POSITION(3): Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict, Bruce Taylor
Bruce Taylor (rookie UDFA Virginia Tech)
Dan Skuta (San Francisco 49ers)
This is the first preview battle that I have done where I'm more upset with the outcome. Rey Maualuga, who was rated by Pro Football Focus as the league's worst inside linebacker in 2012, was re-signed during the offseason and appears to be penciled in as the team's starter. With his inability to cover running backs and tight ends and his inconsistency as a run stopper, inside linebacker should be considered a weakness.
When Rey was the SAM during his first two seasons ('09 and '10), his production appeared greater than what we've seen at MIKE. The signing of a $6.5 million dollar contract over two years at least buys Maualuga one more season in the middle. Additionally, the signing of James Harrison and emergence of Vontaze Burfict means that the Bengals are now set at SAM and WILL.
Rey Maualuga is a fifth-year linebacker with 61 career starts (postseason included) after being selected in the second-round of the 2009 NFL draft. He ranked second on the team in tackles (152) last season and led the front seven in passes defensed (5). Maualuga has 428 tackles in the last four regular seasons, most on the Bengals in that span. He also led the team with 15 tackles in last season's Wild Card playoff game at Houston.
Vontaze Burfict was one of the biggest question marks in the 2012 NFL Draft. The former Arizona State linebacker was a first-round talent, but a poor showing at the combine, on-field volatility (led the nation in personal fouls), and what was perceived as a bad attitude, left him undrafted. In less than a year, Burfict started the majority of the team's games at WILL and led the team in tackles with 174 tackles (according to the team's official site).
Bruce Taylor is rumored to be working at both inside and outside linebacker positions. As an undrafted free agent, the road is long for him to have a chance to unseat Rey. However, with multiple undrafted linebackers on the roster (James Harrison, Vontaze Burfict, Vincent Rey, and Emmanuel Lamur) you never know what could happen. Click here for more info on Taylor from the SBN Virginia Tech site.
The thing about Burfict and Maualuga is that they both have experience starting at two positions. Maualuga has experience starting at strong-side and middle linebacker, whereas Burfict's claim in at weakside and inside. However, with the signing of Harrison, it is doubtful the Bengals are going to move him from the SAM position. This means we probably see a roster of Burfict playing the WILL, Maualuga at MIKE and Harrison at SAM (with some rotation of course).
We all need to hope that we see marked improvement from the middle linebacker position and that burden will fall on Maualuga. Will he crumble from the poor play of the past or finally turn into the force we've expected since his rookie season?