The Cincinnati Bengals have created quite a bit of linebacking depth in recent years. These young and motivated guys are seeking opportunities to get on the field and make an impact as the team looks to take the next step towards “elite” status. Elevating the team will require some changes to strengthen the roster and put the best players on the field. Because of this Rey Maualuga may find himself in a difficult situation during training camp, which will produce the question, should he be cut?
Maualuga seems to defy the most significant consideration the team takes when evaluating its talent, versatility. As a full time MLB he possesses very little, yet remains a staple on the defense; it’s baffling in this way. He has struggled in coverage which has resulted in opposing quarterbacks often targeting him. His inconsistency has been frustrating and has resulted in a great defense being exposed at times. He also offers nothing when rushing the passer. Upon his arrival in the league he played well as a SLB. But since his move to the middle, the Bengals have built great versatility within the linebacking corps. Jayson DiManche had good edge rushing ability coming out of college and has been training on the outside. Emmanuel Lamur and hybrid linebacker Taylor Mays offer quality coverage ability. Sean Porter was drafted last year for his ability to play all three spots and then there’s Vontaze Burfict. Maualuga’s biggest challenge may be from Vincent Rey. Rey played well in Maualuga’s stead last year. He has been practicing with the first team during OTAs and seems to be on the verge of being a major defensive contributor. Rey has also been one of the special teams’ captains in recent years, but with younger players such as Shawn Williams and DiManche performing extremely well on ST last year, his leadership may not be as essential to the unit in the coming year. This may offer the opportunity for Rey to get away from this responsibility and convince the coaches to move him into a starting role on defense. If Maualuga is supplanted as a starter, then he would struggle to make the roster because of his inexperience playing special teams, a must for reserve linebackers.
Also working against Maualuga is the team’s affinity for the nickel set. Because it requires only two linebackers it makes justifying Maualuga more difficult as he really doesn’t fit in this set. Burfict will always be on the field and the team will want to align him with a linebacker who offers coverage or pass rushing ability. Emmanuel Lamur started in this capacity at the end of his rookie season (even in their playoff game) and was slated to be the team’s starter last year. He has continued playing with the first team this off-season, something Paul Guenther doesn’t see changing. Because Maualuga doesn’t offer coverage or rushing ability he would need to play primarily in the base set, which again the Bengals don’t use primarily. Now considering this formation, it’s no lock that Maualuga holds his spot this with the potential to line up Burfict, Rey, and Lamur. Guenther already stated he doesn’t see Lamur dropping off the first team, so if Rey can set the edge in running situations he may win the spot over Maualuga.
With Rey in mind, the conversation naturally flows towards leadership. Even with Marvin Lewis challenging Maualuga to become a leader in 2012 he’s never really displayed the quality. When considering this and that leadership is a “natural” quality, it’s hard to believe Maualuga can be a true leader. Since this challenge from Lewis, Vontaze Burfict has taken control of this defense and become its heart and soul. Part of the reason for this is his ability to effectively diagnose plays pre-snap. This ability has led him to take over the responsibility of play calling, typically the middle linebacker’s job. Maualuga doesn’t play the majority of snaps any longer and doesn’t call the plays on defense. Looking over the leadership of the Bengals defense, the unit’s leadership comes from Burfict, Peko, Atkins, and Hall all before Maualuga can even be considered. Leadership isn’t really a quality that can be taught and if Maualuga hasn’t displayed it by this point in his career, he won’t.
At this point the team will have to contemplate Maualuga’s contract. If they choose to move on from Maualuga, can they really justify a backup counting nearly $4 million against the cap? Would Maualuga really want this role? It may be better for the team and for Maualuga to part ways at this point and allow him to seek a more substantial role on another team. I wouldn’t expect Maualuga to except a backup role without being able to seek another opportunity first. The Bengals would save just over $2.7 million against the cap while allowing younger players to gain experience on defense in Maualuga’s stead. They would display a commitment to doing what’s best for the team while allowing Maualuga to seek a better opportunity elsewhere, hence doing what’s best for its players.
The Bengals have supported Maualuga unequivocally to date. They resigned him after an underwhelming 2012 knowing Maualuga offers little versatility. They clearly have an emotional investment in Maualuga and want to see him succeed. It’s a commendable quality and, as a fan, increases my faith that the Bengals possess the kind of character I can support. All being said, the team has done right by the six-year veteran and offered him plenty of opportunity. It may be time to allow other talented players to flourish while Maualuga may find increased success in a different system. It just may be time to let him go.