The Steelers were not the only team in the division recently to part with a longtime fixture of their defense at the linebacker position, as the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday announced the release of eight-year veteran middle linebacker Rey Mauluga. While the move might sound pretty impactful on a name standpoint, however, the reality is that this isn’t an overly significant move for the Bengals’ defense.
The truth of the matter is that the Bengals had been phasing out the big run-stuffing linebacker for a couple of years now. He played not much more than half of the team’s snaps in 2015, and was closer to a around a third of snaps. While injuries were involved, there were only four games in which he played half of the team’s snaps.
Mauluga was losing out to playing time for even Karlos Dansby, whom the Bengals have also parted with as they look to get younger. The reality is that this is a one-for-one swap for the recently-signed Kevin Minter, who is much closer to what today’s era of the middle linebacker needs to look like as they increasingly draw coverage responsibilities.
The numbers don’t necessarily show it, but Minter brings more to the table in coverage than the 260-pound Mauluga, who recorded seven interceptions in his eight-year career as a starter, with 21 pass deflections. Minter’s role in that regard is really just beginning, though he has yet to record his first interception.
“He realizes the way the league is now”, said his former defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, at the Combine. “I tell Rey a lot he’s synonymous with the fullback. The run-stopping linebacker is the fullback, as soon as you see the fullback run on the field you can run on, too. But that doesn’t happen very often”.
It is important to note that the way that Mauluga’s most recent contract, which was a three-year deal in 2015, results in no dead money for the Bengals for his release, so getting his contract off the books nearly offsets the value of Minter’s contract in the swap, only Minter will see much more playing time.
Vontaze Burfict will obviously be one of the Bengals’ other starters, though it’s not immediately clear who might be the third starter alongside Minter. Second-year former third-round pick Nick Vigil could be one such option, but the Bengals are not opposed to drafting one high again.
Mauluga meant a lot to the defense in an era in which they finally looked to be annually competitive, but this is ultimately a business and it was time for the Bengals to move on for a more suitable and cost-effective option, as a run-stopping middle linebacker in his 30s offers only diminishing returns.
The former second-round draft pick recorded nearly 600 tackles in eight years with four sacks, seven interceptions, and six forced fumbles. It’s not clear what sort of market value he is going to find, but he will no doubt struggle to find a starting role.