The close competition at the No.2 wide receiver position isn't the only heated battle on the Bengals roster this year. The entire secondary is wide open, with spots at cornerback and safety all being looked at closely. The Bengals haven't had a true threat at the strong safety position since David Fulcher. You could argue that Sam Shade was a solid safety for the team, but he was more of a flash in the pan type of player. The team just hasn't put a premium on the position, similar to that of tight end (though that has changed in recent years).
With Chris Crocker getting the axe earlier this year, the team was looking to get younger, healthier and more athletic at the position. There are a lot of players attempting to stake their claim at the position right now and nothing is set in stone. Let's take a look at this group after the first two preseason games.
Tony Dye: The undrafted rookie impressed in minicamps and has found himself grinding for a roster spot. He hasn't shown much through the first two preseason games and his best shot at making the final 53 appears to be via special teams. In playing the numbers game, Dye seems as if he will land on the Practice Squad, unless the team unexpectedly favors him over another player at the position.
Jeromy Miles: This kid just keeps hanging around, doesn't he? He has been a monster on special teams in his career and just does whatever is asked of him. He's coming off of an incredible game against the Falcons where he racked up seven tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He's the guy pushing current starter, Taylor Mays, the most and looks to fend off a couple of other players to after playing in 22 regular season games over the past two seasons.
Taylor Mays: "The Specimen", as I like to call him. If he's not careful, he'll decapitate someone out on the field and we're not sure which team that player will be on. In all seriousness, Mays plays the safety position with the size of a linebacker and the speed of a corner. It's the mental aspect of the game that he has yet to grasp. In the preseason, Mays' biggest plays have involved knocking himself and his teammates out of games. Head coach Marvin Lewis likes what he has seen out of Mays, in terms of aggressiveness, but he wants Mays to have greater field awareness as well. If Mays reaches his full potential, the Bengals have a perennial Pro Bowler. Big if.
Other guys grinding for spots--Robert Sands and George Iloka: Both of these guys are listed behind Reggie Nelson as free safeties, but they could very well get time at the strong safety as well. Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer like to interchange the safety positions in certain packages and require their safeties to be versatile. Sands has the size to play the strong safety spot and Iloka can line up at cornerback if they were short at that spot (he did so at times at Boise State). Though they may not be true strong safeties, their versatility could get them a spot over guys like Dye and Miles. Sands flashed in the first game, but was part of a group that was victimized by the Falcons' passing offense all evening.
As it stands, the starting strong safety position seems to be Mays' to lose. It's apparent that both Lewis and Zimmer love the kid, as they attempted to draft him in the second round of the 2010 and then traded for him the following year. That being said, it's not as if Mays is running away with the job and still isn't trusted to be a three-down safety at this point. He'll be stout against the run and will make some big hits, but he needs to refine the ballhawk skills a bit. Last season, the team unexpectedly kept six safeties. We find it hard to believe that they will keep more than five this season with four being the likelier possibility.