Many fans think Rey Maualuga has played his last game for Cincinnati. However, signs indicate otherwise.
Many fans of the Bengals seem to be very satisfied with the presumption of Maualuga entering free agency and leaving the organization for good. These fans certainly have good reason to think this way after another disappointing year for Maualuga.
His recent season was plagued by missed open-field tackles, over-pursuit on running downs and his inability to shed blockers with any consistency.
However, there are some tell-tale signs and indications from the Bengals coaching staff that Maualuga may not have played his last down as a Cincinnati Bengal.
After Pro Football Focus rated Maualuga as the worst free-agent middle linebacker in 2013, what would possess the Bengals to even think about re-signing him?
Let's take a look at four reasons why the Bengals will, in fact, bring back Maualuga for at least another season.
Vontaze Burfict should emerge as the Bengals middle linebacker next season.
Due to the lack of depth and experience at the linebacker position, the Bengals coaching staff may see fit to bring a veteran like Maualuga back into the fold.
Skuta and Lawson may not be high priorities for the Bengals to re-sign, and if Howard is brought back, he would return to the WILL position.
With Burfict potentially moving out of the WILL and becoming the new MIKE in place of Maualuga, this leaves a gaping hole at the SAM position.
Keep in mind that Maualuga's first two seasons in the NFL were spent at the SAM position while Dhani Jones patrolled the middle. After those first two seasons, Bengals brass and fans alike were superbly impressed with Rey's play and were clamoring for a move to the middle.
His play dropped off after moving inside and he was not able to become the vocal leader that this defense so desperately needed.
This is why bringing Maualuga back to play SAM makes a great deal of sense. The lack of depth and experience certainly warrants the move. Allowing Maualuga to return to the position that seemed to best suit his talents probably does not seem like too terrible of an idea to the Bengals coaching staff.
By re-signing Maualuga, the Bengals immediately get an experienced veteran that can play two different linebacker positions in a pinch. That brings immediate value to Cincinnati over other potential free-agent candidates.
Alec Ogletree has been brought up by many pundits as a possible choice for the Bengals in the upcoming draft.
The 2013 NFL Draft is very deep at the linebacker position. Drafting a player in the first or second round such as Georgia's Alec Ogletree or Kansas State's Arthur Brown would make it easy for the Bengals to go in a different direction from Maualuga.
However, there are so many other positions that are huge needs for the Bengals that happen to have just as deep of a draft class. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis stated that the only position in which they would not be looking to draft this year is a starting quarterback.
Also, the Bengals have recently stuck to its best player available (BPA) approach to the draft.
With these things in mind, consider this scenario:
If a defensive end, safety, wide receiver, offensive lineman, cornerback or running back is available in the early rounds and the Bengals consider this player its BPA, they would instantly select said player over reaching for a linebacker.
Cincinnati will certainly select a linebacker at some point in the draft, but if they happen to wait until the fourth-round or later, they may not get an instant starter. This would make the re-signing of Maualuga all the more important to the Bengals coaching staff because of a severe hole to fill on defense.
The coaching staff is well aware of this possible scenario and could take a preemptive measure to re-sign Maualuga with this possibility looming.
Certain high-priced linebackers such as Anthony Spencer are also available to the Bengals.
The Bengals could also go in yet another direction, which is to sign a free-agent coming from a different team. This could end up being a great decision or end up hurting the team dearly for years to come.
Spencer was drafted in the first round by the Cowboys in the 2007 NFL Draft. He has recently excelled in a 3-4 scheme as an outside pass rusher.
He could possibly be a target for the Bengals in free agency, but there are certain factors to consider.
First off, Spencer would have to move into the role of a 4-3 outside linebacker, which is highly different from that of a 3-4 rushing linebacker. Many different blitz and coverage schemes that will be completely new to him will be introduced in Mike Zimmer's system.
Spencer has been an outstanding player for the Cowboys, but it is unknown if he would have the same amount of success in the Bengals' system.
This same statement could be made for any free-agent linebacker in 2013.
With Maualuga, the Bengals know exactly what they already have and exactly what needs to be improved upon, and how to best utilize his strengths.
These things would have to be discovered about a new player throughout the course of a season, which could be severely detrimental to another playoff run.
Also, Spencer made $8.8 million in 2012, which the Bengals would have to either match or increase. Compare that to the $565,000 that Maualuga made last season and you have a huge cap difference on your hands.
With the shaky play of Maualuga as of late, he will not require a contract that breaks the bank for the Bengals, which means if his play does not improve he could easily be shifted to a backup role. Spending over $8 million on a free agent would almost force the Bengals to stick with that player in a starting role even without great production.
It really could all come down to dollars and familiarity for the Bengals coaching staff on making this decision.
Both Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer have expressed interest in keeping Maualuga around for 2013.
Lewis seems to have gained the trust of owner Mike Brown who has allowed Lewis great flexibility over personnel decisions. Being that Lewis is showing interest in the re-signing of Maualuga along with well-respected defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, the chances could drastically increase that he would return on a new contract.
Lewis had this to say about Maualuga in a recent press conference:
He's one of the guys you got to get back in the fold.
Mike Zimmer was a little more vocal about Maualuga (as usual):
He is, as you will find out when this free agency period starts, a lot better than what a lot of people give him credit for. 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.
It seems as though the coaching staff has decided that Maualuga should be a priority to re-sign before free agency gets underway.
This would mean they would have to agree with him on a particular price that they would be comfortable with. If they cannot agree before free agency begins, then they would have to hope all other NFL teams would have the same view of Maualuga.
If no other team is willing to give a higher offer, the Bengals could bring him back at a reasonable price to ultimately determine if they made the right move.