One of the most vital decisions of the Cincinnati Bengals' free agency period this offseason was made when the team decided to offer a five year extension to strong safety George Iloka. Iloka has proven to be a promising, young safety in his time with the Bengals thus far. Over the last four years, he has recorded 124 solo tackles, 65 assisted tackles, 20 passes defended, and five interceptions. The signing was huge for Cincinnati, as they retained a young talent who was drawing interest from plenty of other teams.
But at what cost does this signing come?
I obviously don't mean the actual cost, because that's five years, $30 million. What I mean is the impact on other free agents and in turn the team.
The Bengals giving Iloka this deal led to reports that they would be parting ways with Reggie Nelson. Nelson was outstanding as a safety for the Bengals. This past season was his sixth in Cincinnati, and in those six seasons he racked up 312 solo tackles, 149 assisted tackles, 62 passes defended, 23 interceptions, seven forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries. Those are outstanding numbers, but Nelson had arguably his best season in 2015. Last season, Nelson put up career-highs in passes defended (14) and interceptions (8). He also tied his career-high for fumble recoveries with two. His tackling numbers were down, as he had 52 solo tackles and 25 assisted tackles, but he became the definition of a ball hawk in 2015. He managed to snag interceptions that did not even seem possible to get to, like he did on this play.
If Nelson truly is leaving, this defensive production will be greatly missed. Nelson helped the Bengals greatly with his ball hawking abilities, stopping opponents' drives dead in their tracks with forced turnovers. With Nelson gone, more snaps will fall on the shoulders of Shawn Williams at free safety, and George Iloka will obviously become the top safety on the team.
Nelson seems like he would be a critical component of a Bengals Super Bowl Championship team. With the ability he shows on defense there is no doubt that he was one of the biggest-impact players on the 2015 roster. If the Bengals really did have to decide between Nelson and Iloka as for who to sign and who to let walk, it had to have been a tough decision. Iloka is the safety of the future, while Nelson seems as though he would be the more immediate-impact safety who at least has a year or two of outstanding play in front of him. The Bengals have talent all over their depth chart right now, as they have Andy Dalton, a quarterback who has shown he can play at MVP level and a Pro Bowl wide receiver for him to throw to in A.J. Green and a Pro Bowl tight end, Tyler Eifert. On the defensive side, the Bengals have a tackling machine on the roster, Vontaze Burfict (once his suspension ends) playing alongside Pro Bowl corner Adam Jones. You could have expected the Bengals to choose the immediate impact option and re-sign Nelson in order to help the Bengals win more this coming season with all these outstanding players.
Since Cincinnati actually went in the other direction, how will Iloka make up for what the Bengals are losing when letting go of Nelson?
There is no guarantee that Iloka will do what Nelson did as a Bengal, but he certainly has the capability to. Iloka showed what is hopefully just a glimpse of how good he can be back in 2014, when he accumulated 74 combined tackles, as well as snagging three interceptions and defending 10 passes. That was Iloka's third season in the league, and his numbers are actually better than Nelson's were at that point in his career. Nelson's third season in the NFL was in 2009 with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He had 70 combined tackles, zero interceptions, and five passes defended. Iloka put up a better third season than Nelson did, but went on to have a disappointing fourth season in 2015, as he had 47 combined tackles, four passes defended and just one interception. However, this does not mean he won't bounce back and have an outstanding 2016 in the first year of his new deal. Especially as he was battling injuries through much of the 2015 season.
In fact, Nelson had an outstanding fifth season himself, featuring 85 combined tackles, 12 passes defended, four interceptions and two forced fumbles; that was back in 2011. Could Iloka follow right in the path of Nelson and put together a great fifth season in 2016? Cincinnati fans can certainly hope so.
Iloka's contract shows that the Bengals wanted to secure a young talent for the future, and while Nelson would have been a good "win now" option, you can't blame the Bengals for their thinking. However, with the potential that Iloka has already shown, a career year for Iloka cannot be counted out in 2016.