Oh, stop groaning. We're not talking about a 4-5 year deal worth $30 million with a significant chunk guaranteed. In fact, based on rather woeful performances in two years at middle linebacker, we're not seeing a future for Maualuga in Cincinnati for very long -- he entered the prove you believe stage last year and hasn't convinced any critics. According to Pro Football Focus, Maualuga is the worst linebacker entering free agency with a grade of -26.2
More importantly to the point and the staple for reasoning Maualuga's return, Cincinnati has five linebackers entering free agency and there's enough questions raised on each to warrant a little hesitancy. Thomas Howard is recovering from torn ligaments in his knee, Manny Lawson has already been minimized on defense and Dan Skuta has his own liabilities (great special teamer, ordinary backup). None of them are "bad" and Howard, we hope, returns from injury; but injury is a rather significant variable.
Additionally Cincinnati rarely goes into a situation, like the 2013 NFL draft, without a contingency in place for depth on the roster. They won't get the best players, but they'll at least ensure that they'll have a body. It's the Dennis Roland affect (and it's maddening). Unable to get someone better? Then the roster is set. Let's play football! Yet in this regard the Bengals could be willing to keep Maualuga due to unexpected developments trying to acquire a replacement, who could then push Maualuga out during training camp.
But the Bengals could just move Vontaze Burfict over. If they do that, they'll still need to find a replacement and the Bengals tend to stick with players that they know. And Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer knows Maualuga.
"He takes everything very hard, takes everything to heart, and sometimes that holds him back. We were talking about it today. That was two days ago that we played the game. I said, ‘You’ve got to let that go.’ That’s not doing him any good to harbor all those thoughts that he let this guy down or me down or the team down. Because he didn’t."
"He cares about what everyone thinks," Zimmer said. "What the fans or family says. I say, 'don't read that stuff. You don’t need to know what other people think. You need to worry about what Marvin and I think and what the other guys on defense think. It doesn't matter what Joe from Kenwood thinks.'"
Frankly why move Burfict at all, who generated a team-leading 174 tackles during his rookie season. Who cares where he plays, just make sure it's in Cincinnati.
As our own Jason Garrison detailed this week, Maualuga didn't have a particularly memorable outing against the Houston Texans. Maualuga believed before the game that it would dictate his future in Cincinnati. Now he's not sure if one exists.
Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer breaks down Maualuga's somewhat interesting mind set.
At the beginning of Maualuga’s career, he was worried about measuring up to fellow USC teammates Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews. Last year it was about trying to play middle linebacker like Dhani Jones did. This past season it was trying to outperform Vontaze Burfict.
The fact is I’m not even sure if Maualuga knows what his own playing style is because he has spent so much time comparing himself or trying to measure up to others. Whether it is here or with another team, when Maualuga realizes what his best playing style is and when he starts blocking out fans, family and others’ comments and only focuses on teammates and coaches, he might be the player he aspires to be.
The feeling is that if the Bengals can fix the psychological problems holding him back, maybe they can finally get the linebacker they're looking for. It's not like he wasn't producing; Maualuga still generated 152 tackles in 2012. But don't look for a long-term deal. He's back at proving that he belongs.