Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict tackles Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster during their game Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The Steelers won 28-21. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Cincinnati Bengals: With staff in place, decision on Vontaze Burfict’s future, among others, up next

There’s a difference in scouting for one team versus another, though, and in Cincinnati’s case, the defensive staff wasn’t even finalized until Thursday. Among six new hires announced Thursday were defensive line coach Nick Eason, linebackers Tem Lukabu and defensive quality control coach Jordan Kovacs — joined by offensive assistant Brad Kragthorpe and assistant strength and conditioning coaches Todd Hunt and Garrett Swanson.

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That means the team came into the NFL Combine this week not having everyone fully caught up to speed on the current roster, how they plan to address free agency and what needs they expect to have going into the April draft. Then again, perhaps the player interviews and on-field results at the combine might shape some of that.

Bengals head coach Zac Taylor maintains “there is still a lot of time left.” He’s just glad to be done interviewing coaches and able to focus on interviewing players now.

“I certainly have watched both sides of the ball these last couple weeks,” Taylor said when asked if he was able to evaluate defensive players without the full staff in place. “We have good people in the building who are very familiar with that side of the ball that I’ve leaned on heavily. Lou has already started that process. When we hired him (last) Thursday, he was in there immediately making sure we know our players first and foremost. … So he’s already putting his thoughts together, and we will hit the ground running on defense.”

Filling out the linebacking corps, which struggled greatly last year, is a top priority.

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Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said without hesitation that group will see some changes, and the team will look at both the draft pool and free agent market. LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush are two of the top linebackers in this year’s draft class, which some have said isn’t very deep.

“I think this draft does offer a decent amount of linebackers, so I’m not down on the depth of this draft at that position,” Tobin said. “I think free agency also offers some good linebackers, and free agency is harder to predict than the draft. You kind of know the range where you have to pick a guy in the draft. With free agency, you don’t know if you’re going to get an opportunity or not and you don’t know what level that opportunity is going to be and you don’t know what opportunities you’ll have to forgo if you go too high over here. That’s a bit of a moving target, but we’re certainly looking at it and there are guys that are good players we will have to consider.”

Lukabu, the new linebackers coach, brings some familiarity to the draft pool after spending seven years at the college level, including last season with Mississippi State. He also has four years of NFL coaching experience.

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Another big question with the linebackers is how Vontaze Burfict fits in under the new staff. He signed a three-year contract extension in September 2017, but wasn’t productive last year and suffered the sixth and seventh concussions of his career back-to-back to end his season.

Taylor said he always respected Burfict’s football intelligence from afar but health concerns are always important to address. Tobin, who has more familiarity with Burfict, wasn’t ready to say whether he was still comfortable keeping Burfict on the team.

“We’ll have ongoing discussions as we go on the fit there,” Tobin said. “Again, our defensive staff just walked in the building, a large part of it. …The coordinator, Lou, is new to the building, so those are all questions we will answer as we go, but for me to sit here and answer for them right now and proclaim something, I don’t think is the way to go.”

The Bengals also have to decide whether or not to try to re-sign cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who is heading into free agency. Tobin predicts there will be interest in bringing Dennard back, but noted he doesn’t know how much competition there will be.

“It’s hard to predict free agency, but he will be a guy that’s in our talking plans, and we’ll be visiting with him and see what we can get done,” Tobin said.

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