The re-signing of Maualuga was met with much outrage from large portions of the Bengals fan base. It was obvious to anyone watching that Maualuga struggled last year. In fact, according to ProFootballFocus, Maualuga was clearly the Bengals’ worst defender on the season. Now, those ratings must be taken within the context of an actual football game, but they do confirm what most people’s eyes showed them.
Maualuga simply doesn’t fit as a middle linebacker.
The expectation after he was re-signed by the Bengals was that he would change positions or be a backup. Most of Maualuga’s struggles last season came in pass coverage. He is simply too slow and not agile enough to stick with slot receivers or tight ends, a prerequisite of the middle linebacker position in today’s NFL.
Instead of being re-signed to start inside, most expected Mauaulga would be moved over to the strongside linebacker spot that was vacated by Manny Lawson, who signed with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent after starting for the Bengals last season.
Mauaulga had played outside linebacker during the first two seasons of his career when Dhani Jones played inside. His performances there were much more impressive to those paying attention. That is no real surprise because his skill-set is that of a prototypical strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 formation.
Furthermore, Vontaze Burfict showed last season that he is better suited to play the middle linebacker spot in a 4-3 defense. Burfict won a roster spot as an undrafted rookie in training camp last year, before being moved into the starting weak-side linebacker spot for the injured Thomas Howard.
Howard tore his ACL so he was lost for the season, but Burfict impressed in a role that was obviously not his natural fit. He came out of college as a middle linebacker prospect and didn’t flash the athleticism that is expected of most weak-side linebackers at the combine.
Burfict wasn’t exposed as a starting weak-side linebacker, but it is questionable whether he can truly reach his potential at that spot. His natural position appears to be middle linebacker, while Mauaulga’s natural position appears to be strong-side linebacker. It was logical that they would both be expected to move into those positions.
Especially in today’s NFL, you can’t afford to have a heavy unit of linebackers, which is what the Bengals figure to have if they sign or draft a new starting strong-side linebacker. Most defenses are moving towards more nickel personnel as their base packages. That puts a credence on drafting athletic linebackers who are better suited to be weak-side defenders.
The one saving grace for Bengals fans is the possibility that this is a smokescreen. With the draft upcoming, teams are always trying to hide their intentions for one reason or another. This could just be a sleight of hand from the Bengals’ head coach.
It hopefully is, at least.