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Look for Rey Maualuga to blossom in his natural role of middle linebacker next season.
The Cincinnati Bengals found great value in the second round of the 2009 draft when they selected Rey Maualuga out of USC.
Maualuga, at the time, was widely considered the most talented of a trio of stellar USC linebackers: The other two being Brian Cushing, current Houston Texan and winner of the 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers, who has quickly become one of the most feared defensive players in the league.
Character concerns dropped Maualuga to the second round where the Bengals thought he was just too good to pass up. While his raw ability, strength and athleticism earned him a starting role on the Bengals defense, success has been much more slow to find him than it has his former USC teammates.
Perhaps that is because during his first two years in a Bengals uniform, Maualuga has been playing away from his natural position of middle linebacker. When the Bengals brought Maualuga on board, the team already had seasoned veteran Dhani Jones manning the middle of the field.
Jones is set to become a free-agent and although he has led the team in tackles for three straight seasons, he is by no means the raw athlete with incredible upside that Maualuga is. However, he does an outstanding job of operating as a vessel for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer on the field, communicating with other players and making sure everyone is where they are supposed to be.
Following a DUI arrest in January 2010, Zimmer may have his doubts as to whether Maualuga was mature enough to handle such duties, which is probably why he hasn’t made the move from SAM linebacker to middle linebacker yet.
However, Zimmer now appears to be comfortable handing Maualuga the reigns to his defense. In April's draft, the Bengals selected speedy linebacker Dontay Moch out of Nevada in the third round and hope to groom him to become the team's SAM linebacker of the future. With this move, Maualuga's transition to the middle appears to be imminent.
Zimmer also flirted with placing defensive end Michael Johnson at SAM linebacker last year, which worked out quite well until injuries in the trenches forced him to move back to the defensive line.
Regardless, the Bengals should place Maualuga in the middle and see what they have there. Middle linebacker is Maualuga’s natural position, and that’s where he wants to play. Allowing Maualuga the freedom and roaming ability that comes along with the middle linebacker position fits his skill set perfectly, and will pay dividends for the team's defense once they make the move.