As was seen with much of the Bengals' roster this season, Cincinnati didn't need much help from newcomers at safety in 2015.
With Reggie Nelson, George Iloka and Shawn Williams taking up nearly all of the snaps, there wasn't much room for anyone else to make an impact in the back end of Cincy's secondary. However, Derron Smith is a Bengal who could quickly go from rarely playing as a rookie to becoming a key player in the coming years.
Though he was viewed as one of, if not the best draft selections the Bengals made in the 2015 NFL Draft, Smith didn't hear his name called until the sixth round when Cincy scooped him up. A full-time starter for the Fresno State Bulldogs from 2012-2014, Smith registered 187 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 14 interceptions during his three-year college career. He had 13 picks from 2012-13 playing free safety, but that number declined to one after he moved to strong safety in 2014 while also playing some slot cornerback.
If you follow a lot of the draft gurus like our own Joe Goodberry, you'd know the draft community was very high on Smith going into the 2015 draft. However, concerns surrounding what position he would play in the NFL in addition to offseason hernia surgery led to Smith falling nearly to the end of the draft, but it didn't take long for him to start turning heads.
Smith made several eye-opening plays during training camp, including this incredible one-handed interception of AJ McCarron.
While Smith really never did anything in game action in the preseason or regular season to showcase his talents, the Bengals made a significant statement in how much they liked him when they kept Smith as the fourth and final safety over veteran Shiloh Keo. This, after Keo had a good preseason and actually had starting experience at safety from his days with the Houston Texans, not to mention plenty of experience on special teams.
That's the kind of vet Cincinnati loves having, but Smith did enough in camp to beat out Keo, who would go on to sign with the Denver Broncos where he still remains. The Bengals have spent sixth-round draft picks on players before only to waive them during final roster cuts, so it would have been very easy to do the same with Smith.
Not only that, but Smith would go on to be active in every game as a rookie, though his biggest contributions came on special teams. He finished the year with just four tackles, but never did give up a big play on the rare occasions he got defensive snaps, which mainly came at free safety.
As for what the future holds for Smith, there's a chance he ends up being a starter as early as next season depending on what the Bengals do in free agency. Iloka and Nelson are both free agents, and Williams hits free agency in the 2017 offseason, so Smith is the only safety signed through 2017 that has regular-season experience.
Again, Smith can play both safety spots, and it's unclear which is his best fit at the NFL level. It's hard to see the Bengals being able to re-sign both Nelson and Iloka this offseason, so if nothing else, Smith has a good shot at becoming the team's third safety next season.
We saw how important that role is this past season as Williams served in that role and effectively was a starter with as many snaps as he ended up playing this season. Smith could be in line for a similar role in 2016 while also getting a chance to compete for a starting spot.