Be Careful What You Wish For

Gregory Shamus

Two years ago, every Bengals fan couldn't wait for Dhani Jones to hit the road so Rey Maualuga could play in the middle.

Rey Maualuga was considered a steal when the Bengals selected him in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. The Bengals needed somebody for the future of the middle linebacker position, where Dhani Jones played, and led the team in tackles, at the time. Jones, struggled in coverage at times and many Bengals fans wanted Maualuga to replace him right away.

Maualuga spent his first two seasons at SAM, though, while the Bengals held on to Jones. He played well as the team's strong-side linebacker. He was taken off the field on obvious passing downs and while he wasn't the best pass rusher, he was solid against the run. He earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in both 2009 and 2010.

Finally, in 2011, the move was made. Jones wasn't re-signed and Maualuga moved to MIKE, which was considered his natural position. Bengals fans rejoiced, but not for long.

With Maualuga's move to middle linebacker came his struggles, especially in pass protections. He became the embodiment of inconsistency and over the next two years, PFF's opinion of the linebacker plummeted. In 2011 he earned his first negative grade and in 2012 he dropped all the way to the very bottom of the 4-3 inside linebackers with a score of -29.7.

A new ray of hope arrived in 2012, though, in the form of Vontaze Burfict, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Arizona State. Burfict, also considered a natural inside linebacker, filled in for Thomas Howard in Week 3 at WILL and started the rest of the season. He led the Bengals in tackles and played well against the run and in coverage. Again fans began to hope the Bengals would move one of their outside linebackers to the middle.

Maualuga was a free agent heading into 2013, but the Bengals decided to re-sign him to a two-year, $6.5 million contract. An average of $3.25 million a year is quite a bit more than what would be payed to a backup and head coach Marvin Lewis has stated that he plans to keep Maualuga at MIKE.

While most fans disagree with this decision, they must remember what happened last time they wanted to move the linebackers around. There are undoubtedly better options for the Bengals middle linebacker than Maualuga, but why move Burfict out of WILL, especially while he's playing well. On top of that, the Bengals have very limited options on who would replace Burfict at WILL.

If the Bengals re-sign Thomas Howard, they would at least have options, but moving Burfict to MIKE still could backfire on the team the way it did in 2011 when Maualuga was moved. Of course, Burfict and Maualuga are two completely different players so there's real no way of knowing whether a move to MIKE would work or not, but, judging by experience, the Bengals could know that moving linebackers around isn't as easy as it sounds.

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