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Rey Maualuga ready to show scouts what they missed

The 38th overall draft picks wants to 'let everyone know I should have gone in the first round.' He can start today at the Bengals mini-camp.

May 02, 2009|Gary Klein

An All-American middle linebacker from USC was chosen in the second round of the NFL draft, questions about his ability to perform at the next level apparently knocking him out of the big-money first round.

Rey Maualuga?

No.

Reverse the tape to 2005.

That's when every team passed on Lofa Tatupu in the first round.

The Seattle Seahawks finally took the two-year Trojans starter in the second round with the 45th pick in what turned out to be one of the biggest steals in recent draft history.

Tatupu helped lead the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl as a rookie and was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. Last year, he signed a $42-million contract extension that includes more than $18 million in guarantees.

Maualuga has designs on a similar reversal of fortune.

After pre-draft hype that had him going anywhere from the top 10 to the latter part of the first round, Maualuga was not taken until the Cincinnati Bengals nabbed him with the 38th overall pick last Saturday.

"I don't know why he was still there," Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said, "but he was, and we're excited."

So is Maualuga, who said Thursday night that he had gotten over his initial disappointment but not his desire to show NFL evaluators what they missed.

That mission started Friday when the Bengals opened a mini-camp.

"I'll definitely come in with a chip on my shoulder to prove everybody wrong and to let everyone know I should have gone in the first round," Maualuga said in a phone interview from Cincinnati.

Maualuga acknowledged hearing pre- and post-draft whispers that teams were reluctant to take him earlier because of trust issues.

Four linebackers were selected in the first round, including USC teammates Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews. Cushing was selected 15th by the Houston Texans, Matthews 26th by the Green Bay Packers.

None had the resume of Maualuga, a three-year starter who won the Bednarik Award last season as college football's top defensive player.

But Maualuga's draft status might have been affected by an incident during his freshman season, when he was charged with a misdemeanor for punching a man at a party. (He entered a diversion program, and the charge was dropped upon his completion of it.) Maualuga also gained unwelcome national attention this year when he was caught on video gesturing suggestively behind ESPN reporter Erin Andrews before the Rose Bowl in January.

One NFL team scout said Maualuga lacked discipline on the field, his "splash" plays -- the legendary sideline hit on UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan and the interception return for a touchdown against Ohio State -- overshadowing inconsistency. The scout also said Maualuga interviewed poorly at the NFL combine in February, becoming confused when defensive coaches quizzed him.

"That, combined with a perceived lack of maturity, were the biggest concerns," said the scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by his team to speak on the record. "If you thought he was mature enough to really work at the game and approached it like a pro he would likely have gone higher. Character in the end played the biggest factor in the fall."

A personnel director for an NFL team said Maualuga simply "guesses" too much on the field and did not grade out as a three-down player.

"A lot of the problem that I have with him is he is more of a first- and second-down player -- not a third-down guy," the personnel director said. "If you're going to get a guy in the first round you want a guy that can play on third down."

USC Coach Pete Carroll and Trojans linebackers coach Ken Norton have said that Maualuga is capable of doing whatever is required on the field. Carroll also pointed out that no middle linebackers were selected in the first round. The St. Louis Rams took Ohio State middle linebacker James Laurinaitis three picks before the Bengals picked Maualuga.

"It's just the position of middle linebacker and everyone looking for this hybrid outside linebacker-defensive end type of defensive player," Maualuga told reporters after he was drafted.

Regardless, the Bengals were thrilled to add Maualuga to a linebacker corps that includes Dhani Jones, Domata Peko and former Trojan Keith Rivers.

Jeff FitzGerald, the Bengals' linebackers coach, indicated that other teams might have been fooled by Maualuga's combine performance.

"He wasn't what you would call a 'measurable guy' in terms of his testing scores, whether it's broad jump, his 40 time -- things of that nature," FitzGerald told reporters on draft day. "What he does, though, is play ball. . . . He's a great inside linebacker who could probably play anywhere across the board."

Maualuga is not picky. He said he was excited to join the Bengals and would play inside, outside or any position that gets him onto the field.

On Thursday night, Rivers stopped by the hotel to visit and help with the playbook. Maualuga will be working out at the strong-side spot.

"It will be a different feeling, a transition lining up against the tight end and rushing outside," Maualuga said. "But it's something I think I can learn and adjust to very well."

"I'm just ready to get things going."

Time staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

--

gary.klein@latimes.com

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