Updated: 5:50 p.m.
PHOENIX, Ariz. — The Bengals added some tread to their youthful linebacking corps Monday when they announced the re-signing of Rey Maualuga and made him the club's most seasoned player at the position.
Maualuga made only one visit during free agency, but talking to him Monday on a conference call it sounded like his heart wasn't in the trip to Arizona.
"It was totally something I've always wanted. I've always wanted to come back. It just feels right," Maualuga said. "The biggest thing is coming back to Cincinnati. Everyone is remembered by their last game and I felt like I want to come back and re-identify myself and make me better."
Maualuga reportedly signed for two years and about $6.5 million, raising the Bengals salary cap hit since March 1 to an estimated $30 million and leaving about $10 million more.
"With the group of guys that we’ve got we’ve got something good going and people always say ‘Why break it up?’ " Maualuga said. "Hopefully with the couple of guys coming back it’ll mean more guys signing and coming back and we can get to the playoffs and win in the first round, win the second and third and eventually make it to the Super Bowl. I’m very excited. I think everyone is excited as well coming back knowing that we’ve got a big run at it and we’ve just got to keep working hard from here on out."
After starting 29 games the last two seasons at middle linebacker, Maualuga may be headed back to SAM backer at the spot he played his first two seasons when he started 30 games.
The 6-2, 250-pound Maualuga's downhill strength against the run would be a boon at the SAM spot. The coaches, led by linebackers coach Paul Guenther, haven't tipped their hands on what the lineup is going to be but they have wanted Maualuga to return. In fact, Maualuga said the coaches told him things could stay the same with him in the middle at Mike Backer and Burfict at WILL.
"They both feel comfortable. I would prefer to play MIKE. It just felt right and I think I know the defense in and out," Maualuga said. "Wherever I can play best to help the team. That's definitely what I want to do. If it's SAM, I wouldn't mind playing SAM. If it's Mike, then I'll be the best Mike linebacker I can be."
Maualuga, a second-round pick out of USC in 2009, is talking about cleaning up what he calls "unfinished business" after a season he has taken withering criticism from fans for his pass coverage and missed tackles, and a last-in-the league ranking among NFL inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus.
"Rey is a big, physical guy who plays with a lot of passion and energy," Guenther said. "He knows the defense and he can play a couple of different spots and that's going to give us some flexibility as well as some experience in our room."
But Maualuga knows his biggest supporters are his coaches—head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordnator Mike Zimmer—as well as Bengals president Mike Brown.
"The relationship that I’ve got with these guys, the coaches, is mind-boggling," Maualuga said. "It’s crazy. I’m talking to these guys after the season, making sure that I’m all right, keeping my head up, enjoying the process but at the same time knowing that they wanted me back and that I can only get better if I stayed in Cincinnati. It means a lot that they think of me that way and I’m just going to give it everything I’ve got for these guys.
"I doubt if Coach Zimmer or Marvin didn’t want me back that they would have asked me to come back. So I’m just happy for the opportunity and grateful I’m employed and come back and try to win as many games as I can for Cincinnati.
"I talked to (Zimmer) earlier about coming back and how he felt and he’s just as excited as I am to come back and knowing that if I had left, the guys would miss me. Just knowing I have the support and that he’s in my corner means everything."
Maualuga hasn't narrowed down what he needs to improve.
"Everything. I think it can only get better," he said. "My pass coverage. My tackling. Making sure I get to the ball carrier and get him down. I think every aspect of my game has to get better. I’m just going to be going for it and going at it and hopefully the coach, Paul Guenther, can make me into the linebacker that I know I can become."
Maualuga is taking the next step by enrolling with MMA fight guru Jay Glazier in grueling double sessions that began at the Athletic Gaines facility in Los Angeles. Maualuga works with Glazier in the cage from 9-10:15 a.m., takes a break with a massage, and then does his field work, running and lifting from 10:30-11:30.
"As far as my hand movements, making sure you’re quick with your hands and getting off blocks and things like that," Maualuga said. "My stamina, making sure I can play all four quarters. Things of that nature. I’m making sure that I’m well conditioned in the fourth quarter when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of the game that I can be in there well energized at the end of the game. He’s been doing a great job at it. He’s been working with some big-time name guys and I’m just another guy in there just trying to get better and help to improve my overall game."
Glazier, who doubles as an NFL media maven, is here at the NFL annual spring meetings.
"How many guys are doing double sessions in March?" Glazier asked this past weekend. "He's picked up some things faster than anybody ever has. The guy's a freak when it comes to being an athlete. Part of what we do is to try to instill a fighter's mentality. But he's already got that. He already thinks like that. The guy is a warrior."
What Glazier has Maualuga working on is leverage while educating him on how the body moves in tight, wrestling quarters. Glazier has Maualuga matched with fighters as well as himself and doing such moves as double leg takedowns to give him the feel.
"We're doing a ton of Greco Roman wrestling trying to get him to lower his body level and get him used to different bodies working against him," Glazier said. "We're also working on violent hand fighting."
But Glazier says the biggest thing is working on conditioning. He says the core idea of his training is to get players ready for the fourth quarter.
"You look at the guy across from you and you're thinking, 'I've already done worse things in MMA training,' " Glazier said. "He works extremely hard. He's losing six pounds a session with me."
It is all a part of Maualuga trying to rebuild from the disappointing Wild Card loss in Houston in which running back Arian Foster pierced the Bengals for 140 yards.
"As far as not being satisfied. I had like (152) tackles, but I know I’m a way better player than that. Unfinished business as in I know I’ve got a lot of football in me left," Maualuga said. "I know that there’s still room for improvement. I’m not happy with how I performed, and everybody knows that. Hopefully by coming back I can erase all the doubters and people that are saying I can’t do this and do that, so hey, why not?"
With Maualuga in the fold, here's how the Bengals currently line up at backer:
Vontaze Burfict - 2nd year, 16 games, 14 starts: After playing MLB his whole life, took the league by storm with 174 tackles at WILL.
Rey Maualuga - 5th year, 60 games, 59 starts: Has started at both MLB and SAM.