Nov 30, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (58) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 14-13. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
This offseason, the Cincinnati Bengals decided to once again extend their relationship with linebacker Rey Maualuga. They signed the seven-year veteran to a three-year, $15 million deal. As one of the more polarizing players on the team, fans generally have a mixed reaction to any move involving Maualuga. But regardless of how one feels, Maualuga will remain in stripes for the foreseeable future. In 2015, keeping him in stripes means using $7.1375 million against the cap to do so. Can Rey Maualuga justify such a large cap hit in the coming season?
The short answer is maybe, but it largely lies outside of his control.
Rey Maualuga was re-signed for several reasons according to the team. Marvin Lewis best sums it up with this statement following Maualuga’s retention:
"“Rey is a physical force on the field and a great teammate in our locker room. He’s a hard-working, dedicated player who continues to get better. As we have put together playoff teams the last four years, we’ve said more than once that a huge key is keeping productive players who know our system, and this is another big step in that plan.”"
Lewis is correct when he says Maualuga is a physical force, though it should come with the caveat, when on the field.
The fact is Rey Maualuga isn’t on the field all that much. According to Football Outsiders, the veteran linebacker was only on the field for 443 snaps last season. This equates to 39.4% of the Bengals’ defensive snaps. And this number happened in a year when Vontaze Burfict basically missed the entire season.
Rey Maualuga’s skill set is largely best employed against the run. He is this “physical force” when playing downhill and taking on blockers at the line of scrimmage. He’s highly effective in this part of the game. And given the AFC North’s increasing effectiveness of its running games, Maualuga does have a significant purpose.
But Maualuga simply can’t be trusted when teams throw the ball and the fact is both the Steelers and Ravens do well when doing so. The Steelers finished with the second best passing offense in 2014, and the matchup becomes even more difficult for Maualuga considering how effective Le’Veon Bell is in the passing game. Meanwhile the Ravens finished 13th, and this effectiveness may only grow in 2015 as the team will likely invest in receiving weapons during the upcoming draft.
Maualuga has also had some difficulty with injuries in the past couple of seasons. He’s missed a total of seven games the past two seasons, which equates to over 20% of the team’s games. Part of the reason Maualuga was re-signed was to provide insurance for Vontaze Burfict’s leadership as his status coming in 2015 is still undetermined. Having a player who, according to Lewis, “knows the system” is key in this way, but again, only if he is on the field.
The fact is Rey Maualuga could be on the field even less in 2014 than he was in the past. First, what if Vontaze Burfict is ready by the time the season rolls around? The Bengals typically employ the nickel set and it’s likely that Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur are the two linebackers in such a set.
When in the base set, what about Vincent Rey. He’s been hugely productive over the past couple of seasons and finished last season with 121 combined tackles. Can the Bengals really justify keeping him off the field?
The team also signed A.J. Hawk this season. Although his productivity waned last season, the fact is he still has plenty of football left in him. He may even be a better leader than Maualuga despite his lack of time within Cincinnati’s system.
All this and we haven’t even touched on the young players who are itching for an opportunity. Marquis Flowers and Jayson DiManche have done all they can to justify their place based on their special teams performances. And what if the team finds a linebacker in the draft to good to pass up? How do all these players affect Maualuga?
The Bengals can choose to employ Rey Maualuga simply based on their financial commitment to him. The fact is Maualuga is a great player against the run and makes the team better in this way. But it is also equally fair to assume that if the team were to draft a linebacker this year, they could find a player similarly effective against the run while also being a more diverse player, i.e. TCU’s Paul Dawson.
Rey Maualuga has been a solid piece for the Bengals both on the off the field. But when it comes to justifying such a large cap hit, it’s hard to envision a situation where he gets on the field more than 39.4% of the time and justifies the league’s 15th largest cap hit amongst NFL linebackers.