Reggie Nelson isn't the biggest, baddest or strongest defender on the Bengals.
Nelson doesn't have the immeasurable combination of strength and quickness like Geno Atkins, nor the intense attitude of Dre Kirkpatrick nor Vontaze Burfict's reckless abandon. There are no Pro Bowl commendations or All-Pro celebrations for Nelson and save for the noticeable flow of tightly woven dreads bouncing around in the defensive backfield, you might be inclined to forget about him. Yet, reliability and stability in Cincinnati's evolving secondary are common core descriptions which define Nelson.
Nelson has played 77 of 80 games since joining the Bengals (he missed one game in 2013 and two in 2012, all due to a hamstring). In addition to finishing first or second on the team with interceptions during three of the past four seasons, no Bengals defender has secured more interceptions since 2012.
Last season, Nelson finished second on the team with 92 tackles, a team-leading four interceptions while securing 13 passes defensed, which ranked second on the team. A fourth-quarter Nelson interception eventually led to a Mike Nugent go-ahead field goal against the Carolina Panthers. Nelson out-muscled a Julius Thomas completion that led to an interception and an eventual touchdown to give Cincinnati a 17-7 second quarter lead against the Broncos. A fourth quarter interception helped seal a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers early in 2013. Six days later, Nelson recovered a Johnathan Franklin fumble but lost the football. Terence Newman recovered the twice-fumbled football and returned it 58 yards for a game-winning touchdown against the Green Bay Packers.
If you spent time reflecting on Pete Prisco's "most underrated" piece, I'm going to guess that Nelson wasn't even an alternative for you; of course Prisco's sentiment was more about the national observation of Andrew Whitworth. Was he mentioned in the top 100 players, which is a vote from the players, elected into the Pro Bowl or nominated for any much-deserved award? No. Whitworth is forgotten on the national level, but favored locally.
How did he join the Bengals?
Entering the league as a first round pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 21 overall), expectations for Nelson were high. And he answered, racking up five interceptions, a sack, 11 passes defensed and two forced fumbles in his rookie season. It laid the groundwork for even higher expectations going forward; or great disappointment. Depleted talent around him, Jacksonville's coaching staff misusing him as a cornerback, and general underperformance, put Nelson into Jack Del Rio's doghouse. After three seasons in Jacksonville, he was officially on the trading block.
The Bengals called and struck a deal for Nelson shortly before the season began. They shipped cornerback David Jones (who surprisingly made the team at the time), and a conditional pick that ended up being a seventh-rounder in 2012, for Nelson. Nelson, who played well early on, mostly as a backup player with a pivotal special teams role, signed a four-year deal worth $18 million in 2012.
Biggest question heading into training camp
Nelson's four-year deal will expire after this season, encouraging wondering minds to navigate through alternative waters when approaching the safety position next season.
In addition to developing safeties like Derron Smith and Shawn Williams, and the advancement of fringe cornerbacks moving to safety like Josh Shaw and Leon Hall, the position is quietly becoming crowded. Nelson will also turn 32-years-old this September; if he signs another deal with the Bengals, he'll become 33 on the first year of his new contract when the season kicks off in 2016. The Bengals have shown a willingness to sign two or three-year deals with veteran players and Nelson seems like a strong candidate to be the beneficiary of that.
Then there's the unresolved contract issue with George Iloka, who is entering the final year of his four-year rookie deal. Cincinnati favors Iloka's youth and upside over Nelson and will attempt to sign Iloka first; that being said, whomever signs first, it won't be an indication of favoritism, as much as ease.
In his five year career with the Bengals, Nelson has generated 15 interceptions, scored one touchdown, forced five fumbles and sacked the quarterback 5.5 times. Perhaps the biggest play he has made as a Bengals safety came in Week 16 in 2012. Nelson picked off a Ben Roethlisberger pass, setting up a game-winning field goal that eventually sent Cincinnati to the playoffs for the second consecutive season.