Nowhere do the generations turn as quickly as they do in an NFL training camp.
So before Saturday’s practice, the third of training camp on the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields, it wasn’t all that out of place for middle linebacker Rey Maualuga to remember one of his big-time mentors, Dhani Jones. He remembered former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer asking Jones why he never missed a practice.
“He’s like, ‘I’m afraid I’ll lose my job.’ That was something I always remember and keep in the back of my mind,” Maualuga said. “Opportunity is given to people that are ready.”
Maualuga, 27, is in his sixth season of an up-and-down career that is currently on the upswing. When he was a free agent a year ago, three people wanted him including Zimmer and two of them are still here, Zimmer’s replacement Paul Guenther, his old linebackers coach, and head coach Marvin Lewis.
Two pretty good guys to have in your corner. But Maualuga isn’t buying into a roster spot even though he has started all five seasons and been to the postseason four of them.
“Your spot on the roster is never promised. Each year you have to fight and claw for that one spot that is given to some people,” Maualuga said. “When I’m out there practicing, I just give it my all. At the end of the day, cutting down to the 53, I just hope I make it. If I don’t make it, I know I gave it my all, just hopefully another team will be out there to pick me up.”
Those are the words of a guy Guenther says has matured and while maybe he mainly plays on only run downs, Guenther observes, “I like Rey a lot as player. His physical presence in there and you love having a guy that comes downhill in the run game like he does.”
And here's a guy that has been a starter during the best stretch of defense in Bengals history. It just doesn't look like he's losing his job.
Plus, Maualuga is also one of those locker room guys that gets it. Because that’s how he was raised in the NFL. When Maualuga was switched to SAM backer coming out of college, Rashad Jeanty took him under his wing. Guenther remembers how Jones helped Maualuga learn to not only study and prepare, but how to take care of his body late into the season.
“Certain players get frustrated. They hear the whole you- can’t-help-people-because-eventually-they’re-going-to try-and-take-your-job,” Maualuga said. “The great thing about (Jeanty) is that he never worried about that. You know that saying, you can control what you can. You can’t control what you can’t. In this situation, he helped me out every day. Where to line up, what to do.
“Whatever I can do to help the younger guys to line up and help them out in their playbook. We’ve got 12 linebackers. We’re not going to keep all 12. If I can help someone be the best player in this short amount of time to do their job, I feel good about that. Just to show the coaches that they can play. As far as having somebody out there clueless and not knowing what they’re doing and then get cut, but wasn’t given the right chance to learn a playbook or get help….If I can help them and they beat me, hey, much respect to them,”
What Jeanty and Jones did long after they were gone was contribute to the rise of the Bengals’ first Pro Bowl linebacker in nearly 40 years. Because Maualuga took Vontaze Burfict under his wing when Burfict arrived in 2012 even though Maualuga had just moved back to his natural position of middle backer and Burfict was the most natural rookie middle linebacker in the draft even though he didn’t get selected.
Both are listed at 255 pounds, which is a good place to start.
“We help each other a lot. He came in three pounds overweight, I came in like one pound overweight and we were having a competition on who is going to make weight faster,” Burfict said. “Who gets to the stadium faster? Just different things me and him compete on to make us better for the day.”
Maualuga went the route of Jeanty and Jones.
“Rey is a great dude off the field, a great dude on the field,” Burfict said. “Good attitude. Never out of control, great leader in our linebacker room. He’s the oldest linebacker we have. Everybody looks up to him because he knows the defense just as much as I do.”
It will be recalled that Maualuga started at SAM linebacker his first game in the NFL in 2009 and Jeanty was released the next year. When Maualuga moved to middle backer in 2011, Jones wasn’t re-signed.
“It’s only due time until someone comes and takes my spot,” Maualuga said. “I’m going to put up a fight, though.”
Not now, it would seem. But the NFL generations are always churning.