More than a few eyebrows were raised last April when their second-round pick came and the Rams, desperately looking for a stopper in the middle of a run defense that had been gashed for nearly five yards per carry, tapped Ohio State middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.
Still on the board?
"Maybe the defense they had, they weren't looking for the type of guy of guy like me. When they picked James, it's like ... I don't know," said Rey Maualuga, the Bengals rookie who has fit in so well with the team that did take him he is now known as "Who-Dey Rey."
Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium in a 7:30 p.m. game (11:30 p.m. on Channel 12 in Cincinnati), Maualuga and Laurinaitis come off the board to meet in the third preseason game that is traditionally known around the NFL as the dress rehearsal for Opening Day.
New Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, Tom Coughlin's defensive coordinator with the Giants, figures to go at it traditionally after playing his starters in the first half of a 20-13 loss to the Falcons. While he's expected to play some of his starters into the second half, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis won't say what he'll do and laughed off the notion this week that the starters need to get a feel for coming out of the locker room.
But the starters on both sides should play long enough to get a feel for some of the more intriguing matchups that start literally in the middle with last season's two best inside backers in the nation.
Laurinaitis gets the start in the middle for a defense reeling from giving up 162 yards on the ground to the Falcons at 5.6 yards a shot. He has shown some physical push and he came up with an interception off a tipped pass last week. Maualuga hopes to play more at backup SAM linebacker after last week's impressive debut in New England the Bengals kept the Patriots out of the end zone in a 7-6 win.
Also on tap is Bengals right tackle Anthony Collins' matchup with James Hall, the Rams' leading sacker from last season and perhaps a dose of Chris Long; Bengals left end Robert Geathers pitted against the second pick in the draft, right tackle Jason Smith; Bengals fleet wideouts Chad Ochocinco and Chris Henry against emerging Rams cornerback Ron Bartell.
A backup quarterback matchup of the Bengals' J.T. O'Sullivan and the Rams' Kyle Boller may not excite the masses. But O'Sullivan has put up two straight triple-digit passer rating games and the seasoned Boller brings 42 NFL starts with the Ravens (20-22) into PBS, where the last time he appeared he threw an end-zone pick off a tipped pass that was collected by defensive tackle Michael Myers in a last-minute goal-line stand that preserved the Bengals Opening Night win in 2007.
But with Carson Palmer (ankle) out for a second straight week, clearly one of the most interesting things Thursday night is Maualuga on the same field with Laurinaitis.
"It's going to be fun. We'll see each other out there on the field (before the game)," Maualuga said. "James is a good friend of mine. We met at the Playboy (preseason) All-American (photo shoot), that's where we first bonded and got to know each other. We got along very well. It wasn’t based on accolades, who had the most. And then it went to our game when we played them. We said, 'Good luck, hope you play well,' because we both play defense and it wasn't like we were playing against each other."
Maualuga fueled USC's win over Laurinaitis' Buckeyes with his running-of-the-bulls interception touchdown last season, but the two kept in touch occasionally via text. In the weeks leading up to the draft they would kid each other, "Let me hold something. You're the one who's going to go in the first round. No you're the one going in the first round."
"We would just kid each other messing around," said Maualuga, and they still text "every now and then."
"We congratulated each other after the draft and then we chatted it up at the rookie symposium," Maualuga said.
Maualuga isn't quite sure what went down in St. Louis. He went there on a pre-draft visit and he thought there was interest even though the Rams had the second overall pick, the one they would use on Jason Smith.
"I knew I wasn't going with the second pick," Maualuga recalled. "There were things talked about. 'If you're still there … .' It's hard to say. Then again, I was waiting for a phone call. The phone didn't ring."
The phone rang four picks later in the second round and it was Lewis from a giddy draft room that had coveted Maualuga's size and physical play for months and never dared dream he'd be available.
There were whispers teams backed off Maualuga for his low score on the NFL scouting combine's mental aptitude test (15), his inability to play in space, and discipline in the scheme. After four months with him, the Bengals haven't seen any of those whispers surface in reality.
"He certainly hasn't had a problem picking up things; he picks up things fast," said linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald. "Believe me, if he didn't, he wouldn't be out there now because we're doing a lot of different things."
The Bengals have enough confidence in Maualuga's smarts and his agility in space that they've got him playing different spots in different packages: SAM in the base, MIKE in the nickel, and all over in his own package. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer didn't blink on Maualuga's first snap from scrimmage and sent him on a blitz.
If there were maturity concerns, the Bengals knew he would have a good support system in place with Samoan defensive players Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene, as well as former 'SC linebacker mate Keith Rivers. And with his flowing hair, passionate play, and endless hours at training camp signing autographs, Maualuga has become such a fan favorite so quickly that his No. 58 led sales at the Spirit Shop at Georgetown College during camp.
Thursday night is when Who-Dey officially meets Rey.
"Very good," said Lewis of Maualuga's grasp of the classroom. "Rey comes in like most college players and has to learn discipline with his eyes. That's true of any college linebacker you watch. But they had a very diverse defensive system, and so there's a lot of things he learned to do on campus at 'SC that he comes here and he just changes what he called it there compared to what we call it here. So he has an advantage, just like (Michigan cornerback) Leon Hall did when he came here a couple of years ago."
The last time the Bengals took a middle linebacker in the second round, Odell Thurman, they started him as a rookie and Lewis spent a lot of time railing about how he sprinkled big plays with mental lapses. But Lewis seems to even like the way Maualuga makes mistakes.
"He may make a slight error, but he's doing it full speed and when he does it he does it with an impact," Lewis said. "He's doing well."
On Thursday night, Maualuga will shake Laurinaitis' hand and then let it go.
"It will be fun to be out there with him," Maualuga said. "I've got nothing to prove to anybody as far as players. I'm going to let my play speak for itself. I'm just looking forward to playing a little more and running around a little bit."