TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 24: Mark Barron #4 of the Alabama Crimson Tide tackles Chris Gragg #80 of the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Dan Pompei with the Chicago Tribune and National Football Post, released a preview of the safeties in the 2012 NFL draft. Two things are clear when it comes to the draft with the Bengals in respect to the safety position: This draft class is not very strong at safety, yet the Bengals are in the market for one. Obviously, this does not project well for Cincinnati's draft if they are looking at safety early in the draft. On the other hand it won't hurt to wait a few rounds and take a someone later in the draft. First, let's take a look at the Bengals' depth and then determine whether or not they need to address safety early in the draft.
Reggie Nelson: Nelson recently signed a new four year deal with the Bengals after posting a career-year last season, becoming one of the standout players on the league's seventh ranked defense. Nelson, who led the team with four interceptions (including a 75-yard return for touchdown) finished the year second with 85 tackles, second behind Thomas Howard. A former first-round bust, he rejuvenated his career after signing with Cincinnati (not the first time that's happened), and his place on the team, barring injury, is 100% secure.
Robert Sands: Sands, projected early as Reggie Nelson's backup, is a second-year player out of West Virginia and former fifth round selection in 2011. Sands didn't make his debut on the active roster until December 4, mostly due to Wilson and Gibril Wilson ahead of him on the team's depth chart. Head Coach Marvin Lewis has acknowledged that both Sands and Taylor Mays have progressed enough that the coaching staff feels more comfortable about the future of these two young players.
Taylor Mays: After the team released Chris Crocker, Taylor Mays was naturally promoted as the team's starting strong safety -- at least for now. The Bengals acquired Mays before the start of the 2011 season in a trade with San Francisco, acquiring him for a seventh-round pick in the 2013 draft. Mays was highly touted coming out of USC, but failed to live up to his predraft hype. After the 49ers picked up Donte Whitner, Mays became expendable and the Bengals, who loved Mays leading into the 2010 NFL Draft, grabbed him. The upside on him, especially being on a defense with Mike Zimmer at the helm, is very high. His size, speed, and athleticism provides an intimidating presence in the secondary, but he has a lot to prove first.
Jeromy Miles: Miles is a third year player out of UMass, a former undrafted free agent that Cincinnati signed hours after the 2010 NFL draft. Miles was promoted to the active roster late during his rookie season, playing mostly a special teams role with sprinkled participation at strong safety during the 2011 season. Miles' second season ended with 16 tackles. Miles is a key role player, especially leading one of the league's best special teams with tackles in 2011. It is highly doubtful that he would ever find himself in a starting role without the benefit of injury before him on the depth chart. But it doesn't mean he can't try.
Are the Bengals confident enough with their depth that they avoid using an early pick on a safety because of the weak class in 2012? According to Dan Pompei, unless the Bengals are able to pick up Alabama safety Mark Barron, there are few, if any, safeties that would be worth looking at before the later round (rounds 5-7). Pompei gives his readers an extensive list of safeties available in this draft, and from Pompei's perspective Barron and, possibly, Notre Dame S Harrison Smith are the only two safeties that would be worthy of a first or second round pick.
What if Barron is off the board early, and Smith is not worth the first-round pick, but is gone by Cincinnati's No. 53 in the second round? There are options that could be great value picks in the fourth and fifth rounds for the Bengals.
Oregon State S Brandon Hardin (6-3, 217): Hardin's size and speed is a lethal combination at safety and his athleticism gives him good potential. On the other side, Hardin didn't play in 2011 because of a broken shoulder, and missed time because of other injuries. He ran a 4.43 40 and had a 35.5 inch vertical at his pro day. Those numbers alone could give him a push up many teams' boards and make him a solid fourth to fifth round pick.
Oklahoma State S Markelle Martin (6-1, 207): Martin has tremendous athleticism and good size for a free safety in the NFL, but he needs help with his footwork and tends to get beat over the top. Recent mocks have projected Martin to the Bengals in the third round, though I think that is a bit early. He could end up being a fifth round player because he is coming off of a knee injury, but he ran well at his pro day a week ago and it looks like his injury is less of a concern. Martin has a fantastic upside with potential in the NFL and a great value for the Bengals in the fourth or fifth rounds.
The Bengals have a foundation, something that they can build on. That being said there is no way that the coaching staff (or fans), feel confident about the team's safety roster right now. Reggie Nelson is the only player with proven production. The Bengals will likely select a safety during the NFL draft, and hopefully that safety will be Mark Barron with the No. 17 overall pick -- if he's there. However there is plenty of talent and value in the later rounds that could become good contributors for Cincinnati's defense.