Cincinnati Bengals draft preview: The top 4 prospects at linebacker

If there is one position where the Cincinnati Bengals have struggled to convert picks into value of late, it’s linebacker.

But if there is a position where need alone would dictate the direction of the team’s first-round pick, it would be linebacker, especially with Vontaze Burfict facing a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

The Bengals signed free agent and Cincinnati native Preston Brown last month to handle the duties at middle linebacker, but they would love to find another dynamic, play maker to fit into the more aggressive style defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is expected to employ.

Nick Vigil, a 2016 third-round pick, showed some improvement last year before ankle and back injuries ended his season after 11 games. But he’s yet to prove he can be a long-term answer.

Jordan Evans, last year’s sixth-round pick, exhibited both flashes and flaws during his rookie season, and Vinny Rey is a solid backup, but a defense that has ranked at the bottom of the league in turnovers forced the last two years needs impact players.

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The last time the Bengals took a linebacker in the first round was 2008 when they selected Keith Rivers ninth overall.

Since then, there have been more misses than hits when it comes to drafting linebackers. The list includes Rey Maualuga (second round, 2009), Roddrick Muckelroy (fourth, 2010), Dontay Moch (third, 2011), Sean Porter (fourth, 2013), Marquis Flowers (sixth, 2014), Paul Dawson (third, 2015), Vigil and Evans.

There are four linebackers with first-round grades this year, although only two are expected to still be available when the Bengals pick at 21.

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Here is a look at the those top four, according to composite rankings from a number of scouts:

Roquan Smith, Georgia (6-foot, 236 pounds)

A first-team All-American and Butkus Award winner in 2017, Smith started his sophomore and junior years at Georgia before deciding to skip his senior season and enter the draft. Smith had 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss last year and finished 10th in the Heisman voting.

Dan Brugler, "Outstanding range and play speed to the perimeter…moves well laterally and unlocks his hips to instantly accelerate, cutting off outside runs…high-level instincts with the mental processing speed to trust his eyes and react, sniffing out fakes and not falling for eye candy…quick reflexes to mirror ball carriers to the hole…gap-sound and takes precise angles when attacking downhill…excellent job coming to balance as a tackler, wrapping and finishing through his hips…doesn't miss tackles due to strong hands and technique…not an overpowering strength player, but plays low to scrape and unwind himself from blocks…elusive to avoid second level blocks…talented blitzer, using flexibility to avoid backfield blockers…looks like a safety in coverage with the awareness to zone drop and choke throwing lanes."

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Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech (6-foot-4, 253 pounds)

The son of former Miami Dolphins two-time Pro Bowl tight Ferrell Edmunds, Tremaine played as a true freshman at Virginia Tech before starting his sophomore and junior seasons and leading the team in tackles both years. He had 5.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss last year while earning first team All-ACC honors. He’s still just 19 year old (turns 20 May 2).

Lance Zierlein, "Edmunds combines elite size, speed and explosiveness into a productive, versatile linebacker package that will have evaluators salivating. Edmunds has posted high-impact production over the last two seasons and he still has room to get bigger and better. He will make mental mistakes and his instincts are subpar, but he has an ability to mitigate those issues with his athletic ability. Edmunds can play in any alignment at any linebacker spot and has All-Pro potential no matter where he lands."

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Rashaan Evans, Alabama (6-foot-2, 237 pounds)

A five-star recruit out of high school, Evans played as a true freshman at Alabama, mostly as a reserve and on special teams. He continued in a reserve role as a sophomore and junior before becoming a starter as a senior and leading the team in tackles (74) and tackles for loss (13) to go along with six sacks. He earned an invite to the Senior Bowl but turned it down. "Evans is rangy and brings his power while on the move. He can shadow athletic running backs laterally and shows the ability to patiently pounce on the action. He is a heady player who can get himself in position to impact the play via both instincts and positive initial steps. On third down, Evans can be used as an edge rusher or in coverage, being equally effective in both roles."

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Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State (6-foot-4, 256)

A no-star recruit, Vander Esch led his high school football and basketball teams to state titles in Idaho. He also was a high jumper in track. He walked on at Boise State and was primarily a backup until his junior season in 2017 when he had 141 tackles and three interceptions to win the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award. He elected to skip his senior season to enter the draft.

Sam Monson, Pro Football Focus: "Boise State's Vander Esch is something of a one-season wonder, but that one season showcased the kind of impact linebacker he can be. He's an instinctive linebacker who excels in the run game and is able to work quickly to the back through traffic and bottle up those plays. He notched 57 run stops in 2017, which led all FBS inside linebackers along with his run-stop percentage (15.9 percent). His coverage is solid and his positioning is sound, but he doesn't have the same coverage range and skills as the best players in this draft class yet, though he is still relatively inexperienced."

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