Should Bengals re-sign Rey Maualuga?

CINCINNATI -- One of the Cincinnati Bengals' biggest concerns entering free agency has to do with how badly they want linebacker Rey Maualuga back next season.

The middle linebacker has been part of the franchise his entire career, registering 478 total tackles in his six regular seasons. One of the Bengals' best run-stoppers, the former second-round pick makes a very real impact when he's in the game as opposed to when he isn't.

Just this season, opposing rushing offenses averaged 4.9 yards per carry on plays when Maualuga was off the field. On plays when he was on it, teams averaged just 4.2 yards. Similarly, teams averaged 3.4 yards before contact per rush when Maualuga wasn't on the field. When he was, they averaged just 2.8 yards. That means he was hitting running backs sooner and helping drive them back better than when the run stop duties were left in the hands of his teammates.

Also, there's this. Opposing backs picked up first downs on 26.8 percent of their rushing chances when Maualuga was playing. When he wasn't, they converted first downs on just 23.9 percent of their carries. He made a very real difference.

All of this is part of the reason Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther believes there's space in Cincinnati for Maualuga beyond 2014.

"I like Rey as a player. I always have," the former Bengals linebackers coach said. "I know he gets a bad rap around here and has in the past some, but he played damn good when he was in there, so I hope to have him back."

Injuries have derailed parts of the last two seasons for Maualuga. Last year, he had a knee injury that kept him out for parts of four weeks. The one positive that came out of that injury was that it gave backup Vincent Rey some valuable playing experience ahead of this season. With Vontaze Burfict slowed by injuries, Rey was forced into playing the weakside linebacker spot regularly in 2014. As a result, he had the most extensive playing time in his career, partaking in 888 snaps in the regular season. The five-year veteran's previous snap-count high was 332, which he had last season.

This year, the injury du jour for Maualuga was a right hamstring issue that held him out four games. It flared up again in last Sunday's wild-card round playoff loss at Indianapolis, too.

During the four games Maualuga missed, the Bengals allowed an average 145 yards rushing. In the first three games after his return -- all road contests; two of them against strong rushing teams -- they allowed an average 71.3 yards on the ground. Even including the one game at home against Pittsburgh in which they gave up 193 rushing yards, the Bengals still averaged just 82 in the final seven regular-season games Maualuga played following his injury.

"I believe he does [get re-signed]," Guenther said. "You saw when he came back the effect he had on us."

Maualuga will be one of 15 players to hit free agency in March. He's one of 13 unrestricted free agents the Bengals have to determine if they will re-sign. Terence Newman and Taylor Mays are the only other defensive players who will be unrestricted free agents.

This season, the Bengals paid Maualuga a base salary of $2.25 million, and $500,000 in bonuses. His last contract negotiations were in 2013, when he inked a two-year extension that paid him a $2.25 million signing bonus up front.