The Bengals started off Wednesday morning by completing a deal to keep starting safety George Iloka in Cincinnati for the next five years. It was a big win for the organization as Iloka was highly sought after in free agency and potentially the most important player on the team set to hit the open market.
The move also ensures that at least one of the Bengals' two starting safeties from the last three seasons will return in 2016 and beyond. The future is far less certain for Reggie Nelson who has yet to find a landing spot for 2016.
"I'm obviously happy to be back," Iloka told Cincy Jungle a day after signing his $30,000,000 contract. "It's the locker room I've been in the last four years. I know the locker room, the players, the coaches and coordinators, the system. I already love it."
During the first four years of his career with the Bengals, Iloka has exceeded expectations. He joined the team as a fifth round draft pick out of Boise State and played in seven games during his rookie season, mostly on special teams. In his second year with the team, Iloka took on a starting role and racked up 66 tackles, 6 passes defensed and an interception. He began to show the Bengals what he was capable of and only improved in 2014 when he had a breakout season with 74 tackles, 10 passes defensed and three interceptions. In 2015, injuries limited his productivity and time on the field as he only played in 12 games, three of which saw him leave the game. With his new five-year deal, Iloka will have plenty of opportunities to get back on the field and show what he's capable of.
Coming into the offseason, Iloka knew he wanted to remain in the city where he's helped the team to accomplish four of their five-straight winning seasons and just as many trips to the playoffs. But, going forward, making it to the playoffs won't be enough.
"In the next five years I hope to have five Super Bowls," Iloka said. "I want to be a part of that group for this city to hoist that trophy. I want to be a part of that. If I'm a part of that, I'm a part of history in Cincinnati, and I a lot of people can't say they're a part of that, so that's something I want to accomplish in the next few years."
For Iloka, returning to Cincinnati had a lot to do with the relationships he's formed, but, the team's other starting safety who has played opposite Iloka for the last four years may not be a part of the equation in 2016.
"No matter how it turns out, I know we'll be ready," Iloka said. "Even if I came back or not, the guys we have here are talented. We have depth and that will never change. If they don’t get Reggie [Nelson] back it’ll be me and Shawn [Williams] and we’ll pick up where things left off."
This offseason, Iloka will spend time in Miami training and he plans to return with new knowledge, learned from the experience the team went through in January's Wild Card game against the Steelers. That game saw Iloka add five tackles to his stat sheet, while Nelson left early with an ankle injury. But, that's not what anyone remembers as the final minute and 30 seconds of the game left an unforgettable memory with the Bengals coming as close to a win as they have in the playoffs during the Marvin Lewis era.
Iloka took a deep breath when that game came up in conversation.
"The season ended the way none of us wanted it to end," he said. "For me, I have to move on from it. It took a while, but I moved on from it. But you can't forget it. I learned a lot from that game as a person, and in general, what it takes to win a football game and different aspects and all other things. We're going to put it behind us and move forward but I know we'll learn from it and get better."
Iloka has had a busy 48 hours since signing his new deal, but he does want to let his fans know he's thankful for their support.
"I've read everyone's comments, Tweets, messages; I haven't replied to most because I'm trying to stay focused, but I appreciate all the support the last four years and in free agency and I want to help bring the city the things that we all want."