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Bengals 2015 Exit Interview: Safety Shawn Williams

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Like many of his fellow Georgia alum who've been drafted by the Bengals, Shawn Williams has risen from mid-round pick to impact player.

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Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The Georgia Bulldogs have been very kind to the Bengals under Marvin Lewis' watch.

Since 2004, an unprecedented eight Bulldogs have gone from playing college ball between the hedges to donning tiger stripes after being drafted by the Queen City. The most recent Georgia alum to be selected by the Bengals is strong safety Shawn Williams.

A third-round pick by way of the 2013 NFL Draft, Williams was viewed as a player who could challenge George Iloka for the starting safety spot vacated by Chris Crocker (who ended up re-joining the team later that season). Iloka won that spot and has been the full-time starter next to Reggie Nelson ever since, but that could very possibly change this offseason.

Nelson and Iloka are both slated to hit free agency, and the Bengals won't be pressured to re-sign both of them after the way Williams played last season at both safety spots. For the majority of his college and early NFL career, Williams resembled more of a hard-hitting strong safety who could lay the big hit and put fear into any receiver coming across the middle.

But Williams has improved his pass-coverage abilities to the point he ended up getting the bulk of the snaps at both safety spots whenever Iloka or Nelson were out. Williams finished 2015 with career-high in tackles (32), pass deflections (5) and interceptions (2).

His biggest play came in Week 8 at Pittsburgh. With the Bengals trailing 10-6 late in the fourth quarter and the offense unable to find the end zone, Williams made the play of his young NFL career. After Ben Roethlisberger scrambled around for what felt like an eternity, he fired a deep strike along the sideline that, had it been completed, probably would have made it too much for the Bengals to overcome as bad as the offense had been.

But Williams stepped in and made an amazing interception while diving out of bounds and securing the ball in Steelers territory.

Williams would make one more pick in 2015, and it was also a big one. It came with the Bengals clinging to a 10-point lead at San Francisco, but the 49ers were making things interesting at the end, getting two fourth-quarter touchdowns and having one field goal blocked, and were knocking on the Bengals' door with a couple of minutes left to play.

Down 24-14 and having just recovered an onside kick, Blaine Gabbert got San Francisco down to the Bengals' 28-yard line. He fired a pass to the end zone with under two minutes to play, but Williams shot over and made a critical interception to seal the win.

Williams finished as Pro Football Focus' 43rd-best safety with a 73.7 grade, which is in their 'starter' tier of grades. He did so in just 535 snaps, whereas most of the safeties above him played 800+ snaps. It's hard to say how well Williams would do in a full-time role for an entire season, but it's safe to think he'd be a quality player for the Bengals based on how well he played in his first real significant role this past season.

As for what the future holds for Williams, 2016 will be a contract year for him and probably his first as a full-time starter. It's hard to see both Iloka and Nelson being re-signed, but the good news is, Williams showed enough that he can start and be effective at either spot.

Preferably, Williams will be able to play the strong safety as he's more of a physical guy who you want closer to the line of scrimmage for him to be at his best. He's also someone who can play nickel linebacker and even corner in emergencies as he's becoming the Chris Crocker/Swiss Army Knife of this defense.

Whatever happens this offseason, expect Williams to have a big role in the defense next year.