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Rey Maualuga’s release signals culture change in Cincinnati

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The Bengals don’t traditionally part ways with starters unless their contract is up, so Maualuga’s release is interesting, to say the least.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years, the Bengals have preferred to focus on retaining and improving their own players, as opposed to focusing on moving on from key players who aren’t pulling their weight. Typically, when starters are slowing the team down, the Bengals continue to store them on the roster until their contract runs out and they can re-evaluate their options.

That’s why it was surprising when the Bengals released veteran middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has been a consistent member of the Bengals’ defense since 2009. The signing of Kevin Minter signaled Maualuga’s likely departure, but still, considering the Bengals’ often over-the-top loyalty, cutting the veteran still wasn’t a sure move for Cincinnati.

The Bengals liked having Maualuga around for many reasons. Primarily, the fact that he rarely missed games (never missed more than four games in any season) helped improve his stock with the team. Throughout his eight year career with the Bengals, he only missed a total of 14 games.

However, Maualuga’s production simply has not been worth the playing time he has received over the years. For example, he has only recorded four total sacks in his entire career, and hasn’t recorded a single one since 2013. His 353 tackles and seven interceptions are impressive numbers for an middle linebacker of his age, but he has only deflected 23 passes in his career and forced six fumbles (recovering three). There were certain areas in which Maualuga had a tendency to excel from time to time, but overall his production wasn’t worth the time and money the Bengals were investing in him.

Based on those numbers, Maualuga’s release certainly seemed warranted. But, traditionally, the numbers you would expect the Bengals to be more worried about have to do with his contract. Maualuga still had a year remaining on his contract, signed before the 2015 season, but the $4.5 million he was guaranteed had already been paid. Therefore, the Bengals saved $3.6 million in cap space by making the move. New middle linebacker Kevin Minter is only being paid $650,000 more than Maualuga would have made in 2017. So, in the long run, the Bengals upgraded both youth and talent at the position.

After Minter’s signed with the Bengals, it seemed like only a matter of time before the Bengals moved on from Maualuga. In fact, assuming Minter does take control of the starting middle linebacker role as expected, Maualuga would have had to embrace a reduced role as a backup to continue being useful to the team. Scheduled to make $3.6 million in 2017, he would have been making more money than even Vincent Rey as a backup, but likely with much less production. In 2016, Maualuga payed just 29.9 percent of defensive snaps and after Week 8, his snap count reduced considerably. His 31 snaps in Week 15 were a high during the second half of the season, and there was even a game (Week 11) in which he was a healthy scratch. In five of the last six games, he played 20 snaps or less. Maualuga was actually graded as Pro Football Focus' third worst (grade-eligible) linebacker in the league in 2016.

Considering that the Bengals have pulled two very non-Bengals moves by signing a young free agent and cutting a long-time veteran, could there be a culture shift going on in Cincinnati?

Hopefully, that means the Bengals are finally focused on improving and taking advantage of a roster that has the potential to win a championship in the near future. The only longer tenured head coach in the NFL than Marvin Lewis is Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who regularly parts ways with established veterans in favor of improving production from a specific position. Another big difference between the two? Belichick has won five Super Bowls with the Patriots, while Lewis has still yet to even win a playoff game with the Bengals.

In essence, that is the kind of culture change the Bengals need to foster, if they want to truly be a competitive team in the coming years. 2016 was a down year because the team was rebuilding after suffering so many key losses in the offseason, so a culture change to complement the roster change comes at the perfect time. The Bengals might not be on the verge of winning a Super Bowl next season, but the team can certainly be on its way to winning one in a few years if the club can continue to highlight and address major problems with the roster, then take the necessary steps to correct them.

What do you think the release of Maualuga means for the Bengals?