The safety group had some bumps throughout the season, but proved to be better than many expected.
Like the cornerback position, safety is also a spot that is only partially solved for the Bengals' immediate future. Reggie Nelson had what appeared to be his best season as a Bengal, but the other safety spot has yet to be adequately filled. Chris Crocker did a decent job when he was brought back to the team in September. Taylor Mays, Nate Clements, and even Jeromy Miles had a role in the safety position this season. The team will look for an upgrade this offseason, but for the 2012 year, the safeties played better than many expected.
Reggie Nelson- Reggie Nelson may have been the Bengals best defensive back this season. He did an excellent job in pass coverage and was slightly above average against the run. He made a few errors in coverage that nearly caused Zimmer to burst a blood vessel, but that is something we have come to expect from Nelson. Overall, he was a lot more consistent this season than he was in 2010 or '11, with the Week 16 game against Pittsburgh being one of the better games I have seen him play.
Nelson signed a four-year contract to remain with the Bengals last March. While Nelson has had previous issues with tackling and missed assignments, it was a must for the Bengals to re-sign him. It is important to have a play-making safety, and that is exactly what he is. Nelson also has the ability to correctly time a blitz, which has allowed him to pick up a combined four sacks over the previous two seasons.
Chris Crocker- Going into the season, it was expected that either Nate Clements or Taylor Mays would play next to Nelson at strong safety. Fans certainly did not want to have to bring back Chris Crocker, who was humiliated against the Texans in the 2011 playoff game, but that is exactly what happened. Crocker, unable to get work during the offseason, re-signed with the Bengals in late September. Although Crocker was unable to get his revenge in Houston due to injury, he put together a solid season.
One of the best qualities that Crocker has is that he plays the safety position with intelligence. He may not have great talent, but he is someone that Zimmer can trust. He helps make sure that the defense is lined up correctly and helps Nelson out. Nelson blew less plays this season, but he still needs an intelligent safety at his side at times. Crocker ended up with a grade of 0.2 for run defense and 2.0 for pass defense. Both of these grades outperforming his grades of -4.4 and -0.7 from last season, respectively.
Whether or not Crocker will return next season is in question, but many Bengals fans would love to have him return as a backup. He provides veteran leadership, and the defense started to play better once he rejoined the team.
Nate Clements- Clements had previously played cornerback in the NFL at a high level for about 11 seasons, but he started playing a lot of safety this season. He played mostly in nickel packages, often times still covering wide receivers. Clements has been known as a sure tackler, but he missed seven total tackles during his first three games at his new position. According to Pro Football Focus, Clements graded out at -3.4 for run defense. In the 2011 season, Clements graded as 3.5 against the run. He graded as 5.6 during the 2010 season. He graded out positively (1.6) against the pass, after grading as -3.5 last season, but Clements had a lot more snaps against the pass (570) in 2011, than he did in 2012 (382). To be fair, he also had more snaps against the run (415) in 2011 than he did this season (274).
Clements is a smart football player. He can still read and diagnose plays well. He still gives maximum effort, he's been in the league a long time and he can still provide veteran leadership. It seems that 2012 may have been his last season in a Bengals uniform. Clements is a free agent and almost certainly will not returnnext season. If the Bengals do decide to bring him back on a one-year deal, he will have to perform well in training camp in order to make the team.
Taylor Mays- Taylor Mays is still young (almost 25). He has a lot of time to figure out how to play the position. He will continue to get opportunities due to his phenomenal athleticism. He has the ability to be elite on special teams, but that is not what the 49ers expected when they selected Mays in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft. The Bengals gave up a mere seventh-round pick in order to acquire him last season.
Mays does a good job against the run. He can flat out hit. We all know that. So what is his issue? Mays appears to have below-average ball skills and does not play the role of an "intelligent" safety well. As stated above, the Bengals need to find a safety that is always in the right spot at the right time, which is more football knowledge than luck. Unfortunately, Mays is not that guy. He is a great tackler, but he does seem to struggle with tackling the opposition in the open field. The big thing that Bengals fans know is that Mays struggles with anything that has to do with man-to-man coverage.
Mays will not be a free agent until 2014, and I like having him on the team. If nothing else, Mays has the ability and attitude to be one of the better special team players on the roster. Zimmer and defensive backs coach Mark Carrier will continue to work with Mays and hopefully they will unleash the potential that has been hiding inside Mays' body.
The Rest- Jeromy Miles played some snaps at the safety spot this season, but struggled against the pass as well as the run. He does, however, do a solid job on special teams. Fifth-round pick George Iloka was inactive all season for the Bengals and he will likely play a role on special teams for the team this coming season and may get some extended looks at safety. Robert Sands, a fifth round pick in the 2011 draft, was accused of assaulting his wife in early January. The legal process will have to play itself out, but Sands may not be back with the team. He was on IR all of this past season.
The safety position is one that will be under intense scrutiny by Bengals fans as we draw closer to the draft. Mike Zimmer likes to play his safeties interchangeably in order to disguise blitzes, so don't look for a specific safety position. Marvin Lewis and Zimmer might search for an smart safety that can play the run and the pass effectively and has leadership qualities. Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro could be a possibility in round one. Florida's Matt Elam will be a potential pick with one of the second round slots. Louisiana State's Eric Reid will also factor into the discussion.
The defensive back group outperformed my expectations as a whole this season. Certainly the pass rush helped, but the likes of Hall, Newman, and Jones all played past their expectation level. If the Bengals are going to take that next step, the secondary will have to continue to improve. Depth at the corner spot and an intelligent play-making safety will help the Bengals in the upcoming 2013 NFL season.