This is the first in a series of articles looking through each of the position groups with an eye toward free agency. And why not begin with one of the lightning rods for this team?
Rey Maualuga: unrestricted free agent
Often a liability, he should not be the middle backer next year. But I say he will be a Bengal in 2013. [Collective groan.] Face it. Rey will draw zero interest, making him cheap to re-sign. And he has experience in Zimmer’s system. He is a reclamation project at this point. If Zim can tear him down and rebuild him again (by benching him and making him earn his way onto the field again), he just might find a serviceable player hiding in there somewhere once Rey stops trying to not lose his job.
Vontaze Burfict: signed through 2014
The kid was simply brilliant. Moving him to the middle of the defense is inevitable. Marvin showed his GM skills by reaching out to a kid that everyone else had given up on and finding a real gem in the process.
Manny Lawson: unrestricted free agent
He had a decent if unspectacular season. Re-signing him wouldn’t be a bad move, but it feels like settling. How often did you hear his name? For similar money, I’d prefer Brandon Johnson. This position could be a prime target for a high draft pick.
Thomas Howard: unrestricted free agent
I’d like to see the Bengals give him another chance after missing most of last season. Howard and Burfict could be quite a tandem, the core of the best LB corps the team has had in a long time. (If Maualuga returns to the SAM spot, it has to be behind Howard. It could be very good for Rey.)
Dan Skuta: unrestricted free agent
Jack of all trades, master of none. One of those guys is good to have, but Lemur is just as good and cheaper.
Vincent Rey: restricted free agent
The kid has hung on longer than I ever thought he would. Good for him. I see another year on the fringes for him as the Bengals hang on to him for depth.
Emmanuel Lemur: signed through 2014
With a season under his belt, I look for Lemur to take another step forward in 2013 as a primary backup player. He made he most of limited chances, and he deserves to be the pacesetter for the non-starters through the off-season. He has Marvin Lewis’ endorsement so far. I think he will live up to it.
Dontay Moch: signed through 2014
After being sidelined for the past two years with physical issues, this is the last go around for Dontay if he can’t get and stay on the field. It would be a shame to see him end up in the over-stuffed “What Might Have Been” NFL drawer, but his time to avoid that fate is running short.
Only three guys are signed past next month (and you could argue that Moch shouldn’t count since the team was trying to convert him to a defensive end) plus J.K. Schaffer on the practice squad. So some big-impact decisions must be made for this position group. Could this be a spot where the Bengals actually spend money to bring in a free agent?
Free Agent Wish List
I would love, love, love to see the Bengals pursue and sign Dannell Ellerbe. Could you imagine a mid-field of Ellerbe, Burfict and Howard? Sure, someone would have to move to WILL, but it sounds like an enforcer-minded unit that would pound opponents into submission. I love the way Ellerbe pursues the play and has a nose for the ball. With Flacco’s impending contract looking likely to squeeze out guys like Dannell, finding $3-4M/yr to put him is stripes would make a huge statement in my book.
The cash-strapped Raiders are going to have a difficult time re-signing Philip Wheeler. So why not pillage that team a little further? The guy is a tackling machine, logging 78 tackles, 3 sacks and 6 passes defensed. And as an OLB, he should be an easier fit than Ellerbe.
There might not be a lot of sizzle here, but Brandon Johnson was always a solid contributor when he was in Cincinnati. He wasn’t actually a starter in most of that time, but he played almost as much as one. Plus, any day the Bengals can add to their team by taking away from the Steelers, I call that a good day.