We spent plenty of time during last year's offseason speculating that the Cincinnati Bengals would ease Rey Maualuga into his more natural position at inside linebacker. It made sense. Why not give Maualuga time as the middle linebacker with Dhani Jones' contract expiring. Except it didn't work out that way. Starting 14 games as the team's strong-side linebacker, Maualuga finished the season with 75 tackles, a sack, two interceptions (which led the front seven) and six quarterback pressures.
Dhani Jones, on the other hand, finished the season as the team's leading tackler in three straight seasons, recording 153 tackles, which is 65 more than the team's second-leader tackler in Keith Rivers. Jones also finished with two sacks, four quarterback pressures and a force fumble and tied for the team lead with four passes defensed. Along with posting 15 tackles against the San Diego Chargers, Jones had at least ten tackles in half of the team's games.
Jones will be a free agent this offseason and one has to wonder if the Bengals will bring him back in 2011.
According to Pro Football Focus, company that analyzes and grades every play for every player, grades Maualuga as the team's best linebacker with a score of 11.6 against the run -- best on the team. Maualuga's coverage rating falls to -2.5. Jones, in comparison, was rated as the team's worst linebacker with a score of -10.8, much of that having to do with his horrible pass coverage rating of -7.2 (you're nodding your head your head, aren't you?). The truth is, Maualuga out-shined Jones in every phase of the game according to PFF's scores while Keith Rivers, who rated as the team's second-best linebacker, was solid -- except for leading the team with most missed tackles (14).
When asked about Maualuga's season, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said:
"He had an OK year. He wasn't fantastic. He'd tell you the same thing," Zimmer said. "He's a football player. He loves to play, he loves to practice. He's a good kid."
However, the problem hasn't been just his talent. It's been the intangibles. According to Geoff Hobson, Bengals linebacker coach Jeff Fitzgerald said that "he's confident that Maualuga and rookie Roddrick Muckelroy can play in the middle, but they wouldn't be able to have the responsibilities that Jones has in the scheme."
Should the Bengals move Maualuga in the middle and Muckelroy at strong-side linebacker? Should the Bengals replace Dhani Jones with Muckelroy at inside linebacker? Or should the Bengals bring Dhani Jones back to ease one of the two linebackers in the middle?