Take a look back at the Bengals' 2012 draft class for a moment. After having a solid handful of drafts the previous three years, it was this class that would truly define the overall depth and direction of the team. It was the first of two drafts where the Bengals had multiple high picks from the Carson Palmer trade with the Raiders, so they needed to make sure that they grabbed quality players.
After grabbing immediate needs with their two first round picks in cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, the team seemed to go best player available the rest of the way. What occurred was magic, as the team grabbed players anywhere from one to three rounds lower than most pundits predicted them to land. Safety George Iloka was considered one of those steals.
Coming out of Boise State, Iloka was a lanky guy with a lot of range and potential. There were times that he lined up on the edge as a corner, others in the slot and then deep in the secondary as any safety would. Some believed that he could go as high as the second or third round, but somehow he dove all the way to the fifth and into the Bengals' lap. It's not often that a 6'4", 220-pound defensive back that runs a 4.6 forty-yard dash makes it to a team that low in the draft.
The first three players that we have put on this list are deemed as backups and fringe roster guys that could be solid contributors next year. Iloka marks the point in the countdown where we look at starting players potentially making big leaps next year.
The Tale Of The Tape:
Iloka wasn't trusted as a rookie for significant time and was mostly on the inactive list as a rookie. But, things changed in 2013, as he was placed into a rotating role at free safety, where he was the primary starter. He played well as a deep safety and in the slot, garnering 66 total tackles (41 solo), six passes defensed, one interception, two forced fumbles and a recovery. He wasn't a shining star on the No.3 overall defensive unit, but he was a solid contributor.
Iloka flashed the ability to run with wide receivers and cover tight ends--two major bug-a-boos from past Bengals' safeties. It's often said that the third year is when NFL players begin to hit their stride and enter their prime, so we could see some high-level play from Iloka in 2014. Did I mention that he's 6'4", 220 pounds?
What To Expect In 2014:
I don't want to jump to conclusions and shout "Pro Bowl", but if Iloka continues his trend upward, he could could a high-impact player. Chris Crocker ate into his playing time a little bit last year and though he has left, Danieal Manning has been added to the fold and Taylor Mays is back from injury as both a safety and linebacker sort. Still, Iloka should have a hold on that starting safety spot next to Reggie Nelson.
When you look back at Iloka's 2013 season, he actually left about two more interceptions on the field. If he can work on his concentration and hands this offseason, it could create a nasty combination with his already-stout tackling ability. Where he will need to continue to be solid and even improve is with the covering of tight ends. The AFC North is littered with quality players at the position and need to be shut down for the team to make hay against the tough foes. It's a good thing that he sees a handful of quality tight ends in practice every day here in Cincinnati.
Iloka has almost all of the attributes that an NFL team would want out of the prototypical safety: size, speed, savvy in coverage and tackling ability. Now he just needs to continue to hone those skills, stay healthy and get more playing time.