There are two generals on every NFL roster, the quarterback and the linebacker. The Cincinnati Bengals owner and general manager, Mike Brown, drafted both early on in the 2020 NFL Draft to hopefully be the future faces of the franchise. But while Joe Burrow will receive all the attention, it’s best not to sleep on Wyoming’s Logan Wilson, who should immediately become the reader of the Bengals’ linebackers in 2020.
The former Cowboy will have big shoes to fill in the league’s worst unit of 2019. Outside of rookie Germaine Pratt, the Bengals linebackers were horrendous against the run, finishing dead last against it and 18th against the pass. But hey, with a newly hired head coach and a new leader under center, why stop the makeover?
Position Breakdown – Cincinnati Bengals Linebackers
What the Bengals’ linebackers might lack in skills in 2020, they make up for with youth. Along with Wilson, Brown added Appalachian State star Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey on the third day of the 2020 NFL Draft. Throw in second-year contributor Pratt, to go with recently signed Josh Bynes, and Cincinnati could find three capable starters in their future.
Bailey will be late to the party as he entered camp on the NFI list. During his final season with the Boilermakers, he suffered a torn ACL, limiting him to four games. This position is certainly one to keep an eye out for in training camp.
Key Player to Watch: Logan Wilson’s early development
Pratt is going to want to build off his 2019 campaign, but Wilson is going to be the leader. The Bengals were highly impressed with the backer’s skills, leading to excitement when he fell in their lap early in the third round.
“He was a guy we had highly rated,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said following Wilson’s selection. “Our defensive staff has been holding their breath all day because we got to know this kid at the Senior Bowl. He really impressed us.
He’s a three-down player. He’s physical. He can run. He’s got the right mentality. We’re just excited to add him to that side of the ball.”
Wilson was a monster in the tackling department during his five-year stay in Wyoming. Ranking No. 1 among active FBS players in the nation in career defensive touchdowns (4) and career solo tackles (421), the 23-year-old is expected to be an every-down player in Lou Anaroumo’s scheme sooner than later.
The question will be where Wilson lines up. Pratt will likely remain in the middle for now after last season, but which outside role fits better? The addition of Bynes, who made an impact at WILL backer, could have him earning the first crack. Wilson, however, rapidly improved in coverage against tight ends and running backs after making the shift from cornerback after his freshman season.
Wilson already is the second-best linebacker on the roster, so expect him to start Week 1 in either a three-down role or sub-packages alongside Pratt.
Position Battle: The long-term third linebacker
Let’s turn away from Pratt and Wilson and look at the incumbent battle for the third spot. For now, it’ll be between Bynes and Davis-Gaither for the third linebacker role.
Bynes started in seven games last season for the Baltimore Ravens and was a surprising addition for one of the league’s top defenses. After missing the start of the season, the 31-year-old led the team up the middle with 46 tackles, six for losses, four pass deflections, and two interceptions. More importantly, Bynes now adds a veteran presence to a young staff and a vocal role in a rebuild position.
“He’s confident in his answers and he’s not afraid to ask why,” Bengals linebackers coach Al Golden said. “He makes you a better coach. He makes his peers better. He makes our defense better. He’s come up with some good ideas as well and we’re not afraid to implement them as we move forward.”
Davis-Gaither should be a potential standout in the future after undergoing foot surgery. The former Mountaineer was the anchor of the team’s defense, finishing his final two seasons with 90-plus tackles and seven pass deflections. A promising prospect, Davis-Gaither made his mark on special teams before shining in 2019, winning the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year.
Best case scenario: Bynes starts the year off as the leading man while Davis-Gaither learns the position and contributes on special teams. The worst-case scenario would be the veteran suffering a season-ending injury, forcing the rookie to play before he’s ready.
Wild Card: Bailey’s breakthrough from injury
With the recent passing of his physical, Bailey will be in action in this training camp. A torn ACL will take months to recover from just by resting before a rehabilitation takes its toll. After falling late due to injury, this could be a steal, should the former-Boilermaker develop.
Of the three linebackers taken, Bailey might be the most balanced in his skill set. A two-year captain in West Lafayette, he tallied three 89-plus tackle seasons to go along with 14.5 sacks and six career interceptions. Electrifying in coverage, Bailey also continues to make open-field plays that allow him to shine on the outside against the run.
There’s little to hate about his overall approach. If he can come back as strong as his final season at Purdue, Cincinnati has their future starter at one of the two outside positions.
Overview: Inexperienced with potential
These linebackers could be the surprisingly good unit for the Bengals in 2020. A veteran in Bynes will play as much of a teaching role as he will on the field. The rest of the group is either better suited on special teams or unproven. Still, you have to give credit to the Brown family for finally adding depth at the position.
With three rookies fighting for a chance to earn reps, chances are at least one will hit. If all three are quality players, and Pratt continues his development, this could be the deepest linebacker unit the league has to offer. For now, class is in session for these youngsters with Professor Bynes teaching a lesson.