Nick Vigil said he was a little surprised when he heard the Cincinnati Bengals released fellow linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
Controversial as he was, Burfict was a leader of the defense and in his prime a reliable playmaker that opposing offenses had to be aware of at all times.
With Burfict gone and veteran linebacker Vinny Rey left unsigned in free agency, the Bengals linebacking corps is looking for new leaders. That process is underway as the team continues to meet for the second week of voluntary offseason workouts at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I think we’ve all got some responsibility: Preston (Brown), me, a couple of the older guys,” said Vigil, a fourth-year player who has emerged as a starter the last two seasons. “Even Hardy (Nickerson) and Jordan (Evans) played a lot of snaps for us. We’ll look to guys like Shawn (Williams) and Carlos (Dunlap), guys on the D-line. We’ve got to have some guys step up and lead this year.”
Vigil, who made a career-high 84 combined tackles last year, could be one of those leaders as one of the more experienced guys among the seven rostered linebackers, but his focus right now is preparing his body to make it through a full season. He was limited to 11 games in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons because of ankle, foot and back injuries.
Brown, in his sixth season, is the most tenured of the bunch and likely another individual players will look to as he settles in for a second season with the Bengals after being re-signed as a free agent this offseason. Everyone else is either in their second or third year.
Nickerson, who joined the Bengals as an undrafted college free agent in 2017, said the departure of Burfict and Rey just means more opportunities for other players to evolve and take on bigger roles.
“We have a lot of guys that have played in a lot of games, so it’s just our time to step up,” Nickerson said. “It’s always sad to see your brother leave or move on to another place, but it’s time for us to step up.”
Cincinnati is hoping the infusion of energy with a new coaching staff gets things rolling quickly. The defense will see some new wrinkles under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, and the linebackers so far all seem to like working with position coach Tem Lukabo, who replaced Jim Haslett.
The linebacker group as a whole needs to improve for the Bengals’ defense to get back on track following a historically bad performance last year. Cincinnati gave up a league-worst 413.6 yards per game and the third most points at 28.4 per game. Much of that was on the linebackers. Opposing teams seemed to target the middle of the defense, taking advantage of a depleted unit trotting out new players every week because of injuries.
Vigil has seen the position group written off as the weak spot of the team and said that has put a bit of a chip on the shoulder of all the linebackers as they begin preparations for the 2019 season.
“You never want to hear that,” Vigil said. “We had a lot of injuries last year. I don’t think any of our original starting linebackers played more than one game together the whole season. Tez missed games early in the year, I missed a lot of games in the middle of the year, Preston missed a bunch of games, so we were a banged up group the whole season. We just never developed a good chemistry before we could get rolling.
“…But at the same time, that happens in the NFL. You’ve got to have people step up and make plays. We’ve got to have guys step up and lead, and we’ll see who those guys are this year.”
The Bengals likely will be bringing in some new linebackers through the draft next week. LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush are expected to be among the top guys at that position, and any team with a need like the Bengals would have a hard time not considering either one if available for them in the first round. Cincinnati has the No. 11 pick.
Nickerson and Vigil both said they will be interested to see who the Bengals end up drafting but neither one is trying to predict how high of a priority that is for the coaches and personnel department.
“They know what the best interest is for the team,” Vigil said. “I’m sure whoever they pick, wherever, will help us. If we get more linebackers, that would be great. We need all the help we can get.“