None of the three moves the Cincinnati Bengals made over the weekend – waiving linebacker Rey Maualuga and re-signing defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry and special teams stalwart Cedric Peerman – were unexpected.
But releasing Maualuga with one year remaining on the three-year, $15 million contract he signed in 2015, did run counter to the way the Bengals have honored contracts in the past, even when there has been an obvious decline in the player’s production.
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The most recent example of that was paying cornerback Leon Hall $7.7 million in 2015 for the final season of a four-year extension, even though he had clearly lost a step following his second Achilles surgery and the team had three other first-round corners on the roster.
But the issue with Maualuga was two-fold. Not only is age catching up with him, the game is running away from him. Or, more specifically, away from players of his ilk. The bigger, thumping run stoppers are a disappearing breed in the NFL, the defensive version of the fullback.
“He realize the way the league is now,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said at the NFL Combine earlier this month. “I tell Rey 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.”
With the nickel defense (five defensive backs, two linebackers) essentially becoming the base defense for the Bengals and many NFL team, Maualuga started just six games last year and played on 30 percent of the defensive snaps.
The writing was on the way for the 30-year-old Maualuga, who played all eight of his seasons in Cincinnati after the team selected him in the second round of the 2009 draft, even before the Bengals signed 26-year-old linebacker Kevin Minter on March 20.
“Rey has been a tough and productive player for us, and a fine teammate, and this is a difficult decision,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said after the team released Maualuga on Saturday.
“It’s one of several we have made to transition to a younger group at linebacker as we continue to shape our 2017 roster,” Lewis added. “We wish Rey and his family the very best.”
Maualuga appeared in 114 games with 104 starts while leading the Bengals to the playoffs in six of his eight seasons.
He took to Twitter on Sunday to thank the fans.
Peerman and Gilberry are what Lewis likes to call “nuts and bolts guys,” and both players’ worth was evident last in transactions the Bengals made in 2016.
Peerman broke his forearm in the preseason and was one of two candidates to return from Injured Reserve, along with cornerback William Jackson.
That the Bengals elected to bring back Peerman instead of their first-round pick spoke volumes about his worth on special teams, with was recognized league-wide when he was selected to the Pro Bowl following the 2015 season.
While running back Giovani Bernard’s ACL injury made the decision to bring back Peerman instead of Jackson a lock, Peerman’s value on special teams cannot be overstated.
“It’s big for us to get Cedric back,” special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. “He’s demonstrated over time what an effective player he is. He’s a leader of our unit, a core part of what we do.”
Gilberry is coming up on the one-year anniversary of his decision to leave the Bengals and sign a free-agent deal with the Detroit Lions. But he played just four games in Detroit before being placed on Injured Reserve with an abdomen injury and was released a week later on Oct. 11.
The Bengals signed Gilberry on Nov. 7, and he played in five of the final six games, logging 2.5 sacks with 10 tackles.
While the Bengals have yet to make the move official, bringing back Gilberry for another year gives the Bengals some added depth and versatility on the defensive line. Gilberry can play tackle or end, and he is at his best when he’s playing limited snaps, bringing a burst of energy and emotion to the rotation on the defensive line.
Re-signing Gilberry leaves Chykie Brown as the team’s only unrestricted free agent on the open market.
The Bengals lost tackle Andrew Whitworth (Los Angeles Rams), guard Kevin Zeitler (Cleveland), running back Rex Burkhead (New England), defensive tackle Domata Peko (Denver), linebacker Karlos Dansby (Arizona) and defensive end Margus Hunt (Indianapolis), while the re-signed cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, wide receiver Brandon LaFell, tackle Eric Winston, kicker Randy Bullock and offensive lineman T.J. Johnson in addition to Gilberry and Peerman.
The team also signed tackle Andre Smith, their 2009 first-round pick who played in Minnesota last year, and added former Carolina cornerback Bene Benwikere in February before free agency began.