Even though the depth chart shows some new faces at safety for the Bengals this year, there is not a lot of uncertainty at the position, particularly at the top. Three of the four safeties who were on the 53 man roster last year return for 2015, with Taylor Mays being the sole departure. Barring an apocalyptic series of events, George Iloka and Reggie Nelson will be the starting safeties come Week 1.
While Reggie Nelson may not be talked about as much as the rest of his counterparts in the Bengals secondary, he has easily been the most consistent of them all. Since arriving in Cincinnati in 2010 via trade, Nelson has missed a grand total of three games. He has had at least two interceptions each year in orange and black, while capping out at four in both 2011 and 2014. Until Dre Kirkpatrick began getting more reps toward the end of last season, Nelson was the biggest playmaker in the Bengals’ secondary as well. While Nelson may be 31-years-old, nothing in his play indicates any type of drop-off coming in 2015. Nelson hauling in between two and five picks and grabbing 50-60 tackles in 2015 would be an even odds bet in Vegas.
Nelson’s counterpart, George Iloka is a player who all of Bengaldom should be very excited about. There isn’t a team in the NFL who wouldn’t take the 6’4", 225 pound 25-year-old. Taking his draft position into account, Iloka is one of the best draft picks of the Marvin Lewis era. Having improved in nearly every statistical category each successive year in the NFL, it’s a safe bet to count on Iloka continuing his upward trend this year. The only gripe Bengals fans can really have with Iloka is his lack of game changing plays. After accruing only one interception in 2013, Iloka grabbed three in 2014, with two coming in a drubbing of the Falcons in Week 2. If he can become more of a game changer this year, the Bengals may have their first Pro Bowl defensive back since Deltha O’Neal in 2005.
The first safety off of the bench, regardless of if he is replacing Iloka or Nelson is third year man Shawn Williams. Since being drafted, Williams has been stuck behind the uber-durable starting combination. That has left him unable to make much of a mark on the Bengals’ defense. Williams has become a solid contributor on special teams though, which is likely what made the front office comfortable with letting go of Taylor Mays. While we are not sure of what Williams brings on the defensive side of the ball, we are all familiar with Mays’ struggles in the secondary. Based on who is around and who is not, it’s safe to say the coaching staff is more confident in Williams than they were in Mays. If Williams manages to make an impact on defense this year, Reggie Nelson’s upcoming free agency will be more interesting.
Behind these three is an assortment of rookies, journeymen, and possibly a cornerback if you put an emphasis on Leon Hall’s positioning in OTAs. Erick Dargan and Floyd Raven are undrafted free agents, Derron Smith was drafted in the sixth round, and Shiloh Keo is looking to make the Bengals’ roster after being waived by the Texans after the 2013 season. He was subsequently signed by the Bengals to a futures contract in January. In reality, the fourth safety position will most likely come down to a battle between Keo and Derron Smith.
Raven only played two seasons at Texas A&M, racking up 67 total tackles and zero interceptions. On the other hand, Dargan played 48 games for the Oregon Ducks during his four-year collegiate career. His time in Eugene was notable, ranking first in interceptions in the Pac-12 in 2014 with seven. During that same season, Dargan also tallied 94 tackles. Despite those numbers, Dargan will have to really impress to leapfrog Smith and Keo. That makes him a prime practice squad candidate.
In 2013, Keo worked his way into the Texans’ starting lineup, beating out Ed Reed. He was solid, but unspectacular. He snagged one interception and racked up 52 tackles. After starting 11 games in 2013, Keo did not play in any games in 2014 before eventually being waived by Houston. Keo’s strength is his special teams work. He was even named the Texans special teams captain in 2012. However, with Williams already providing a special teams impact from a reserve safety position, Keo will have to outplay Smith at the safety position to beat him out.
Beating out Smith will be no small task. He has already impressed in OTAs, as noted by Geoff Hobson. Everyone’s favorite defensive backs coach, Vance Joseph, has also taken note of Smith’s performance.
"He was a four-year starter at Fresno State so he has played a bunch of football," Joseph said, via Cincinnati.com. You can kind of tell that when you watch him play. He has great savvy for the game. He's very, very smart, a quick runner. He's going to help us."
Despite having draft grades ranging from the second to fourth rounds, Smith was selected by the Bengals in the sixth round this year. While starting for all four years of his collegiate career at Fresno State, Smith ranked in the top 10 of the Mountain West Conference in tackles from 2012-2014 while also grabbing seven interceptions his junior year, good enough to put him atop the Mountain West that year.
With the early buzz generated by Smith, he is my pick to become the fourth safety. Keo’s NFL experience may give him a slight edge, but he is a known commodity. If Smith can match him in training camp, expect him to be receiving a good news phone call from Marvin Lewis when the preseason concludes.
In 2015, there are two other names that may see time at safety despite being cornerbacks. With both Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick battling for reps alongside Leon Hall and Adam Jones, snaps will come at a premium for each member of that position group. That’s not to mention Josh Shaw, this year’s fourth round pick from USC. The 6’1" 200 pounder has safety size, while his 4.44 40-yard dash shows that he has the speed to run with the majority of NFL wide receivers today. While I think it was merely an experiment that ultimately took place due to Iloka not being able to participate in OTAs, Hall did line up at safety. On the other hand, Shaw, who has also impressed in OTAs, may be a player that the Bengals want to get on the field in some way, shape, or form. The logjam that is the cornerback depth chart will make it difficult for him to secure playing time there, but the relative thinness of the safety position makes him acquiring time there a real possibility.