere in free agency last March, the Bengals inked Pratt to a three-year, $20.5 million contract. And like Wilson, Pratt posted his best numbers, tying his career high with two interceptions, while setting new marks in sacks (two), tackles (118), and tackles for loss (seven).

PFF graded Pratt higher than Wilson in pass coverage for the first time in their careers. They ranked Pratt 23rd in coverage and Wilson 38th.

Pratt’s grade against the run dipped so far that he ranked 56th of 64 qualifying backers, but his missed-tackle percentage of 6.3 was the second-best of his career.

Like Wilson, Pratt is going to benefit from what should be a better pass rush and more experienced secondary in 2024.

The way Pratt’s contract is structured, the team could cut him this offseason without absorbing any sort of dead money. But there is little to no chance that happens.

Akeem Davis-Gaither (Unrestricted Free Agent)

Had Bell or Perine re-signed with the Bengals last year, there’s a good chance Davis-Gaither would have started next to Wilson instead of Pratt. Instead, he was landlocked behind the pair for the fourth time in four years and played a career-low 99 defensive snaps.

But Davis-Gaither has always played an important role in defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s scheme against the Baltimore Ravens, and Lamar Jackson isn’t going anywhere. Davis-Gaither has also played a big role on special teams, ranking among the team leaders yearly.

MORE: 2024 Free Agents By Position

The Bengals will have interest in bringing him back, possibly on a multi-year deal, but the question will be how much interest he draws from other teams who promise Davis-Gaither a chance to play more than six defensive snaps per game.

Chance of return: 55%

Markus Bailey (Unrestricted Free Agent)

The third linebacker selected in the Bengals’ seven-player draft class in 2020, Bailey has seen the field even less than Davis-Gaither. He played just 87 defensive snaps combined in 2022-23 after getting on the field for 256 (25%) in 2021.

Like Davis-Gaither, Bailey has a sizable role on special teams, playing the second-most snaps on the team last year and ranking fourth in 2021 and 2022.

It will be interesting to see how much interest Bailey draws in free agency. He was thought to be a second or third-round pick coming out of Purdue before a knee injury dropped him all the way to Round 7.

Bailey doesn’t have a lot of tape for other teams to go on, but a team that scouted him high before the knee injury could view him as an inexpensive option with a high ceiling.

Chance of return: 80%

Joe Bachie (Unrestricted Free Agent)

Since the Bengals claimed Bachie off waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles in May 2021, the Michigan State product has been in heavy rotation on special teams while barely playing on defense.

MORE: Bengals DE Trey Hendrickson Honored, Snubbed All at Once by PFWA

Bachie entered the league as an undrafted college free agent. He had 10 snaps on defense last year and 13 the year before. There shouldn’t be many teams angling to sign him in free agency, and Cincinnati certainly values his production on special teams.

Chance of return: 75%

Devin Harper (Signed Through 2025)

The Bengals claimed Devin Harper off waivers from Dallas in September. He was inactive for eight of 14 games and rarely played when he dressed, logging one snap on defense and 94 on special teams.

The 2022 sixth-round pick will compete for a spot in training camp.

Shaka Heyward (Signed Through 2024)

A member of the Bengals’ 2023 UDFA class, Shaka Heyward spent the season on the practice squad and recently signed a reserves/future contract.

What’s Next?

Regardless of how many of the three free agents the Bengals retain, look for them to target the position in the draft, likely in the middle rounds. Cincinnati hasn’t drafted a linebacker since taking the trio of Wilson, Davis-Gaither, and Bailey in 2020.

With the amount of money the team has wrapped up in Wilson and Pratt, it’s doubtful they would be active in free agency at the position. If they are, it would be players akin to Bailey, Bachie, and Davis-Gaither, so it would make far more sense to simply re-sign the guys already familiar with both their defensive and special-team schemes.

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