There are a couple of positions that the Cincinnati Bengals traditionally neglect in the early rounds of the draft. Tight end, offensive guard and safety are the ones that are ignored until the middle or later rounds. Some of that has changed in the past few years with two first round picks in the last four drafts going to tight ends (Jermaine Gresham in 2010 and Tyler Eifert in 2013), as well as one being used on a guard in 2012 (Kevin Zeitler). That just leaves safety as a position that doesn't get much attention from the staff.
However, that doesn't mean that Marvin Lewis hasn't tried to fill the two safety spots over his long tenure with the Bengals. Lewis has always sought that enforcer in the back of the secondary, but just hasn't seemed to find that rock. Preferring to look at veteran free agents, a number of players have come and gone without having much of an impact. Names like Kim Herring, Dexter Jackson, Roy Williams and Ifeyani Ohalete have manned the strong safety spot. Be it from injuries and/or ineffectiveness, none of those players truly worked out for the team. They also used Chris Crocker back there and he provided two solid seasons out of his four with the team. He doesn't appear to be in their plans moving forward, but we've been wrong on that assumption before.
Now it's on to some younger guys. Before the 2011 season, the Bengals swung a trade to land former 49ers safety Taylor Mays. Once considered a top-ten pick if he had come out after his junior year, Mays slipped to the second round of the 2010 draft and into the Bengals' grasp for a measly seventh-round pick in the trade. Mays is a physical specimen and a hard-hitter, but he has to catch up on the mental aspects of the position, to say the least.
True to their draft strategy, the Bengals waited until the third round to draft a safety this year. Also true to their draft strategy, they tapped the University of Georgia to get Shawn Williams as a competitor for the open position. Williams had a reputation for being stout against the run and making a play here and there in pass coverage. Williams also was a very vocal leader for the Bulldogs defense and was well-respected on that unit. So, what's the problem? Williams admitted shortly after the Bengals drafted him that some of the pass coverage concepts were completely foreign to him.
Beyond those two, there are other versatile players like George Iloka, Tony Dye and Jeromy Miles. Iloka and Miles are primarily special teams players and Dye didn't make the final roster last year. The strong safety position was so dire last year that Miles relieved Mays after he performed poorly and the team then had to re-sign Crocker after Miles' attempts weren't any better than Mays'.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN:
- Pick one of these guys and stick with them. All of these options are ones that are raw, but have potential upside. Though most believe that there is enough of a sample size from Mays to declare that he isn't the guy, I'm not so sure. They pulled the rug out from under him after just a couple of games last year and did the same with Miles after that. This type of move crushes a youngster's confidence level and obviously takes away from possible development. Roll with the ups and downs that each one of these options will provide.
- Though they need to pick a guy, still mix in the others in packages. Like other positions on the roster, each option provides different strengths and weaknesses. Most of the options seem to trend toward thumpers who support in the run game, but a guy like Iloka could be intriguing if used in pass coverage. After all, he did line up as both a corner and safety while at Boise State.
- Use this year as a barometer for how high of an investment is needed in 2014. It's a make-or-break season for Mays, to put it lightly. He has been running with the ones in OTAs this year, but he's hanging onto that by a very thin thread. If Williams earns the starting job at any point and struggles mightily, then a big investment needs to be made next year, be it in the draft or free agency. The truth remains that this is the weakest position on the roster this season, and the long-term solution needs to be found.
If I were a betting man, I'd go against the grain and guess that Mays will be the starter to begin the year. I just think that he's a guy that both Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer love, even if he frustrates them at times. In truth, Mays might be the best option, given his accrued NFL experience and overall upside. It should be noted that Mays told the media a couple of months ago that he has trimmed down to under 230 pounds to move around better, and spent the time before OTAs working on his technique.
Most fans feel as if they have seen enough of Mays to warrant their calling for Williams to be given a shot. It's not an outrageous demand either, as Mays hasn't done anything to instill confidence--particularly in pass coverage. Still, if there is a coach who can turn around a guy's career, it's Zimmer, and Mays could be feeling the fact that he's on his last leg. Mays doesn't need to play like the top-ten talent we saw in his junior season at USC, but if he just limits the mental mistakes and have better instincts, then they're in business. Williams' reputation says that his instincts are solid, as are his leadership abilities, but the statement of pass coverage concepts being foreign to him is scary--especially in today's tight end friendly NFL.