Updated: 5:45 p.m.
Aaron Maybin may be on the NFL's comeback trail, but he realized the dream of a child Friday when he became a Marvin Lewis SAM linebacker after signing a deal with the Bengals that puts him on the roster as of Feb. 4.
Maybin, the 11th pick in the 2009 draft, brings two major elements that Lewis and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer can use to revive his career. A 6-4, 240-pounder who is a native of Baltimore, Maybin arrives with his rep as a great motor player who never gives up on a snap and has breathtaking speed on the pass rush from the edge.
"Today was a very exciting day. I was trying to keep an even keel before everything was signed and sealed in the books," Maybin said. "I didn't want to talk too early and start relaying to everybody how excited I was."
Maybin is excited because he's been told the Bengals are going to line him up at SAM backer and bring him down to rush off the edge in passing situations. It's a position he never played with any kind of regularity in his stints with the Bills and Jets and it's one that he thinks will show he's more versatile than conventional wisdom that says he's undersized and can only rush the passer.
"People that put you in a box based on what they think you are, that's just human nature," Maybin said. "The only way you can ever make yourself better and continue to improve is that you try to improve the total package and not one piece of the game."
Maybin's struggles since the Bills selected him out of Penn State have been well documented. He had no sacks before Buffalo cut him after just two seasons. But after the Jets cut him in training camp the next year, they brought him back a few weeks later and he ended up leading the team in sacks with six and forced fumbles with four in 2011. But this past season he had no sacks after the Jets cut him in midseason.
"This last season everything kind of started to fall apart with injuries and they didn't play the run the way they wanted to early on," Maybin said of a scheme that used him primarily as a rush backer and end. "In Buffalo … I just wasn't in the right place at the time.
"A lot of things went into how last year played out. All that stuff is behind me. What I'm thinking of is the season coming up."
Lewis and Zimmer like to take their shots with recycled linebackers. Whether it's veterans run like Dhani Jones, Brandon Johnson and Thomas Howard, or rookies like Vontaze Burfict, they've had success taking backers left for dead and producing productive players. With Maybin not turning 25 until April and 47 games already under his belt, he looks to be the perfect rehab candidate.
Maybin and Lewis have been watching each other for a long time. Maybin was 12 when Lewis was the coordinator of the record-setting Ravens defense that won the Super Bowl. He was also friends with the son of then-Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon and got to meet Lewis a few times when they visited the facility.
"He's one of the undoubted geniuses in this profession, especially when you talk about the defensive side of the football. That opportunity made it a little bit more important to come here," Maybin said. "We had a rapport from early on. (The Bengals) had brought me in a couple of times before my rookie year and I met with him, but it didn't go that way."
But, no, Ray Lewis wasn't his favorite linebacker as a kid. It was Peter Boulware, a SAM-type backer for Marvin Lewis who is still Baltimore's second-leading sacker of all-time with 70 in 126 games while also contributing nearly 300 tackles as a three-down player.
"You can talk about Ray Lewis and how kids idolized him growing up in Baltimore," Maybin said. "I can't speak for everybody. Everybody knows Ray Lewis and the things he's done. That goes without saying, but when I zoned in on guys I would watch Peter Boulware and I think that has a lot do with how Coach Lewis used him. ... I grew up watching Peter Boulware do some of the things they're asking of me.
"I've always liked guys that changed offensive schemes and he was the first guy I saw do that. They recognized they couldn't block him with one guy and he's the first guy I saw change a game that way."
Maybin is going to have plenty of competition even if the Bengals don't re-sign their free-agent backers. If they keep just those that are under contract, Burfict figures to start in the middle with second-year man Emmanuel Lamur at WILL.
Maybin may be competing for the starting SAM job with a highly drafted rookie. The Bengals figure to draft a SAM-type backer at some point and maybe another outside backer with Howard, the Opening Day WILL backer, unsigned and coming off ACL surgery. Usually deals signed at this point in the season are for a year at close to the mimimum.
Maybin doesn't mind that he's coming to a team that has been content to rush with its ends on passing downs and not move the backers into a three-point stance. He likes the looks of Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins and ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson.
"Any rusher will tell you when they have the opportunity to play next to people that command that same attention, that's good for everybody," Maybin said. "I'm excited to bring that to the table and I'm looking to contribute."
Now that he's a SAM, Maybin is going to have to play the run consistently and cover, two traits not associated with speed rushers. But now that he's a Marvin Lewis linebacker, Maybin knows he won't be judged on what came before.
"I'm past the point in my career where I'm trying to prove things to people," Maybin said. "I'm just trying to play the best football I can."