DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 18: Wide receiver Eric Decker #87 of the Denver Broncos fumbles the ball after making a reception as he is hit by Reggie Nelson #20 of the Cincinnati Bengals at Invesco Field at Mile High on September 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Cincinnati's final 53-man roster heading into the regular season opener against the Cleveland Browns had six safeties on the roster, ranging from significant contributors on defense to special team role players -- a special teams unit that was rated as one of the best coverage teams last year. Even if the current safety structure gives the team enough confidence to move into the season without radical changes, the Bengals are still short with overall numbers making one to believe the obvious: Cincinnati will draft a safety this year.
Now here's a rule of thumb. Cincinnati will take 10 (maybe 11) defensive backs into the regular season opener this year. Whether that's four or six safeties, it all depends the makeup of the secondary's roster and (though improbable) result of moving a corner into a base safety role. Improbable? Yes. Improbable. Along with the fact that they simple don't move players around on personal whims, there's nothing suggesting that players playing cornerback can play safety on a full-time basis, other than unsubstantiated prognostication. Though it's entirely probable that Cincinnati uses three-safety formations in obvious third-down passing situations with a cornerback playing that third safety role.
After signing a four-year contract, Reggie Nelson, the Bengals starting free safety is sealed through 2015; though the contract's structure of being up-front with guarantees and back-loaded on base salary may suggest that Nelson may not complete this contract without an extension (2011 wasn't an aberration) or eventual release (goes back to being the pre-2011).
Chris Crocker is entering a contract year and though we believe he'll make the roster for his veteran presence, manageable cost and otherwise decent showing last year despite dealing with a bothersome right knee, there's always the chance Cincinnati could go younger.
All things considered the younger Taylor Mays and Robert Sands are unproven commodities who could either become starters within this roster or earn lifetime memberships to the team's special teams unit -- special teams needs love, considering that they were a big reason the defense was made to looked so good.
Whether they're natural free safeties (need depth to backup Nelson) or strong safeties (competing for a possible starting job), the Bengals will need to use one (if not multiple) of their six picks outside of the first round to build their safety depth and talent.
It's entirely possible (and maybe even probable if you believe Marvin Lewis) that the Bengals stick with their roster, filling in the gaps at safety with late-round selections and undrafted free agents to retool special teams, leaving the talent-injection upgrades for next year's NFL Draft when contracts could become a greater issue with Crocker becoming a free agent and Mays entering the final year on his rookie contract. Or they could retool the position entirely to avoid the need for next year, leaving next year's draft for other positions like linebacker.