Among the many pressing needs the Bengals have, the safety position hasn't gotten quite the same frantic attention (despite our protests) as quarterback, wide receiver, offensive lineman, cornerback, or general manager. In part, that's because the team has enough serviceable, if unspectacular, guys penciled in now, including Cris Crocker and Jacksonville transplant Reggie Nelson (currently "grinding" away in FLA in anticipation of a starting role). There's also the fact that the safety draft class is a rather weak one this year, something coach Marvin Lewis has pointed out.
"Guys are playing different spots [...] You've got more guys trying to play corner, they're becoming big receivers. You would think with all the spread offenses in college there would be more, but the last few years there have been less. We felt last year like there was a pretty good drop-off after a certain point."
It's interesting to hear then that Lewis sees some potential in the draft. During his annual pre-draft press conference, which Joe Reedy has given us a sample of, Lewis had this to say about this year's safety class:
"There are going to be some that probably rise up and be good players. Maybe they come from different positions. They come a little bit lower (rank) right now, but chances are they’ll end up being good players."
The first thing that should prick up your ears here is Lewis's suggestion that a good future safety might emerge from a player currently at another position, particularly in light of these recent remarks by LSU uber-cornerback Patrick Peterson:
"I just don't want to be a cornerback. I want to go, at the next level, and show the teams and the GMs that I can play pretty much every position on the field. If they need me to play safety, I'm down to play safety. If they need to blitz off the corner, off the edge, I'm down for that as well."
While the team desperately needs a QB, the general consensus is that picking one at #4 would be over-reaching for them and they'd be far better off getting someone up in the second round, like Andy Dalton or Christian Ponder if they're still available, or trading some mid-round or future picks to secure another first round slot to grab one of those guys. The two names that make the most sense then for the team at #4 are Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green and Peterson. Green may end up being the guy, especially considering the presumed departure of Chad Ochocinco and the inexperience of the remaining receiving corps, but Peterson may be the best player available at #4 if he's still there. Some say he's the best player in the draft. Our own Ryan Harper advocates a Peterson pick. Assuming he's as good as people are saying and can handle the position, he'd certainly be an instant upgrade over what's currently on the roster. Besides Crocker and R. Nelson, both signed through 2012, the team still has T. Nelson as a exclusive-rights free agent, which means he'll likely be back. Roy Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe will be free agents, as will Gibril Wilson. There's also practice squad projects Rico Murray and Jeromy Miles.
But Lewis's vague comments obviously don't point directly to Peterson. Even if they can grab him, the team might still choose to pass and draft a guy in the later rounds while banking on the renewed health of a backfield that was a mess last season: free agent pick-up Wilson tore his ACL in the preseason; Crocker tore his MCL on November 21; back-up Tom Nelson struggled with a knee injury most of the year; sometime-starter Chinedum Ndukwe hurt his knee in December; forearm problems and what was described as "some kind of MCL injury to his knee" limited starter Roy Williams to 12 games. The preseason trade for Reggie Nelson shored things up a bit, but it's clearly still an area for concern, which is why they'll have to draft someone and hope he's that guy Lewis sees becoming a "good player."
CBS Sports.com has UCLA's Rahim Moore and Oklahoma's Quinton Carter as the top safeties available this year's draft, both likely going in the third round. There are also players like Florida's Ahmad Black, Temple's Jaiquawn Jarrett, Iowa's Tyler Sash, Clemson's DeAndre McDaniel, and West Virginia's Robert Sands Unfortunately, hoping that a mid-to-late round pick blossoms might just be part of the pattern of the team not taking the safety position very seriously.
Other than the draft, the team could pursue some established veteran free agents, but that might prove too costly. So, maybe the best bet is to hope Lewis is subtly pointing toward Peterson, or he has a plan to convert some other hot DB prospect to safety that we don't know about. Otherwise, we're all crossing our fingers for another year.