One sign of a dangerous team that is capable of making some noise is having players on the roster who are hungry and/or have something to prove. The 2012 Bengals roster is chock full of such players. Earlier this week, our own Josh Kirkendall wrote how safety Reggie Nelson was one of those players.
Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is another in a line of Bengals players needing to prove something to both the organization and the fans. What's more, what he needs to prove revolves around reliability on and off of the football field. This season is huge for the direction that his NFL career will head in. In my breakdown and ranking of Maualuga being one of the top-20 Bengals players of 2012, I briefly spoke on that subject. But, I wanted to dive into it a bit more.
For personal reasons, Maualuga should have a vested interest in having a good 2012 campaign. He, among other Bengals players, is in a contract year and needs to prove to the club that he's their guy for the next handful of years. Head coach Marvin Lewis has been on a search to find his next Ray Lewis and up until Maualuga took over the middle linebacker spot in 2011, he has found nothing but failures and band-aids at the position. Since 2003, when Takeo Spikes left Cincinnati, the team has employed Kevin Hardy, Landon Johnson, Odell Thurman, Caleb Miller, Ahmad Brooks, Lemar Marshall, Anthony Schlegel, and Dhani Jones. For those keeping count, that's eight starters in the previous eight years to when Maualuga took over.
Let that sink in for a second. Aside from the fan favorite Jones, not one of those players played the position for more than a year. Maualuga is going into his second year as the starter at the position and though he has come under some criticism for missed tackles and feast or famine performances, the fact of the matter is that he anchored a top-ten defense last season. So, if Maualuga shows that he can be the middle linebacker of the future for the club, he'll be in line for a contract extension with other Bengals like Jermaine Gresham, Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, and others.
I hate to have to mention this, but Maualuga will need to prove that he's reliable off of the field. Though he hasn't been suspended yet from his latest incident, there's a troubling history brewing. What's to happen if the Bengals give Maualuga a new contract with a lot of big money thrown his way? Will he get into even more trouble with new money? We certainly hope not and we would like to think that he has learned from his past incidents and fatherhood has changed him. Regardless, he will need to prove this reliability and that doesn't happen overnight.
Usually, a player's second year is a big indicator as to future success. With quarterbacks, their sophomore year marks a huge step in their NFL careers. The same could be said about Maualuga's situation in his NFL career. Though he's not in his second year in the NFL, he is in the second year in his middle linebacker position. Maualuga himself claimed that he played a bit tentative last season and thought about things too much. Getting over this "wrong type of football", as he puts it, will be critical to his growth in his second year at the position. Seeing as how he played the middle throughout college at USC, one should expect Rey to blossom in 2012.
To that point, if Maualuga wants to improve next year, he'll have to play with the Tasmanian Devil-type of spirit he had while sporting the Cardinal and Gold. Because he was flanked by other good linebackers in Keith Rivers, Clay Matthews and Kaluka Maiava, Maualuga was given free reign and ran around making a number of plays. He's going to be surrounded by solid linebackers in Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson and Roddrick Muckelroy. Being surrounded by disciplined players could allow Maualuga to run free and not think too much. The Bengals coaches have tried to reign him in a bit from freelancing too much, but in all honesty, they may want to re-think that approach.
Maualuga will also need to prove that he can be a three-down linebacker. In his time in Cincinnati, he's been taken off of the field frequently on passing downs. That's not something that you like to see from someone who is supposed to be the linchpin of your defensive unit. Last year, we saw Maualuga taken off of the field with Howard taking over his spot in coverage. This aspect of Rey's game will have to improve if the team is to be convinced that he's deserving of a new contract.
Most of all, Maualuga will need to prove to everybody that he can stay healthy through a full season. He missed three games last year because of a severely sprained ankle, and he admitted that he wasn't the same guy the rest of the year. He also suffered an injury late in his rookie season of 2009 which took him out of the Wild Card game against the Jets. The 2012 season isn't off to a good start on this front either, as he suffered a minor ankle injury during a charity softball game. Not only will Maualuga need to play effective football in 2012, but he'll have to do it for 16 games and hopefully more.
The spotlight will be shining bright on Maualuga and his performance this season and it will be interesting to see if he will rise to the challenge ahead of him or if he will wilt under the pressure.