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Hobson's Choice: Let them play

Maualuga's switch isn't as drastic as Johnson's, but wouldn't it make sense in his first year to line Johnson up on obvious passing downs, let him pin his ears back, and go after the QB? Clear his mind and tell him to attack.  Also I keep hearing that Rey may take over the starting job from Dhani Jones. Is Dhani capable of playing the SAM backer spot? Can't Dhani make the defensive calls from the SAM spot? To me our three best LBs are Dhani, Rey and Keith.* --Michael A., Marysville, OH

MICHAEL: You could argue the moves made over the weekend were in response to the Simpson case. Find out right away how you can get them on the field with your best people instead of putting a guy like Simpson in only one spot (the X receiver) behind a five-time Pro Bowler.

You're absolutely right. The three best linebackers on this team are now Jones, Rivers and Maualuga. There's no question that Rey is the MLB of the future, but you want him to take every snap this year, too, and if you want him on the field for the first snap of the season and you want Jones, your most experienced backer, on the field, too, this would seem to be the best way to do it. The question isn't who can call the signals in the huddle, which Dhani can do as the SAM much like Brian Simmons did as the WILL. The question is playing traffic cop after the huddle breaks and the offense starts shifting. That's where you need the experience in the middle to talk to the two outside guys.

At some point Maualuga is going to be able to do that, but on Sept. 13 against Denver? In a 4-3, linebackers have to know all three spots, anyway, and this defense is pretty similar to what Rey had in college. The big thing is they have to protect him in pass coverage and make sure he's not overwhelmed covering because that's not his M.O.

Could Jones play SAM? Yeah, but it's not his strongest spot. Throw that in with a rookie in the middle, and you're probably not as strong as you are with Jones in the middle.

In Lewis' defense, Simpson came out very raw from a small school and it was hard for him to learn one position, never mind two. But Maualuga is a product of the 33rd NFL franchise in USC. Overseen by a former NFL head man in Pete Carroll and coached at their position by a long-time NFL linebacker in Ken Norton, Maualuga and Rivers are as prepared as any linebackers they've had to adjust to the pro Xs and Os.

As for Johnson, there's no question that most of the time they are going to line him up on third down off the edge and tell him to go. But, you've also got Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom on the edge while Johnson has shown the athleticism of a linebacker. So there are times if you can get all three on the field in nickel and disguise what Johnson is doing, all of a sudden you've got more options for the offense to guard against rushing the passer. That is, if Johnson can do it and they have to find out some time and why not now?

This doesn't sound like a David Pollack-type deal where they're switching Johnson from a college end to a pro SAM. He worked mostly with the line last weekend. It sounds like they're going to move him around in situations.  Which means he's got a much better shot to get on the field faster than Simpson than if they just keep him as a rush end.

Now, maybe they get to training camp and when they put pads on, he suddenly doesn't look so smooth at backer, but it's too early to make that call. In Maualuga and Johnson I think they believe they've got two smart, athletic guys they need to get on the field for as many snaps as they can and this is the best way to do it.

But, as the great Tim Krumrie would say, all this stuff in May and June is Underwear Football.

Q: I thought last year that Rivers had a great shot at defensive rookie of the year, then he went on IR. If his stats were projected off of the games he played, he would have had better numbers than the winner last year (Mayo). This year I think Maualuga has a good shot at the title despite being a second-round pick. What do you think of his chances? And do you think Andre Smith has a shot at offensive rookie of the year?* --Alan M., Milwaukee, WI

ALAN: Maualuga certainly has a better shot than Smith. With your man Jerod Mayo of New England winning the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last year, linebackers have won it six straight seasons. Only one wasn't a first-rounder, but Houston's DeMeco Ryans in 2006 was a second-rounder.

On offense, the AP has never awarded a lineman for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Since Jim Brown won the first award in 1957, running backs have received it 38 times. The closest they came was tight end Mike Ditka in 1961.

Maybe he could get some AFC awards, but even then Smith has a long road. Three of the top running backs in the draft are in the AFC with Knowshon Moreno in Denver, Donald Brown in Indianapolis, and Shonn Greene with the Jets.

It would help, too, if Smith played left tackle and that may not end up happening. Plus, look what happened to Browns left tackle Joe Thomas. His great rookie year in '07 got buried in the wake of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson's huge year even though Thomas probably had the equivalent year for a lineman.

Q: I keep reading about how Jonathan Luigs needs to get stronger. I was curious how much on average can offensive lineman in the NFL squat or leg-press in the weight room?* --Tom W., Moorpark, CA

TOM:  I'd hate to fire out some numbers because a lot of people just don't think those stats correlate to a guy being a good blocker and the range is so great. It helps, obviously, to be strong, but other key elements are leverage and smarts no matter how big the guy is across from you. Other key numbers are the broad jump and vertical jump because that shows leg strength.

The knock on Eric Ghiaciuc is that he couldn't take on the AFC North 3-4 nose tackles 1-on-1. But on the day he lifted at his 2005 combine, he benched 225 pounds 30 times, one of only two offensive linemen to hit 30 or better in his group. Luigs hit only 26, but he led all centers with a 31-inch vertical leap.

And take Purdue's Nick Hardwick, who has been a five-year stud for the Chargers. He repped 27 times while chalking up a 34-inch vertical.

Big? Small? Rich Braham, the gold standard for blocking the Steelers and Ravens, was 6-4, 305 pounds. Ghiaciuc is 6-4, 300.

What's it all mean? Will Luigs be as good as Hardwick because he's closer to that profile? Will Ghiaciuc be better in Kansas City because they'll have a different scheme? Will Kyle Cook be better than all of them because he repped 40 at his pro day at Michigan State?

Probably all it means is that lifting numbers don't tell you much. You can bet right now that Luigs is going to bench more than 26 when he gets going in the Bengals weight room, but that won't translate into blocking Casey Hampton.

Former Ravens center Jason Brown anchored the Ravens' big-time running game and at one time held the University of North Carolina records in the squat (775 pounds), power clean (419) and three-lift (bench, squat, power clean), but he also benched only 25 at the combine.

Fact is, a lot of centers in the league can't take on those 3-4 guys one-on-one and most of them need help via either guards or scheme no matter how big or strong they are. Luigs needs to get stronger, no question. He says so and so do the Bengals. But they'll tell you there's no magic number in the weight room.

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