Over the course of the 2011 season, Bengals fans became increasingly frustrated with the mistakes made by starting strong safety Chris Crocker. While he certainly had some good games and was particularly effective in pass rushing, his mistakes in both run support and coverage were too large to ignore. It all culminated when Crocker dropped an easy interception and got plowed over by Arian Foster in last year's wild card game. In the offseason, Crocker was the only player cut by the Bengals, who cited injury concerns about Crocker's knee (and perhaps a decision to "go younger" at the safety spot).
This year, the Bengals are hosting an open competition for whomever will be starting next to Reggie Nelson. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer doesn't use the "strong" and "free" designations as they are truly defined, but the strong safety spot is open, for all intents and purposes. Zimmer would often have Crocker stay deep and Nelson move up to the line of scrimmage- a switch you won't see as often in a normal defense. Therefore, whoever takes the strong safety spot, needs to be extremely versatile.
Former second round pick and standout USC safety Taylor Mays has been the one taking first team snaps during OTAs, but Head Coach Marvin Lewis stated that "I don't think there's a clear cut leader right now", when asked about the strong safety spot.
The leading candidates are Taylor Mays (6'3", 230 pounds), George Iloka (6'4", 225), Jeromy Miles (6'2", 210), and Robert Sands (6'4", 215). As you can see, the stature of these guys is pretty astounding for a strong safety. Chris Crocker was only 5'11, 200 pounds. This evolution is perhaps a response to the growing use of tall, athletic tight ends like Rob Gronkowski (6'6", 250) and Jimmy Graham (6'7", 265 pounds), who are too fast to be covered by traditional linebackers and too tall to be covered by traditional strong safeties. It's a matchup nightmare for guys like Crocker.
In 2011, sometimes the Bengals couldn't even slow down opposing tight ends. Browns tight ends Evan Moore and Ben Watson caught both of Cleveland's touchdowns in week one. The 49ers' Vernon Davis posted eight receptions for 114 yards in week two. The worst came when the Houston Texans' tight ends combined for ten receptions, 122 yards, and a touchdown in week fourteen.
Zimmer used just about everyone who could to slow down these tight ends, but the only one who could was Taylor Mays. He was used as an emergency safety late in a few games, for example, when Owen Daniels became unstoppable for the Texans. At Zimmer's discretion, Mays would replace Rey Maualuga or Thomas Howard and have Mays become the team's third linebacker. Sometimes Mays entirely replaced Chris Crocker for a series or two. It wasn't much, but it was clear what the Bengals were using Mays for - to stop unstoppable tight ends.
In the first Houston game, the T.J. Yates had his eyes locked on his tight ends, who were targeted thirteen times in the game. Thomas Howard, Rey Maualuga, Reggie Nelson, and Nate Clements were all used in coverage against them, but none of these players were responsible for a single incompletion when thrown to. When Zimmer finally decided to use Taylor Mays in the fourth quarter, he smothered Owen Daniels and stuck to his hip like no one else had done. Mays covered Daniels like a blanket for twenty two snaps. In that time frame, Daniels was only targeted once, which was broken up by Mays.
Why didn't Zimmer use Mays on more than 61 snaps for the entire year? Well, Mays was a late addition to the team. His ability to cover deep was a big question mark, as was his overall versatility. Calling and diagnosing plays, as well as covering smaller slot receivers is something that Zimmer requires his safeties to do, and Mays simply wasn't ready yet. Mays' defensive snaps had been increasing as the year went on, which is why it was a shame that he went down for the year with a hamstring injury in week sixteen.
Coming into 2012, those same question marks still exist for Mays. He hasn't quite shown that he can play deep coverage down the field. He doesn't have great ballhawking skills, and is slow to react to quarterbacks' throws. Rather he relies on laying a big hit on the receiver once he catches the ball, which is the wrong strategy to take in the NFL. There's no greater evidence of this weakness than this play [video] last year, when Mays completely whiffs, trying to make a big hit on St. Louis Rams' wide receiver Donario Alexander.
Mays' biggest strengths are his size, strength, and speed, which have led to a lot of hype wherever Mays goes. He can lay absolutely huge, punishing hits on ballcarriers, but struggles with breaking down and turning his hips in general. If Mays can improve the mental aspect of his game, he can be a force in the NFL. And that's exactly what Mays has been working on thie offseason, according to Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson.
"I'm taking the things I learned from Mark, Hue and Zim and put them all together mentally and physically," Mays said. "That's a lot of technique. The consistency of the technique is the biggest thing for me. The technique hasn't changed, but Coach Zimmer is very detailed in what he wants. Having that consistency and being able to repeat it all the time, that's really what I'm trying to do going into training camp."
Mays better be able to show that consistency in training camp, because he's got a lot of promising talent behind him as well. 2012 5th rounder George Iloka has been around the ball a lot during OTA's and minicamp, while 2011 5th rounder Robert Sands and 2010 undrafted free agent Jeromy Miles have a bit more experience under their belts. This year's undrafted safety, Tony Dye has showed promise as well, but he has a big uphill climb to make to beat out the other players. The Bengals may even choose to move a cornerback like Nate Clements or Jason Allen over to strong safety if the other guys can't get it done. These veterans might make less mistakes than the young guns since they have so much experience in the secondary. With Zimmer, making less mistakes is more important than an imposing physical presence, which Zimmer hinted at in an interview in early June.
"In some areas; still got a ways to go," Zimmer said when asked about Mays's progress. "(He needs) consistency. Doing things right. Discipline. Accountability. Whoever lines up there, that is what I want: accountability. Day in and day out."
All in all, it will be an exciting battle to watch this year in training camp. What we do know for sure, is that whoever ends up with the job, will surely have his growing pains. Everyone of these guys has a lot of potential, but a lot of question marks as well. Don't be so sure that the safety position has been solved just because Chris Crocker is gone.