When the Bengals re-signed George Iloka and let Reggie Nelson walk away this offseason they were betting on their "draft the right players, develop them and retain them" strategy. Shawn Williams, after three years riding the bench for Cincinnati, stepped up in 2015 backing up both starting safeties and had showed, in limited time, he could handle the job.
Fast forward to this season’s midpoint and amid a concerning decrease in many key contributors on defense, Williams has managed to remain a steady producer. He still has flaws, mainly his coverage skills, but the Bengals’ entire second level of the defense has struggled mightily, including Iloka. He’s also had some head-scratching moments, like his interception returned for a fumble lost against the Browns. But overall Cincinnati can afford to remain optimistic about that four-year extension Williams signed in May after Nelson signed with the Raiders.
Both ProFootballFocus.com and Bleacher Report NFL 1000 like him. Maybe not as the Pro Bowl caliber safety that Nelson was in his final year in Cincinnati, but still as an above-average starter. Williams is ranked No. 4 among Bengals defender with a 78.2 grade by PFF, a slight improvement over the 73.3 grade he recorded in 2015. He’s also regularly ranked among the top third in strong safeties across the league by B/R with a top finish in Week 8 and an overall No. 5 rank through the midseason mark.
He is a thunderous tackler, as Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton can attest to, even though that also carries some risk. Williams was fined for "spearing" in London, and has gotten away with some late hits as well.
The Bengals still miss the experience and playmaking ability of Nelson, but at some point had to hand on the keys to the youngster and Williams is contributing in his own way. But, the slump Iloka is going through is not helping either, as he was supposed to be the anchor of this secondary that also lost veteran cornerback Leon Hall.
Williams is a box-to-box tackler who excels close to the line of scrimmage, and he provides the Bengals with some pass-rush skills that Iloka lacks. His shortcomings defending the flats and the slot are a liability defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has tried to hide by playing Williams as the lone center field of his cover 3 scheme. Early on in their Week 1 matchup against the Jets, Williams gave up one touchdown and almost surrendered another one on the same pick route, but Ryan Fitzpatrick never looked his way.
What he lacks in aerial defense he makes up for with his instinctive running and aggression toward the ball carrier.
In fact, many, myself included, wonder what the 6-foot safety could do as a full-time nickel linebacker with the way the Bengals’ running defense has struggled this season and the athleticism Williams would bring to the box. This is not something new, as former Bengal Emmanuel Lamur also switched from safety to linebacker and Deone Bucannon of the Cardinals and Mark Barron of the Rams have also made the transition. Williams is smaller than those three, but it could allow Guenther to play Derron Smith more and also gain speed in the second level. Cincinnati also has another youngster in Josh Shaw who’s able to rotate between cornerback and safety.
Williams doesn’t have the hands of Nelson, who’s still making plays for the Raiders even at age 33, and the interception he dropped against the Broncos was painful. That, of course, is something the Bengals must have known coming into the season, despite Marvin Lewis saying he had "increased his value as a playmaker on the ball". Instead, he and Guenther were counting on Iloka to take on Nelson’s job as the glue guy in the secondary, as the defensive coordinator pointed out during the summer.
After eight weeks as a starter, what we know is Williams can play in the NFL. He’s got some great traits and also some big flaws, but he can contribute given the right scheme and surrounding. Right now, the Bengals’ secondary is still looking for leadership with both Nelson and Hall gone, but that never was William's job to fill. He’s under a very affordable contract for the next few years and the hope is that he can still develop his coverage skills or turn into an utility player who’s able to help in subpackages.
Cincinnati’s defense has disappointed thus far this season, giving up tons of yards on the ground as well as through the air to less than accomplished quarterbacks like Trevor Siemian. The play of Williams, though inconsistent at times, is hard to be surprised about. He has excelled in the areas expected of him, but, he has struggled in other areas where the Bengals were hoping he’d improve. Williams has become what every single draft profile said he would be, so the Bengals’ coaching staff needs to put him in the best situation to succeed going forward. Even if that means changing the scheme to suit him and thus help the team.