George Iloka and Reggie Nelson have been integral pieces in the Bengals secondary for years, and the duo has quietly emerged as one of the NFL's best safety tandems. But with both players hitting free agency, the Bengals must ask themselves whether signing both starters is necessary.
The Bengals will already be hard-pressed to sign their 15 players set to hit free agency, but being able to retain both starting safeties, who should gain plenty of attention on the market, will be one of the team's most daunting tasks. Iloka boasts physical attributes that no other free agent safety can even come close to matching, while Nelson posted eight interceptions in 2015, tied for the league high.
Iloka is obviously the more important signing to the Bengals for the long-term, but many people expect and hope the Bengals will offer Nelson a nice deal, as well, especially since the safety wants to return to Cincinnati. However, re-signing both safeties could present a challenge, as it could have a negative impact on up-and-comer Shawn Williams, who showed major signs of development in 2015.
Williams' contract expires after the 2016 season, so if the Bengals elect to re-sign a starter rather than giving Williams his shot, the safety could elect to leave in free agency next season. At the very least, keeping Williams as a backup would severely impact his development, as it takes on-field experience for a player to grow. And at 24-years-old, Williams is ready for his shot.
Pairing Williams with Iloka could give the Bengals one of the NFL's most exciting young safety duos. While losing Nelson would be tough on the team's young secondary, it's time for the Bengals to move on. As I noted in my dream offseason piece, I'd love to see Cincinnati elect to keep Iloka. I think it's the most important move for the team to make this offseason.
And, while many fans seemed concerned about whether Iloka wants to return to Cincinnati, he made his intentions clear on Twitter yesterday:
Me ✋ . But my opinion is bias https://t.co/tgisszOves— George Iloka (@George_iloka) February 24, 2016
With Iloka desiring a Bengals return and Williams ready to make a name for himself as a starter, the Bengals would be wise to re-sign Iloka and let Nelson walk. And if Iloka ends up commanding an unreasonably high salary, keeping Nelson for a few years alongside Nelson while Derron Smith develops could also be a reasonable move. But, keeping both safeties isn't what's best for the Bengals in the long-term and the Bengals' wallet, other NFL teams and the players' interests will dictate a lot in the coming weeks and months.