Rey Maualuga could be the most important player on the Cincinnati Bengals defense in 2011. If the Bengals decide not to re-sign Dhani Jones, who has led the team in tackles for the past two season, Maualuga will make the move from outside linebacker, where he's started since his rookie year in 2009, to middle linebacker, where he played throughout his college career.
If that happens, Maualuga will not only be expected to play middle linebacker but he'll be expected to fill Jones' shoes as a defensive leader and as the voice of his defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, on the field.
That's a role that he's excited about filling once the season begins.
"Last year I was just a person that was following the crowd, just listening," Maualuga said. "Now I feel my presence and the way to speak to the guys will help one of two people. I'm just trying to be that leader and no matter how it works out, when the season starts I'm trying to be that captain. That's my goal.
"When it's third-and-short, I want everybody to look in my eyes and feel confidence knowing I can call a play, line everybody up and make that play."
Zimmer has said that Jones was an extension of himself out on the field. Maualuga will have some big shoes to fill. Not only will he need to step up his game in the position that feels more natural for him, but he'll need to get back to being in charge of a defense like he was when he played middle linebacker at USC.
Under Zimmer, the Bengals have never fallen from the top half of NFL defenses. They were at their worst in 2010 when they finished with a No. 15 ranking at the end of the regular season. They were at their best the year before, when they finished fourth after the regular season and went to the playoffs.
Maualuga has always been the future of the middle linebacker position. With all the young talent at key positions on offense, like Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, and the possibility that veteran running back Cedric Benson may not return to the Bengals, the defense will have to be as good as possible in order to have any semblance of a successful season. If the Bengals don't re-sign Jones and Maualuga does move to the middle, the overall success of the 2011 Bengals could lie in his hands.