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Bengals' safety Reggie Nelson having career year; should be in Defensive Player of Year conversation

The Bengals' defense looks dominant, and a big reason why is Reggie Nelson, who's having a career year.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Someone needs to investigate how the Cincinnati Bengals have found the fountain of youth.

It seems like every 30-something-year-old player on their team is having a great, if not career year at the time when they should be fading closer to retirement. The latest example of that is Reggie Nelson, who may go down as the greatest steal in Bengals trade history.

Now five years after sending cornerback David Jones (last played in the NFL in 2012) to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Nelson, the 32-year-old defensive back is in the midst of not only his best season as a pro, but one that could end with him earning some awards come season's end.

Through 12 games, Nelson leads the NFL with seven interceptions (2 more than his previous career-high set in 2007 with Jacksonville) and has picked off a pass in four-straight games. His latest came during the second quarter of Sunday's 37-3 win over the Cleveland Browns.

All Nelson could think about after the game was how close he and his defense came to shutting out the Browns completely.

"I really got upset when they scored the field goal, because we worked so hard through the week," Nelson said of Sunday's game. "We wanted that goose egg so bad, so we just gotta keep on practicing hard and come out playing hard-nosed football."

Nelson has quietly climbed up the Bengals' franchise record book with 22 career picks in Cincinnati. That has him in sixth place all-time in franchise history, three interceptions behind Lemar Parrish for fifth place and four behind Leon Hall for fourth place.

Ironically, both Hall and Nelson become free agents this offseason, but it's clear the latter needs to be retained this offseason. Nelson is also fourth in franchise history with 57 pass deflections, only two posts behind Tory James for third place.

You could also make a case for Nelson being in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation at the production rate he's currently on. He's easily been one of the biggest defensive performers this season while having a real shot at finishing the regular season as the interception leader. Depending on what guys like J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald and Josh Norman do, Nelson could certainly be in the discussion for this award and may end up having a real shot at it if he finishes the regular season strong.

His current pace would put him at 11 interceptions (10.667 to be exact based on a .667 interception per game pace) along with 12 pass deflections and 76 total tackles.

For perspective and a history on defensive backs winning the award, former Steelers safety Troy Polamalu won the AP Defensive Player of the Year award in 2010 after finishing with seven picks, 11 pass deflections and 63 total tackles.

Charles Woodson won it with the Packers in 2009 after picking off nine passes and notching 74 tackles with 18 pass deflections and four forced fumbles. Former Colts safety Bob Sanders won it in 2007 after registering 96 tackles, 3.5 sacks two picks and six pass deflections. Former Ravens safety Ed Reed won the award in 2004 thanks to nine interceptions, three forced fumbles, eight pass deflections and 76 total tackles.

But no defensive back has won this award since Polamalu did back in 2010. Watt has won it twice while linebackers Luke Kuechly and Terrell Suggs also won it.

It's going to take an amazing performance in the final four regular-season games for Nelson to have a real shot at the award, but at the very least, he's put himself in position to be mentioned in the award discussion.

For now, Nelson is just focusing in on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger, whom Nelson has picked off five times in his career.

"It is big. It is always a hard-nosed football game when we play Pittsburgh and Big Ben," Nelson said. "He does a great job of leading his troops and we just have to prepare for them."

Nelson actually picked off Roethlisberger twice in the Bengals' Week 8 win in Pittsburgh, a game in which the defense powered Cincinnati to a 16-10 win. He'll look to do the same again this week as the Bengals look to clinch the AFC North for just the third time since 1991.