Updated: 7:25 p.m.
PHOENIX, Ariz. — Because the core of his team has gone to the playoffs the past two seasons, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis concentrated on tweaking the status quo instead of tearing it up during Tuesday's media breakfast with the AFC coaches here at the NFL meetings.
Which is how he answered the Rey Maualuga question, saying he doubts he'll replace him in the middle with rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict in the wake of Maualuga signing a two-year, $6.5 million deal.
"We're very comfortable how we played on defense and all we do is keep getting better with those kids. Rey had to manage KinderCare out there and he did a good managing it," Lewis said of a defense that finished ranked sixth. "I never said we would move (Burfict) to the middle before. I don't know that. I would doubt it."
Lewis used the forum to defend Maualuga, a lightning rod for fan criticism and the last-ranked inside linebacker in the NFL according to the Web site profootballfocus.com.
"Because they look at some dumb Web site that doesn't have any idea of what football is," Lewis said of the wrath. "The same Web site that two years ago rated Kelly Jennings the best tackling corner in the NFL. These people who aren't football, they are trying to be critical. We'll be as critiquing of Rey as we need to be; we don't need any help."
But Lewis says Maualuga has improved his game and just has to get the naysayers out of his head.
"He has been that way from the start. He worries too much. Unfortunately too many people get in his ear," Lewis said. "For being supposedly a big, tough guy he just is concerned about people liking him and he doesn't need to do that."
Maualuga, who started 30 games at SAM backer before starting his last 29 in the middle, looks like he's staying inside with Lewis encouraging his development.
"Being able to keep playing through his responsibilities," said Lewis, listing Maualuga's improvements. "When he needs to read out, play things vertically where we need to in the pass lanes, he does a good job of that. He just has to keep growing."
Lewis also pointed to the draft as a reason not to rock the boat with a bevy of free-agent signings. Thanks to the Carson Palmer trade, the Bengals have three of the top 54 picks in the first two rounds. He sees them picking up "three, likely four starting-caliber players" early in the draft.
"We're going to add to the talent pool and it's going to be exciting," Lewis said. "They all aren't going to start. One or two might. Just what I know it could be a linebacker, receiver, defensive end, running back, safety. Every position wherever we're picking we're going to add some good guys."
Lewis made it clear what everyone has been thinking. The Bengals are going to draft a running back, he's going to be paired with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and he's going to have to juke.
"What we're saying is a guy who can make a guy miss and avoid more, we want to have a guy like that. We got a guy like Bernard (Scott), but he got injured," Lewis said.
Lewis said he thought Reggie Bush is coming off his most productive season and before he signed in Detroit, he had been linked to the Bengals. But he wouldn't have had the role he wanted.
"Everything Reggie has said he wanted to go somewhere and be the guy," Lewis said. "He would have been in conjunction with Bennie, which realistically is what every back is. There are few men that can take that beating for 16 games."
Lewis also took up in defense of quarterback Andy Dalton as the pundits call his upcoming third season a major point in his career. Lewis relied on the age-old argument that the QB gets too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses.
"Andy just needs to keep being Andy. He doesn't have to worry about anything that anybody says," he said. "We as a football team need to win, win the division, get in the playoffs and win playoff games. He just has to keep playing and doing his thing. It's not his fault."
Lewis hit a wide-ranging list of topics during his 70 minutes around a table open to all media members covering the meetings:
» He thought the first season of training camp last year at Paul Brown Stadium was a hit all the way around and envisions a similar schedule this year with the Reds again having two long homestands during the three weeks of camp. Lewis indicated that the Bengals would again avoid conflicts with the baseball games and schedule opposite times.
Lewis also liked the limited number of sessions inside PBS, and is looking for five or six again.
"I'll fight to keep that the same. It's hard to be out there on the turf when it is 110 degrees and 80 percent humidity. It's hard to put them on the field turf because it is 16-17 degrees warmer," Lewis said. "We'll try to still limit that exposure. For the fans it's a better atmosphere for them but for the players it is a better experience when we are on the grass (on the practice fields).
"Our technology was such was that we didn't have to move that infrastructure an hour south and we were better served."
» He says he understands that Bengals fans are frustrated after four one-and-dones in the playoffs during the last eight seasons despite re-signing many key players to extensions from '05-'07.
But Lewis says that times are different now. The jewels of the latest drafts haven't been tarnished like those and so the roster is deeper.
"The unfortunate part about that is in 2006 you don't expect David Pollack to break his neck, from the '04 draft never have Chris Perry come back from his ankle injury. In '07 you have the Kenny Irons knee injury," Lewis said. "Then we had to go back into the market and supplement that with different guys. We don't have that situation now. We've reached out to some of those guys that other teams have signed but they look at our team and wonder why they would come here. It's not that we didn't reach out but people look at our situation and see they can go to other teams because there are openings there. (Signing players) is not as easy as people think because they can step in elsewhere."
» Although the Bengals have spent about $30 million against this year's cap since March 1 to keep their own players, there is a perception that they aren't being aggressive enough to get over the hump and win a championship.
"Everyone wants you to go out and sign someone else's player. How many guys have made an impact in their first year of signing? We are better served to continue with our guys and are not sitting there with a particular huge void and go forward with our players and keep getting them better as much as we can," Lewis said. "What the fans should understand is you have a second wave of guys that need to get done prior to the completion of this season or you are going to go through the same situation again, so hopefully these all fit."
He is referring to Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green, and defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. The team can't begin talking to Green and Dalton about extensions until after this season since they aren't up until after the 2014 season. But it's believed the Bengals will try to get something done with Atkins and Dunlap this summer before they head into their free-agent years.