Bengals fans are often frustrated at the perceived lack of importance that the team has traditionally placed on the safety position. It seems that the later rounds are where they look to fill out the position-- in fact, the last time that the team drafted a safety in the first round was Daryl Williams in 1992. Since Mike Zimmer became the defensive coordinator, they've opted to look at familiar veterans to fill the position group.
There's a bit of irony to the lack of priority placed on this position group because both Zimmer and Marvin Lewis demand so much versatility and intelligence from their safeties. They expect their safeties to not only captain the back part of the defense, blitz the quarterback, and defend the run, but also have the ability to line up in the slot and/or against tight ends. Reggie Nelson had a pretty good year for the Bengals, really one the better seasons we've seen since names like David Fulcher, Sam Shade, or the aforementioned Williams manned the spot.
It's Nelson's counterpart, Chris Crocker, that has drawn the ire of Bengals fans with his play late in the 2011 season. He now has a couple of younger players breathing down his neck for his position, and Lewis addressed the situation recently.
"Chris has been a great, great guy who we acquired off the waiver wire (in 2009) frankly, in the middle of the season and he got us out of a jam," Lewis said. "He’s been a great leader for our football team since he walked in the door and he’s really, I mean, he bit the bullet all year with the pain he was enduring in his knee. He’s had that clean out of that knee since the season’s been over and is working hard at rehab. We’ll see what happens."
Crocker has been valued as a vocal leader since his arrival in Cincinnati and made his share of plays over the years. His best season with the club was in 2009 when the defense finished with a fourth overall ranking. He hasn't recorded an interception since that season and with the team bringing in two superb athletes in Taylor Mays and Robert Sands, many are wondering if Crocker's time as a starter will be up in 2012. Lewis also spoke on those two players as well:
"I’ve watched him and Taylor each and every day in practice and we feel really good about these young guys," Lewis said. "So we’re prepared to move forward however it shakes out."
We'll see if all of this is just "coach speak" or not. The real wild card will be if the Bengals decide to take one of the top safeties this year in one of the early rounds or not. Some want Alabama's Mark Barron, the consensus top safety prospect, but it wouldn't surprise me if Taylor Mays was given a shot to win the starting job. After all, Zimmer wanted Mays in the 2010 draft and the team still coveted him so badly that they traded for him the next year.