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Dolphins sign middle linebacker Rey Maualuga

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The Miami Dolphins have signed former Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, addressing perhaps their biggest defensive need as they head toward their practices and game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Maualuga, 30, will presumably compete with Mike Hull for the starting spot vacated when rookie middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan sustained a season-ending knee injury in the preseason opener against Atlanta.

Maualuga, an eight-year veteran, played for Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke when Burke was the Bengals’ linebackers coach in 2014-15, totaling 59 tackles in 2014 and 75 in 2015.

Maualuga was cut by the Bengals in March for salary cap reasons - the Bengals saved $3.75 million - and worked out for the Dolphins a few days ago.

Maualuga had a career-low 27 tackles last season, partly because he sustained a fibula injury in Cincinnati’s game against Washington in London. He started just six games, also a career low, and played in 14.

Maualuga, a second-round pick out of USC in 2009, had never started fewer than 12 games in a season prior to last year, and had a career-best 122 tackles in 2012.

For his career, Maualuga has 584 tackles, four sacks and seven interceptions.

Maualuga will most likely travel with the Dolphins to Philadelphia on Sunday, practice with the team against the Eagles on Monday and Tuesday, and play in Thursday’s game.

Maualuga will be counted on to help a run defense that finished 30th in the NFL last season, and a defense that finished 29th overall surrendering a franchise-worst 6,122 yards.

In college, Maualuga was part of an outstanding USC linebackers trio that also featured Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews.

Maualuga is possibly viewed as a first- and second-down linebacker, meaning he’d only play in the base package and come off the field when the Dolphins go to the nickel, or five the defensive backs package. Coach Adam Gase has estimated that the Dolphins were in the nickel about two-thirds of the time last season.

The Dolphins sought to beef up the linebacker position in the offseason by drafting McMillan, who was injured on the punt coverage unit in the preseason opener against Atlanta, and signing veteran Lawrence Timmons, the free agent from Pittsburgh.

The idea was to play Kiko Alonso, last year’s middle linebacker, on the weakside with Timmons on the strongside and McMillan in the middle.

But McMillan’s injury put Hull, undrafted out of Penn State in 2015, in the starting role.

The Dolphins could have moved Timmons, an inside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme, or Alonso to the middle and searched for an outside linebacker.

However, it looks like they’ll keep Timmons and Alonso in their current positions.

Hull finished with five tackles, including one for a loss, in Thursday’s 31-7 loss to Baltimore.

Gase remarked after the Baltimore game that he thought Hull had a better opportunity to make plays this year as opposed to last year.

“It was a different scenario for this year,” Gase said. “Last year, he was filling in for Kiko and we were playing with other guys who were our second-string type guys. This year he’s got ‘L.T.’ (Timmons) and Kiko next to him. That makes it a little different.”

Despite that, it seems the Dolphins decided they needed an upgrade.

Hull likely returns to being a core special teams player, which should help that unit.

Hull also provides valuable depth. It’s not known when reserve linebacker Neville Hewitt (shoulder), who started five games last season, will return to the field. But he also provides depth. The Dolphins planned on having veteran Koa Misi this season as well, but his neck injury sidelined him for the year.

The Dolphins had linebacker Kelvin Sheppard in for a workout this past week, but he signed with Chicago on Friday.

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