Marvin Lewis and Co. also have to decide what to do with impending free agent Rey Maualuga.
Maualuga has managed to polarize the Cincinnati fanbase after spending the last four years at linebacker for the Bengals—he started on the strong side and then moved to the middle after Dhani Jones left the team.
Many fans have clamored for the Bengals to let Maualuga walk, but as defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer told the public at the scouting combine recently, the last thing he wants to do is allow Maualuga to hit free agency (h/t Cincinnati.com):
"He is, as you will find out when this free agency period starts, that he’s a lot better than what a lot of people give him credit for," Zimmer said. "I think that’s going to be what people are going to find out if he goes. If he’s not here people are going to miss him and say we should have had him. That’s how it works, like Justin Smith."
Zimmer could just be defending one of his players in public here, but the likely bet is he believes what he is saying. He continued to explain that Maualuga has other effective uses outside of the middle linebacker position:
"He can (play SAM), but if I remember correctly after his second year and Dhani (Jones) left, everyone was saying he should move to the MIKE when he played pretty good at SAM," Zimmer said. "But he’s got to go to the MIKE linebacker, wasn’t that what everyone was saying? 'Oh, Maualuga is going to MIKE, yeah.' Now everyone is going 'he should have stayed at SAM.' You can’t win."
There are two important things to take away from Zimmer's comments. He is right that most wanted to see Maualuga slide inside. After all, it was his natural position in college and he performed well enough on the outside to justify the move.
Sound familiar? Vontaze Burfict is currently in the same situation.
The conventional wisdom is that Burfict will make the move to middle linebacker regardless of Maualuga's fate with the team. That means if Maualuga is brought back, he will likely be given a chance to take over at strong-side linebacker.
That might be the best move for the Bengals.
It is very easy to point out that Maualuga was ranked as the worst inside linebacker in the NFL a year ago by ProFootballFocus. The main issue was his miserable coverage ability, which became the focal point of many opposing team's game plans (anyone remember the playoff game against Houston?).
However, if you dig deeper, Maualuga was exceptional with the Bengals at strong-side linebacker. In 2010, Maualuga was the No. 14 overall 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL, and in 2009, he ranked No. 15.
As for last year's strong-side linebacker? Manny Lawson checked in as just the No. 29 overall linebacker in the NFL last season.
Perhaps keeping Maualuga around makes some sense.
As mentioned, the biggest hole in Maualuga's game is coverage. As a strong-side linebacker, he will be replaced by a defensive back in most passing situations. This means Maualuga will only be on the field in obvious rushing situations, which is where he excels.
This is where Zimmer and the coaching staff sees the value in Maualuga. Bringing him back for the strong side is an upgrade over last year. Maualuga already knows the system and has shown he can play effectively on the outside—which is much better than taking a rookie unfamiliar with the system and hoping for the same or better results.
Perhaps the Bengals are planning on kicking Burfict to the middle, putting Maualuga on the outside and then bringing back Thomas Howard to start at weak-side linebacker. That looks great on paper as long as all are healthy.
Or maybe the Bengals will let Howard walk, bring back Maualuga for strong side, keep Burficit on the weak side and draft a new middle linebacker. (The team did elect to play to its stereotypes and interview Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o at the scouting combine).
Who knows? Zimmer, Lewis and Co. are not without options but appear to have some semblance of a plan in place. That plan seems to involve Maualuga, which may not be such a horrible idea for the Bengals after all.