On Friday it was learned that safety Chris Crocker was medically cleared after he injured his MCL against the Buffalo Bills last season. A player being medically cleared isn't something we'd make a big deal out of in February, with six months until training camp (or 16 years based on the rate that the NFL and NFLPA are progressing with a Collective Bargaining Agreement resolution).
However, Crocker's medical clearence only promotes the team's desperate need to address the position in the future. And we're not they'll be able to address it completely this offseason.
As we've written several times already, the Bengals have two safeties signed through 2011. Reggie Nelson, traded from Jacksonville for David Jones before the regular season last year, is heading to the final year under his existing contract with a base salary of $957,500. Crocker is signed through 2012 with $3.5 million due to him over the course of the next two seasons.
Tom Nelson, who is an Exclusive-Rights Free Agent, is expected to sign with the Bengals, provided the front office doesn't refuse to bring him back -- and we find that highly unlikely based on the desperate need to rebuild the depth on the roster. Same goes for Chinedum Ndukwe, who as of now is a restricted free agent. That could change with a new CBA stating that four years is enough for a player to become unrestricted -- similar to the rules before the uncapped year.
That doesn't mean the Bengals only have two safeties with one expected to sign an ER-FA deal.
Jeromy Miles signed as a college free agent after the 2010 NFL Draft, placed on the practice squad until November 24, when he was signed onto the 53-man roster. He finished the season with five special teams tackles in the final six games of the season. A standout in college, Miles won several awards in his career, highlighted with a Walter Camp All-America honors in NCAA Division I-FCS playing for the University of Massachusetts.
That being said, Miles played two defensive snaps in 2010 and that was as a cornerback.
Rico Murray signed as a college free agent after the 2009 NFL Draft, recording some time as a safety in the final games of 2009, recording two tackles. Murray was on the team's practice squad this year until he signed onto the 53-man roster on October 29. He played four games before he was placed on Injured Reserve with an ankle injury, suffered during practice in early December. During his four games in 2010, Murray recorded 93 snaps on defense, with 90 against the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills combined. Against the Bills, Murray covered receivers on seven passes from Ryan Fitzpatrick. Five resulted in receptions for 130 yards receiving and a touchdown for a passer rating of 153.3.
Even though he participated in 93 snaps on defense, most of Murray's snaps came as a cornerback.
So while Miles and Murray could be safeties in 2011, it's hardly a reason for inaction during the offseason.
Is Crocker's return a reason to celebrate? Not really. While he's a very good role player with incredible versatility, he's not great in coverage, allowing a quarterback rating of 91.0 when quarterbacks targeted players he's covering. However, if Crocker is placed in a role where he's the fifth or sixth defensive back, the Bengals defense noticeably improves. He's fine as a starter, much better as a backup, promoting depth that's deep.
Yet, the Bengals are like every team in the NFL. They can't stock the roster with safeties to rebuild the depth until free agency kicks off when the CBA is resolved. And you certainty don't want to have your draft dominated by rebuilding safety depth with more than two selections.
It would be surprising if the Bengals didn't draft a safety by the top three rounds in this year's NFL Draft. Crocker and Nelson, while showing flashes last year, aren't long-term safeties that other teams have. Consider some of last year's playoff teams. The Ravens have Ed Reed. The Steelers have Troy Polamalu. The Packers have Nick Collins. The Chiefs have Eric Berry. The Seahawks have Earl Thomas. The Eagles have Nate Allen and Quintin Mikell. You could even say that the Jets have Jim Leonard.
The Bengals don't have that. With free agency starting later this year, and the NFL Draft not promoting the group of safeties that came out of the draft last year, the Bengals could be working towards rebuilding the position with a series of one-year contracts this year while building the depth through the draft for the next two, or even three, years.