Bengals, Maualuga secure with one another
CINCINNATI — It’s hard to disappoint a daughter. That’s part of the reason it didn’t take much haggling for the Bengals to convince Rey Maualuga that the team and the 28-year-old linebacker should continue their relationship.
Maualuga signed a new three-year deal on Thursday and avoided becoming an unrestricted free agent next Tuesday. Albert Breer of the NFL Network has reported that the deal is worth $15 million and includes $4.5 million in guarantees. It’s a bump in pay for Maualuga, who has played his first six NFL seasons in Cincinnati after the Bengals selected him in the second round of the 2009 draft. It’s also a little bit of security in a business that is anything but secure.
Security means something to Maualuga. He has had his ups and downs both on and off the field but this is the second time in three years the front office has sent him a clear message that they want him playing for them. Two years ago he tested the waters of free agency but decided to re-sign with the Bengals. This time he knew what he wanted, and why.
"I want to thank my daughter (Avayah) for making this decision that much easier for me to make," said Maualuga as he met with media in the Bengals locker room at Paul Brown Stadium. "She’s only three, I figured "Hey, daddy is coming back to Cincinnati." She just smiled and gave me a hug. I don’t know if she knew what was going on but it felt great, awesome to know that I’m loved, by one person."
The Bengals have shown Maualuga some love as well. For that reason, Maualuga is appreciative.
"I feel wanted. I’ve done so much — not as much as people would probably have wanted — but I think the best in me is yet to come," said Maualuga. "I know for sure the best in me is yet to come. I’m only going to get better. I’m thankful these guys know that and see that in me. The only way I can repay them is when the season starts. Only time will tell how I will progress but I know for sure the best in me is yet to come and they will see that."
There was plenty of hype surrounding Maualuga coming out of college at USC. He was the third USC linebacker to be chosen in the first 38 picks of the draft, following Brian Cushing to the Houston at No. 15 and Clay Matthews to Green Bay at No. 26 in the first round. Maualuga had been more celebrated than Cushing and Matthews in college — he was a freshman All-American and won the 2008 Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player — but they were selected ahead of him.
The Bengals and then-defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer were thrilled when Maualuga was available in the second round. He started right away and helped the Bengals win the AFC North title by finishing fifth on the team in tackles out of the SAM position before suffering a fractured ankle in Week 16 and had to miss the season finale and playoffs.
Maualuga was surrounded by the comparisons to Cushing and Matthews throughout his first four seasons with the Bengals. He was always among the team’s top tacklers, and his totals increased after moving from the outside to middle linebacker in 2011, but he was never viewed as the disruptive force his two college teammates were.
He was also arrested twice in those first four years. He was arrested on a DUI charge in 2010 in Covington, Ky., and two years later was charged with misdemeanor assault for an incident at a bar in downtown Cincinnati. Maualuga pleaded guilty and received a suspended sentence in the DUI case. The misdemeanor assault charge was dropped after private mediation resolved the matter.
There was some doubt as to whether the Bengals would re-sign Maualuga after his original four-year contract ended but he had two important people in his corner: Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis. When Maualuga was brought back in 2013, he was asked to handle a lesser role in terms of the number of plays he was going to be involved in. Zimmer and Lewis wanted to play to his strength, his ability to stop the run. Maualuga plays mainly in the base 4-3 scheme. He’s off the field most times in nickel packages when opponents utilize three-, four- or five-wide receiver sets.
"Rey is a physical force on the field and a great teammate in our locker room," said Lewis on Thursday when the signing was announced. "He’s a hard-working, dedicated player who continues to get better. As we have put together playoff teams the last four years, we’ve said more than once that a huge key is keeping productive players who know our system, and this is another big step in that plan."
Maualuga has been the target of a segment of fans who don’t share the coaching staff’s enthusiasm for his play. He proved his worth last season when he missed four games with a hamstring injury. He returned to play in Week 11 against New Orleans and put the finishing touches on a goal line stand in the second quarter of an eventual 27-10 win with a tackle for loss on fourth down on a swing pass to Saints’ fullback Eric Long.
The Bengals rush defense fell to No. 31 in the NFL in Maualuga’s absence. They allowed an average of just 82 yards on the ground in the final seven games after Maualuga returned.
"I just hope that I won some of them back," said Maualuga. "At the same time there is always going to be people that doubt. I have said it many times, if you can come here and take my job, please do. If you can’t, be quiet. Stand behind your computer, stand behind your phone and say whatever you want to say because I am not going anywhere."
Not as long as the Bengals want him around. He is the oldest member of the linebacker group. It’s a room that underwent a trying season in 2014 with multiple injuries. Seven different players made starts at linebacker and three players ended the season on injured reserve. Vontaze Burfict, who defensive coordinator Paul Guenther considers his defensive quarterback, played in just five games because of various head, neck and knee injuries.
Emmanuel Lamur was in his first season as a starter. Vinny Rey played the most snaps of his career as he filled in for both Maualuga and Burfict at different points in the season.
Maualuga knows his status within the linebacker room, although he cringed at the idea of being the senior citizen of the position group. It wasn’t that long ago where he was the one looking for guidance. Now he’s the one giving it. He’s got security knowing how the coaches and front office feel about his work.
"These guys had enough faith in me from Day One," said Maualuga. "They took their chances knowing I’ve done wrong at times here in the city and they still took that chance that they want to sign me back. Like I said, I’m just grateful and happy. I told them I promise them that I won’t let them down."