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Bengals Have Tough Decision To Make At Middle Linebacker After The 2012 Season

Rey Maualuga has turned it on as of late and has had a breakout year, however, his contract is up after the 2012 season and young Vontaze Burfict looks just as impressive.

Matt Sullivan

The Bengals are focussing on getting into the playoffs right now, but in the offseason there are several things they'll need to address. First of all, they need to start contract extension talks with players like Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson, both of whom have earned a larger paycheck. They'll also need to re-sign right tackle Andre Smith, if they plan to do so, and go through the rest of their would-be free agents.

One of those free agents may keep them up at night: middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Maualuga, selected in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, has been a starter since day one. For the first two years of his career in Cincinnati, he started at SAM on the outside of then MIKE Dhani Jones. Once the Bengals decided to move on from Jones, they moved Maualuga to MIKE in 2011 and signed Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson to play SAM and WILL.

In his first year at MIKE, Maualuga racked up 88 tackles, one fumble recovery and one interception in 13 games. He was third on the team in tackles behind Howard and Reggie Nelson. Heading into the 2012 season, the linebackers on the roster were going to be the same, but after the Bengals added Vontaze Burfict as an undrafted free agent, there was a slight twist.

Burfict, who proved he was worthy of a spot on the 53-man roster, was a special teams player until Howard was injured early in the season. When that happened, Burfict stepped up and was named the starter at WILL. He has been incredibly impressive ever since.

While Maualuga struggled early in the season, he shed some weight and has been very impressive. He has already racked up 135 tackles, which is a personal record and is second on the team. He has been named defensive captain by head coach Marvin Lewis, and has helped mold the Bengals defense into the No. 6 ranked unit in the league. If you compare the way he played early in the season, you wouldn't think it was the same player based on his play as of late.

He is also set to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2012 season. The Bengals front office will need to make a fairly tough decision. Do they stick with their defensive captain and write him a fairly sizable check to stay in Cincinnati, or do they allow Maualuga to leave and hand the SAM job over the Burfict, who in just 14 games has racked up 139 tackles, which leads the team.

Of course, both Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard are set to be free agents in 2013 as well, so the team could always keep both Maualuga and Burfict. In fact, the only linebackers who are signed beyond the 2012 season are Burfict and Donte Moch.

So, Bengals fans, what would you like to see happen? With extensions coming to Atkins and Johnson and with future extensions coming to A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, can the Bengals afford to re-sign Maualuga, Lawson and Thomas? Could they save some money to use elsewhere if they focus on re-signing linebackers to play on either side of Burfict if they move him to SAM and let Maualuga go? There is also the possibility of drafting a new linebacker.

What do you think the Bengals will do?