In truth, there are only a handful of starting spots available this year. On offense, battles are being waged for the starting center and the No. 2 receiver spot. On defense, the only opening that remains is at starting strong safety; though there are battles being waged deeper on the depth chart.
Heading into April's draft, the safety position opposite of Reggie Nelson was considered to be one of the team's biggest weaknesses. In truth, the Bengals didn't like the early prospects compared to the value placed on their draft board. They waited until the third round to snag Shawn Williams during the 2013 NFL draft.
And now with August within arm's reach, Williams is in the middle of a fierce competition with second-year safety George Iloka and veteran Taylor Mays. With nearly a week's worth of practices already in the books, no one has emerged as the favorite.
During a single practice, all three candidates are playing well and often rotating snaps with the first-team unit, making it difficult to figure out who is winning the battle.
Taylor Mays is no longer making the same mistakes he made like last year. He's avoided the poor angles or even taking out his own teammates. In fact, it was Shawn Williams that took out his own teammate in Brandon Ghee, allowing receiver Ryan Whalen to score an easy touchdown. But that mistake is almost excusable because Williams is a rookie and training camp is still young. Williams also made up for it by destroying everybody he faced in the Oklahoma drill.
Lastly, George Iloka has been generating a lot buzz from the coaches for his work during spring practices. It's clear now that Iloka has leapfrogged Jeromy Miles, who started a game last year and was thought to be in the mix for the starting job this season. Iloka's coverage throughout camp has been stellar. He has stood out by blanketing receivers and breaking up passes.
Clearly, based on repetitions with the first team, this is a battle between Mays, Iloka, and Williams. Iloka (6'4") and Mays (6'3") bring some length and height to the position, while Williams is shorter, thicker, and stouter. Iloka has the unique ability to cover as a cornerback, while Williams and Mays shouldn't be trusted against quicker receivers. At the same time, Mays and Williams are known for their devastating hard hits.
It's an interesting battle, but we won't learn much until the preseason kicks off in Atlanta on August 8. We need to see how these players react during similar competition. What mistakes will they make against quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, and Andrew Luck? There may be little surprises but until then, this battle won't be won until the preseason.