It may be a new year, but the annual Rey Maualuga quandary is as strong as it’s ever been.
Ever since the Bengals spent a second-round pick on the USC linebacker in 2009, Maualuga has consistently been one of, if not the team’s most enigmatic player. He got off to a promising start in his career, working a SAM backer next to Dhani Jones in the middle.
Once Jones was let go in 2011, Maualuga became the team’s starting middle linebacker, a role he’s held ever since, through good times and bad. Many of the past six years have seen Maualuga rank among the NFL’s worst middle linebackers.
However, Maualuga only got around 20 snaps per game this past season, including just eight in Week 1. He finished the season with just 27 tackles in 14 games, by far the fewest he’s had in a single season to this point in his eight-year career. He did so while getting playing time more in line with a backup than that of a starter, which wouldn’t be that big of a deal with most players.
But it’s a big story with Maualuga based on the contract he has. The Bengals will have ended up paying him around $4 million in 2016 to play less than 30 percent of the defensive snaps, followed by a $3.7 million cap hit in 2017, the final year of his deal.
But that 2017 year has no dead cap, meaning the Bengals save all of that cap if Maualuga is cut this offseason. Even with the expanding cap, paying someone almost $4 million to play in less than half the snaps is bad business.
Part of why Maualuga played so little was the Bengals ended up liking Karlos Dansby more, and he got snaps at both the outside and inside spots. It says something when an outside guy can come in and take your job, and that’s basically what Dansby did this past season.
It doesn’t help that Maualuga, who is now 30, reported to last year’s offseason workouts while being “grossly overweight”, and then experienced a hamstring injury that caused him to miss most of training camp.
And in terms of on-field play, 2016 was no different for Maualuga, who finished 85th among 87 eligible players in Pro Football Focus’ ranking of all linebackers. When PFF made their old grading system more public, Maualuga usually finished among the NFL leaders in missed tackles. If there’s anything he’s done consistently in Cincinnati, it’s play poorly.
He offers nothing as a pass-rusher (4 career sacks), is a major liability in pass coverage, and he whiffs on far too many tackles. That’s why we saw guys like rookie Nick Vigil take a lot of his snaps last season, and Vigil looks like the future at this position unless the Bengals draft another linebacker.
Regardless of what the Bengals do in the draft, Maualuga cannot be brought back at the same cap number he’s making. It simply sets a bad precedent to have bad players not playing much and still getting paid like quality starters.
If the Bengals choose to do so again, we can probably expect similar results next season. Bringing him back on a restructured deal seems doable, but with so many other young linebackers on the roster, do you really want to end up cutting one of them to keep Maualuga, especially if more linebackers are drafted this year?
It’s time for a fresh start for both parties. It’s possible the Bengals are trying to see if any team is willing to trade for Maualuga before the team cuts him, which seems to be inevitable, but I wouldn’t put it past this franchise to keep him for one more season. They simply value familiarity and continuity as much as any NFL franchise, even if it’s bad players they consistently keep.