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Bengals 2014 position recap: Safeties

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We continue looking back at the 2014 season, where things stand now and what to expect in the future. We complete the Bengals secondary with a look at safety.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

1) Reggie Nelson and George Iloka should be co-defensive MVPs

If there were MVP "groups" or "units", such as the best position group on the team, safety should get heavy consideration with the team's running backs. George Iloka and Reggie Nelson combined for 165 tackles, seven interceptions, 22 passes defensed and 1.5 quarterback sacks (all by Reggie Nelson). With a pedestrian defensive line and a linebacker group that lived in the infirmary ward, Nelson and Iloka were the few strengths on Cincinnati's Swiss cheese defense.

Nelson finished the season first on the team in interceptions (four) and second in tackles (91) and passes defensed (12). Opposing quarterbacks attempted 48 passes against Nelson, completing 29 for 292 yards receiving. Nelson allowed one touchdown and generated an opposing quarterback rating of 46.8. In discussions asking who the best safety is in the game, Nelson won't get consideration. He shouldn't... he's not one of the best in the game. However, he's a staple of this team's defense and routinely makes plays for Cincinnati.

Pro Football Focus graded George Iloka as the team's top-performing defensive player with an overall grade of +9.4. He also ranked second in run defense (+3.6) and pass coverage (+3.9). Opposing quarterbacks targeted Iloka's assignments 33 times this season, completing only 44 passes (42.4 percent) for 257 yards and only 67 YAC. Iloka didn't allow a touchdown during the regular season in 2014 and opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 42.1.

Nelson and Iloka

2) It's time to extend both players' contracts

George Iloka, drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL draft, is entering a contract year in 2015. It's the fourth and final year of a four-year rookie deal and he's scheduled to earn $660,000 in 2015, making him the 29th-highest paid player on Cincinnati's roster. Third-round safety Shawn Williams, drafted in the 2013 NFL draft, will make the same amount next season.

In the absence of Vontaze Burfict and the "just another guy" showing from Geno Atkins, Iloka stepped forward as a convincing foundation piece for Cincinnati's defense and this kid is just going to grow.

Nelson has applied a similar role over the years, leading the team in interceptions in three of the past four seasons. Cincinnati signed Nelson to a four-year deal worth $18 million in 2012, marking next season his final under contract. Nelson will turn 32 years old this September, so that may weigh heavily for the Bengals, realizing that Nelson will surpass his mid-30s on another four-year deal.

This would be a questionable dilemma if Cincinnati actually had someone that could replace Nelson. They don't.

3) Are we done with the whole Shawn Williams thing?

We brought up Williams earlier, who is a third-round draft pick from the 2013 NFL draft, and ask... are we finished with him? Williams played 26 defensive snaps in 2014, with 11 of those coming against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3. He has one tackle on defense in 2014. Essentially, Williams' role has been primarily special teams, where he finished the season tied for third with nine special teams tackles.

Aside from that, there's been no reason to believe (other than actually having "faith" or unsubstantiated musings) that Williams will make a significant run for playing time on defense. Even if the Bengals let Reggie Nelson leave after the 2015 season, I have a feeling that his replacement isn't a current Bengal.

4) How long will Taylor Mays be a bubble player?

Every year Mays approaches training camp as a resident bubble player (aka, someone with an undetermined future) and every year the team finds a way to keep him around. Usually it's related to an injury in the secondary or with a linebacker. Yet, to his credit, he usually finds some beaten path into the team's locker room during the regular season. Mays finished this year with six special teams tackles and 61 defensive snaps -- with 26 against the Denver Broncos.

Mays is entering free agency after completing a one-year deal worth $795,000. Let's not pretend that it'll be hard to re-sign him, and the Bengals should in efforts to design a deep roster heading into training camp. Whether or not he should be on the 53-man roster in 2015, we'll ask that in nine months.