Several days ago, we briefly highlighted that because this year's class has a lack of star-quality prospects at safety, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis expects Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson to be the team's starters when the 2011 season kicks off. The reason is simple. In fear of repeating ourselves, they're the only safeties signed to contracts next season, while Tom Nelson is labeled as a exclusive-rights free agent with only two years of accrued experience under his belt (if the Bengals want him, they keep him). And we expect them to.
The draft will be of little help at safety. We expect the Bengals to take the best non-quarterback available -- if Cam Newton is gone -- and then use the second round for a quarterback like Florida State's Christian Ponder or Arkansas' Ryan Mallett. If the Bengals select Newton in the first, then we're leaning towards the team looking at defense; either at the extensive talent on the defensive line or perhaps Jimmy Smith, provided that teams have written Smith off their boards for over-zealous red flags of character questions. Smith would be a need, especially considering that the team could lose both of their starting cornerbacks by this time next year.
By this point in the draft, roughly the third round or later, the Bengals will likely select a safety, but as a means to rebuild the roster depth.
Because the draft lacks those star-quality prospects, free agents like Quintin Mikell, Roman Harper, Eric Weddle, Dawan Landry and Bernard Pollard, will benefit with teams that need safety help. Those teams will climb over each other with pricey contracts that will certainly intimidate the Bengals.
When it's all said and done, the team has no choice but to start Crocker and Reggie Nelson. Not only are they the best safeties on the roster, there just isn't another choice.
Nelson, boasting a defensive passer rating of 30.4 last season when passes were thrown to players he covered, intercepted more passes (2) than allowed touchdowns (0). And in only one game (New Orleans), did Nelson allow more than 50 yards receiving (52) in a game.
Crocker, better at run support, posted four games of six tackles or more last season, including a dominating performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, recording 10 tackles, two quarterback sacks and a forced fumble. Along with two sacks in 2010, Crocker posted multiple quarterback hits and pressures. After suffering a season-ending MCL tear against the Buffalo Bills on November 21, the biggest question this offseason has centered around Crocker's knee. It doesn't help that the lockout is preventing rehabilitation programs with their respective teams. He finished with 42 tackles, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two quarterback sacks. Before his injury, Crocker led the team in sacks and tied for the most forced fumbles.
Nelson and Crocker aren't bad safeties. They're serviceable that have made key plays. In Nelson's case, he really came on late in the season after Ndukwe and Crocker suffered season-ending injuries earlier in the season. As much as we know right now, the NFL draft doesn't present a prospect that could replace either safety in the starting lineup. And with the expected demand for veteran free agents, the cost will likely keep the Bengals out of the competition for someone better.