We've wondered for several years now if the Cincinnati Bengals just don't take the position of safety all that seriously. It's no coincidence that division foes like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are annually a threat to win the division when they have Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed respectively patrolling the secondary.
The best Cincinnati has had to offer in the past five seasons is Roy Williams, an aging safety who is long past his prime and Chinedum Ndukwe, a safety who struggles in coverage and over-pursues against the run. Once Madieu Williams, who is probably the best safety the team has had during the Marvin Lewis era, was a free agent, the Bengals allowed him to leave because the money he was being offered from other teams caused the front office to look the other way. Just like they did with guard Eric Ghiaciuc, another position the Bengals haven't viewed with much importance.
The Bengals have drafted one safety before the sixth round of the NFL draft since Williams was selected in the second round in 2004. And that was Marvin White, who played two seasons, drafted in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
In the meantime, the team signs aging safeties well past their prime. Dexter Jackson spent three seasons in Cincinnati, playing 29 games and never recording more than 50 tackles in a season, posting only three interceptions and eight passes defensed. Roy Williams has spent two seasons with the Bengals, signing consecutive one-year deals, playing in only half of the games due to injuries. Williams has recorded 55 tackles with the Bengals in those two seasons, posting one interception and one quarterback sack. Chris Crocker, a mid-2008 signing, has performed well enough, recording nearly 100 tackles, three interceptions and 3.5 quarterback sacks. Gibril Wilson signed a one-year deal before the 2010 season. Injured before the start of the regular season, Wilson didn't take a single snap. And there's Ifeanyi Ohalete, whose last NFL season came in 2005 during the Bengals AFC North championship season. And he was scarier as the last line of defense than Danny Graves and Francisco Cordero combined.
Cincinnati then fills its roster with late-round draft picks like Chinedum Ndukwe, Corey Lynch, Greg Brooks, John Busing and undrafted free agent signings, like Tom Nelson, Rico Murray, Kyries Hebert (originally signed as an UDFA by Minnesota), Jeromy Miles, Patrick Body and Reggie Myles. They acquire other teams' late-round draft picks like Blue Adams and Herana-Daze Jones. They sign cast-off players like Marvin White, who was already released once from the team, and Anthony Mitchell. Who? Exactly.
But what can the Bengals do?
There doesn't appear to be a safety in the NFL Draft worth taking in the first round. And the team will have to debate between a quarterback and guard in the second round, provided the Bengals go with one of the top defensive prospects or Georgia's A.J. Green. Safeties like UCLA's Rahim Moore, Oklahoma's Quinton Carter, Florida's Ahmad Black and Temple's Jaiquawn Jarrett are listed as top-100 prospects with safeties like Iowa's Tyler Sash, Clemson's DeAndre McDaniel, Nebraska's Eric Hagg and West Virginia's Robert Sands as possible mid to late round selections.
Free agency might be worse, even though (possibly) available free agents would easily start for the Bengals. Philadelphia's Quintin Mikell isn't expected to sign with the Eagles, and he's one of the better safeties that could be available whenever free agency kicks off. Mikell has averaged 90 tackles over the course of the past three seasons. And during that time, he also recorded three quarterback sacks and eight interceptions. There's Roman Harper averaging 95 tackles in his last four seasons with the New Orleans Saints. On the other hand, he's also allowed a quarterback rating of 95.0 when quarterbacks targeted receivers he was covering, including an epic three touchdowns allowed to the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card game last season. The Chargers are reportedly willing to let Eric Weddle leave San Diego, averaging 102 tackles over the past three seasons, posting five picks and three quarterback sacks during that span. Other possible free agents include Baltimore's Dawan Landry and Houston's Bernard Pollard (not tendered as a restricted free agent).
While there are decent players that could start for Cincinnati, the fact is that the free agent market isn't saturated with great safety talent, and therefore the demand for safeties that could start for the Bengals will be high, suggesting that cost would be more than their worth.
As it stands, Crocker and Reggie Nelson, acquired through a trade with Jacksonville before the start of the 2010 season, are the only safeties signed through 2011. Tom Nelson is an exclusive-rights free agent. The Bengals have to rebuild the position and the truth is, while versatile, Crocker and Nelson are easily upgradable.
But the Bengals have to take the position with more seriousness than they have before. Mirroring the Ravens and Steelers success, like they've talked about in the past, isn't just about a power rushing offense. It's about a franchise-level safety. Not late-round draft picks, undrafted free agents or past-their-prime veteran free agent safeties playing on one-year contracts.