As of now, nearly every starter in the Bengals secondary will become a free agent next year. At cornerback, Leon Hall and Adam Jones will hit free agency while also being in their 30s in 2016. With one or possibly both not on the team next year, Cincinnati made sure to grab a corner in this year's draft, and that ended up being USC's Josh Shaw.
The Bengals used the 120th pick of the draft to select Shaw, which could be considered great value depending on how you look at Shaw and how he ends up producing. Though it was a late fourth-round selection, Shaw was one of the more well-known prospects, though it wasn't for the right reasons. During his 2014 senior season, Shaw was a defensive co-captain for the Trojans. However, he ended up being suspended for 10 games and his reputation took a hit after he injured himself jumping off a balcony to avoid continuing a fight with his girlfriend.
Because Shaw only played in three games (plus the Senior Bowl), scouts spent more time focusing on tape from his prior years when Shaw was an All-Conference DB at USC while playing both cornerback and safety.
Shaw began his college career as a Florida Gator, where he appeared in 10 games in 2011 and recorded 22 tackles. Due to health concerns with his father and grandfather, Shaw moved back to California and the NCAA granted him a hardship waiver to play immediately for the Trojans. There, Shaw started out at strong safety but eventually moved to corner, where he's played ever since. He started the final seven games of 2012 while notching 30 tackles, six pass deflections and two interceptions.
Shaw became a full-time starter in 2013, but in the 14 games he started, 11 were at corner and three at free safety. He notched 67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, seven pass defenses and four interceptions. He had a pick-six vs. Cal and returned a blocked punt against Cal for another defensive score.
Shaw's draft stock never seemed to recover after the disastrous 2014 season, as he fell to day 3 of the draft. Had Shaw not had the off-field incident and been injured/suspended most of his senior year, he may have been drafted significantly higher than where Cincinnati got him. The Bengals love having versatile players who can play multiple positions on defense, which made Shaw very attractive to them, to the point they almost traded up to get him. Shaw will be one of the more intriguing rookies to watch during training camp. Though, he probably won't get much run at either safety or corner as a rookie with both positions stacked this year. Don't expect to see Shaw on the field much in 2015 playing anything other than a special-teams role.
With the 197th pick in the 2015 draft, Cincinnati grabbed one of this year's best safety prospects, Fresno State's Derron Smith.
A full-time starter for the Bulldogs the past three seasons, Smith registered 187 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 14 interceptions during his three-year college career at Fresno State. He had 13 picks from 2012-13 playing free safety, but that number declined to one after he moved to strong safety in 2014. He also played some slot cornerback.
As mentioned above, the Bengals love having versatile defenders, and his ability to play both safety spots made him very attractive. That said, the strong safety position looks to be the best spot for Smith in the pros.
Lacks ideal size for the position, but checks off just about every other box teams will be looking for. Smith's ability to match up in space against slot receivers and his willingness to get downhill and tackle will be coveted. Smith must learn to play under control as a tackler, but he should have a shot to come in and compete for a starting-safety or slot-corner job quickly.
During OTAs, Smith was consistently praised by coaches and media alike for how he performed. Geoff Hobson wrote how Smith and fellow rookie DB Josh Shaw were two of the most impressive Bengals during spring workouts.
The two drafted players that have shown up the most appear to be West Coast roommates, sixth-round safety Derron Smith of Fresno State and fourth-round cornerback Josh Shaw of USC. Smith has impressed with his ability to be in the right place at the right time and Shaw has been a physical presence as a 200-pounder who has been playing the slot as well as outside.
Like many of the Bengals' 2015 draft class, Smith met with the Bengals in the pre-draft process. The SB Nation website, "Mountain West Connection" has further details on Smith, including this tidbit:
His field vision benefits him both before and after he gets his hands on the ball, since he has a knack for both breaking downhill to grab passes and finding space for big returns once he does; he averaged just under 20 yards per INT return and scored twice. That same willingness to get downhill and get physical could serve him well in man coverage against inside receivers.
To get Smith in the sixth round was arguably the best value pick Cincinnati had in this year's draft. He's now slated to spend a year backing up Reggie Nelson and George Iloka before competing for a starting spot next year when Nelson and Iloka become free agents. Smith will also likely be a special teams contributor in 2015.