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Fulfill His Want To Return: The Bengals Should Re-sign Dhani Jones

I want to be in Cincinnati. They've taken incredible care of me, they've provided me with a tremendous amount of opportunity, and I've only seen growth. So when I think about football, I think about a place where you have growth, opportunity and comradery. For me, Cincinnati has been that place. Now you never know how you're going to fit into someone's equation. So ultimately, it's not up to you. I'll weight the options and see what's appropriate.
- Dhani Jones

As Jason pointed out with a FanShot on Tuesday, Bengals inside linebacker Dhani Jones would love to return to Cincinnati in 2011. Jones' three-year contract that he signed at the end of the 2007 season expired after the merciful end of the team's 2010 campaign.

With the uncertainty of Jones and free agency, it's promoted an eventual plan to move outside linebacker Rey Maualuga inside where he played at the University of Southern Cal. We admit, Maualuga's desire to become a defensive leader, shown through his group workouts and pumping 400 pounds as easily as Marty Brennaman praises the St. Louis Cardinals for their good sportsmanship, has sparked the general interest in us to see what he can do taking over this defense.

In late February, Bengals defensive coordinator called Maualuga "extremely average."

"He sure has to play a hell of a lot better than he did this year because he was extremely average," Zimmer said. "He's undisciplined. Half of our whole defensive team is undisciplined. That's why we give up big plays."

Not exactly what you'd call a ringing endorsement if you want the team's defensive coordinator to give you the roll of defensive quarterback. Maualuga, in a sense, felt the same way and decided it was time to step up.

"It's my time to stand up and prove them wrong," Maualuga said. "Use it as a fuel to gain what I know I can become. I can't be just some random dude walking around the locker room anymore."

We love it. Zimmer challenged Maualuga and the linebacker accepted. In the meantime, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis believes that Maualuga is "mentally ready" to make the transition inside.

We're appreciating Maualuga's attitude, desire to grow and take over the job that Dhani Jones would leave behind. That being said, the Bengals should make Jones' want to return a reality.

No. Don't re-sign Jones to be the team's starting middle linebacker. Leave Maualuga there. If he's the future as the defensive quarterback, he needs to accumulate experience and snaps. But the team could install Jones as an outside linebacker, where he played with the New York Giants (2001-2003) and the Philadelphia Eagles (2004-2006). Or maybe Jones could be more active on special teams or as a utility backup linebacker. I would suggest a coverage linebacker on obvious third down passing situations, but I'm not that crazy. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones was graded as the worst Bengals defensive player in pass coverage in 2010, allowing opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of 95.0 against receivers, tight ends or running backs he covered. Of the 73.8% of the receptions Jones allowed to players he covered that quarterbacks targeted, three went for touchdowns. Though in fairness to Jones, he was graded as average and above average in pass coverage in 2009 and 2008 respectively.

As it stands the Bengals can't stunt the development of younger players, especially heading into a season that's generally going to be considered a rebuilding year with so many new faces on offense and maybe on defense, if free agency snags a safety and the team decides to let Johnathan Joseph leave, forcing Lewis and Zimmer to give Brandon Ghee and Morgan Trent more work at cornerback. For better or worse, we need to see Maualuga in the middle for at least a season, allowing the team to determine if he's the long-term solution at inside linebacker or should remain as the team's strong-side outside linebacker.

But that doesn't mean you can't have a guy like Jones backing up Maualuga on the inside and taking snaps as an outside linebacker. In fact, you have to find a way to get him on the field, provided it doesn't hurt the younger players' progress. You don't just leave a guy that Mike Zimmer considers a coach on the field, or a guy that pumped out 465 tackles in the past three seasons, on the bench. And you don't let him leave for free agency.