Bengals hope to close on defensive depth


Rey Maualuga

Updated: 10:15 p.m.

As the fourth day of NFL free agency wound into late Friday afternoon and Bengals execs prepared to leave for the NFL's spring meeting in Arizona that starts this weekend, indications were the club is closing in on keeping the free-agent regulars on the NFL's No. 7 defense intact.

After starting SAM Manny Lawson and backup MIKE Dan Skuta moved on earlier in the week, it looked like talks were moving well Friday with middle linebacker Rey Maualuga as the Bengals looked to replenish their depth at linebacker. In a room now fraught with young players, Maualuga would bring back 60 NFL games and be the only backer on the roster with more than 14 games as a starter

With Ben Dogra, the agent for cornerback Terence Newman (as well as right tackle Andre Smith), also expected in Arizona, there could be a chance to get something done on site. Before the end of the season both Newman and Jones expressed a desire to stay in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's system, and that may end up driving things.

Maualuga, who visited Arizona on Wednesday, also has said he has enjoyed playing for these coaches, and while he has become a favorite target of the fans, Maualuga has the two most important supporters of all and they happen to occupy the big offices at Paul Brown Stadium in Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis.

Zimmer went on record last month at the NFL Scouting Combine to voice his support.

"If he's not here people are going to miss him and say we should have had him. That's how it works, like Justin Smith," Zimmer said. "He can (play SAM), but if I remember correctly after his second year and Dhani (Jones) left, everyone was saying he should move to the MIKE when he played pretty good at SAM. But he's got to go to the MIKE linebacker, wasn't that what everyone was saying? 'Oh, Maualuga is going to MIKE, yeah.' Now everyone is going 'he should have stayed at SAM.' You can't win."

A possible Maualuga return would appear to move Vontaze Burfict from WILL to the middle, Emmanuel Lamur to begin the year as the WILL starter, and Maualuga moving to SAM, where he played his first two seasons. But Zimmer's smile was enough to leave it in mystery.

With Skuta's departure to the 49ers early Friday morning, the Bengals special teams took a hit with the loss of its captain but it doesn't appear like it's going to alter the club's offseason plan to replenish the depth chart at linebacker.

With four backers heading into free agency (Lawson signed with Buffalo earlier in the week while Skuta went the 49ers and WILL backer Thomas Howard visited Miami), the plan appeared to draft an outside backer fairly early as well pursue a veteran backup in free agency. With up to possibly 10 draft picks, the Bengals could also draft another one late.

Back in January they added veteran Aaron Maybin to play SAM and rush off the edge, but it's a position he hasn't played regularly. J.K. Schaffer, an undrafted rookie last season the Bengals added to the practice squad late in the year, is a guy that may be able to play all three spots. Vincent Rey is a special-teamer who rarely plays WILL and the Bengals haven't been able to plan on Dontay Moch because his transition from college defensive end to NFL SAM has been derailed by frequent headaches since he was selected in the third round of the 2011 draft.

Rookie free agent Brandon Joiner, who missed all last season because of a prison sentence stemming from an incident in his freshman year of college, is a virtual unknown.

Skuta, also an undrafted free agent, earned the captaincy with week-after-week reliability. He's headed to the Niners in the same core special teams player/backup backer role he had here in which he racked up 56 special teams tackles in 56 games during four seasons.

Two frontrunners for the captain's C would have to be safety Jeromy Miles and running back Cedric Peerman, each heading into their fourth seasons. The one year Skuta didn't lead the Bengals in special teams tackles since 2010, Miles did and they finished 1-2 this year with Skuta finishing with 17 and Miles with 15. Miles has 35 special teams tackles in his 38 games.

The talks for Smith may not heat up until Dolphins tackle Jake Long gets placed since Dogra represents both. Indications are the Bengals are going to reach out to the agent for kick returner Ted Ginn Jr., as well as the agent for their own incumbent punt returner, Jones.

In a conference call with the 49ers media Skuta made it clear that he's blue-collar proud of his Flint, Mich., roots, and he thinks he's got a lot of company on his new team.

"There's a lot of hard-working guys. You can see it in the way they play," he said.

Skuta said the Niners pitch was pretty simple. They called early and often.

"They were right there from Day 1," Skuta said. "I felt like I was wanted. They came after me. It's important to me."

And the scenery didn't hurt.

"When you come in over the hills, that's definitely a good selling point," he said.

Skuta is is going to be backing up two Pro Bowl inside guys in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and he knows he's going as a key special teams component. But he won't sell himself short from scrimmage.

"Everybody around the league knows they're two of the best," Skuta said. "Hopefully I can play with them in some way."

Also Friday, right end Michael Johnson signed the franchise tender, making the $11.1 million guaranteed, and Johnson tweeted his happiness at coming back. The Bengals and Johnson have until July 15 to strike a long-term deal and it's believed the Bengals are also going to use the summer to try and wrap up linemates Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, as well, before they head into free agency next year.

Johnson is taking three classes this semester at Georgia Tech on his way to a business management degree and has said he expects to be in Cincinnati the first week in May, putting him here in time for the voluntary field work.

"We are glad to have this accomplished and to know we'll have Mike with us for all of our offseason work," Lewis said in a statement. "As I've said, making Mike our franchise player was part of the process to keep our defense together. It's been a good defense the last couple years and with the right work it can be better. Mike has worked hard to improve himself every year during his time as a Bengal, and we have every reason to believe he will continue to grow as a leader and productive player. And we will stay in contact with Mike's representatives about possibly doing a longer deal."

Also Friday the Bengals hosted Bears tight end Matt Spaeth, but there were no indications they were going to sign the massive 6-7, 270-pound blocking specialist. Spaeth, a third-round pick of the Steelers in 2007, played his first four seasons in Pittsburgh and has 49 career catches. Spaeth signed back with Pittsburgh later in the day.

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