CINCINNATI — When you lose two starters from any position group, it’s usually seen as a bad thing.
In the Bengals’ case, when it comes to linebacker, that may not be true.
The club moved on from Rey Maualuga and Karlos Dansby in the offseason. Free agent Kevin Minter takes Maualuga’s spot. Second-year player Nick Vigil takes Dansby’s.
Last year’s defense looked slow and old. Minter and Vigil are younger and faster than the players they replaced. If they’re also better, it will be a good thing for the Bengals.
The one holdover at linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, is arguably the Bengals’ best defender and unarguably among the best linebackers in the NFL. If the guys playing alongside him are better, who knows what Burfict can do?
On paper, Minter is a huge upgrade over Maualuga. Minter was Arizona’s second-leading tackler last year and recorded 3.5 sacks. No Bengals linebacker had more than two. He was the 30th ranked linebacker by Pro Football Focus at 77.5. Maualuga rated 83rd at 36.5.
“Kevin's coming along,” linebacker coach Jim Haslett said. “He’s in a totally different scheme. He was in a 3-4 in Arizona. Things are different. Verbiage is different. But I can see the progress the last couple of weeks.
“I know one thing: when you put the pads on, he brings the wood. He’s a good tackler and all that.”
Vigil, the third-round pick out of Utah State last year, spent a year in a sort of apprenticeship. He played every game, mostly on special teams. He got more time at linebacker toward the end of the year.
The preseason opener against Tampa Bay was his first start as a professional and he tied for the team lead in tackles with six (three solo, three assists).
“Nick played his butt off in the game,” Haslett said. “I thought he moved well. He has a great understanding of the defense now. It takes a little bit of time to walk in and play in the NFL. The first game, he was outstanding. He’s got to keep that up.”
Vigil was athletic enough to play both running back and linebacker at Utah State. He led the team in tackles and rushing yards against Brigham Young.
All his time in the Bengals system is allowing him to use his athleticism.
“That’s one of the biggest things from my rookie season to now,” Vigil said. “When I’m out there, I can focus on playing and what the offense is trying to do, instead of what I’m trying to do. It allows me to play faster and not think about it.”
Burfict, Minter and Vigil are still learning to play as a unit.
“It’s been good,” Vigil said. “We got a lot of work together through camp and OTAs. We’re learning to play with each other and play off one another. We’re getting a feel for how each guy plays. The more reps we get, the better that will be.”
Vincent Rey, listed as Minter’s backup, is coming off a strong year. He was the 15th rated linebacker in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
The Bengals also went heavy at linebacker in the draft. Fourth-round pick Carl Lawson has shown well in camp. He was the strongest linebacker in the draft. Sixth-round pick Jordan Evans had five solo tackles and one assist against Tampa Bay. College free agent Hardy Nickerson had three solo tackles against the Bucs.
“All these young kids can play,” Haslett said. “I like them all.”
That could lead to a new and improved linebacker corps, which would go a long way to an improved defense.