Like it or not, bringing back Maualuga was the right move.
According to NFL Network's Adam Schefter, the team reached an agreement with Maualuga Monday:
Bengals reached agreement on a two-year, $6.5 million deal with LB Rey Maualuga.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 18, 2013
The move should not be a surprise in any way. Maualuga made a visit to the Arizona Cardinals and was pursued by the likes of the New York Giants (per Adam Schefter on Twitter), but his market never truly reached a peak considering he was the worst inside linebacker in the NFL a season ago, according to ProFootballFocus' rankings.
Cincinnati was, and possibly still is, desperate for linebacker depth. Last year's starting strong-side linebacker, Manny Lawson, is gone, and weak-side linebacker Thomas Howard may be as well with him on the market and visiting other teams.
Before bringing back Maualuga, the only linebackers on the roster were Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur, Aaron Maybin, J.K. Schaffer, Dontay Moch, Vincent Rey and Brandon Joiner.
Of those, Burfict has starting experience, while Lamur has shown flashes of ability on the weak side. The rest are special teams players, if on the roster at all by the time the season rolls around.
Therein lies the genius of bringing Maualuga back. Obviously, he won't be given another chance in the middle—that spot now belongs to Burfict. Maualuga was a fluke in the middle. To be blunt, he couldn't cover even the slowest tight ends and took horrendous angles when in pursuit. Coverage was his main issue, and that can't be the case in the heart of a 4-3 defense.
He will, however, be given a shot as the starting strong-side linebacker, as he should.
Rewind back to Maualuga's rookie season in 2009, a full two years before he was asked to take over in the middle. As a rookie, he appeared in 15 games at strong-side linebacker and recorded 63 total tackles and one sack. According to ProFootballFocus, he was the No. 15 overall 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL.
The following season, Maualuga appeared in the same role over the course of a full 16-game season and recorded 75 tackle and one sack. Once more, according to ProFootballFocus, Maualuga was one of the best 4-3 outside backers in the NFL, coming in this time at No. 14.
Of course, after two stellar years on the outside, fans and the coaching staff alike clamored for Maualuga to move inside and take over as Cincinnati's version of Ray Lewis.
The rest is history.
Maualuga should easily win the starting strong-side job now that he is back with the team. More importantly, he should perform just as well at it as he did during his first two years with the team.
That's the thing about the strong-side linebacker position in Cincinnati. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer operates his defense mostly by keeping the strong backer off the field and bringing in another corner or safety. Last season, Lawson played about only a third of the team's total defensive snaps—which makes sense with the NFL now being a pass-happy league.
This means Maualuga will be off the field entirely every time it appears another team is going to pass the ball. It means he won't have to cover as much, which is his biggest weakness. Even better, he'll be on the field in clear running situations, where he excels the most.
The team could have simply let him walk and upgraded the position through the draft. As we all know, Cincinnati has plenty of draft picks to work with. However, bringing him back means the team can look elsewhere with its draft picks—perhaps bringing in a new starting weak-side linebacker if a deal cannot be reached with Thomas Howard.
Even the finances of the deal are team-friendly. According to NFL Network's Albert Breer, the two-year deal worth $6.5 million comes with a $2.5 million signing bonus. For comparison's sake, Lawson was given a deal worth $3 million by the team in 2011, and another one in 2012 worth just over $2 million. He also just signed a deal with Buffalo that will pay him $3 million per year (per Spotrac).
Given how Zimmer and the staff have praised Maualuga all offseason, such as labeling him an important piece on defense (per NFL.com), it's clear the staff has every intention of starting him next season.
As far as average salary for a starting strong-side backer goes in today's NFL, Maualuga's deal is right there. The team isn't paying him for what he did horrible the past two seasons—it's paying him for what he does best.
Even Maualuga knows he is walking on eggshells. As he told the press during his press conference announcing the signing, he wants to make up for his mistakes in past seasons and is ready to do whatever it takes (h/t Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy):
Maualuga: "Felt like I needed to come back and change all that because I wasn’t satisfied."— Joe Reedy (@joereedy) March 18, 2013
Maualuga has shown a tendency in the past to let the fanbase and his mistakes snowball into even worse play on the field. Mike Zimmer put it best last January (h/t Cincinnati Enquirer):
"He cares about what everyone thinks," Zimmer said. "What the fans or family says. I say, 'don't read that stuff. You don't need to know what other people think. You need to worry about what Marvin and I think and what the other guys on defense think. It doesn't matter what Joe from Kenwood thinks.'"
Now is the time for Maualuga to grow mentally on and off the field. He has been given a second chance, and the coaching staff looks like it will protect him and play to his strengths. As a result, Maualuga's best football may be in front of him.
For now, the Bengals made a great move in bringing back Maualuga.
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