Impending Bengals' free agent George Iloka is clearly one of the most talented, if not the most important, Bengals starter set to hit the market on Wednesday. The safety who just finished his fourth NFL season, is among the best in the NFL at his position and he is only entering his prime at age 25.
Many around the league think Iloka is going to get paid big bucks and some even believe he is going to be overpaid, when he hits free agency. But what sense does it make to draft and develop players just to let them go when they finish their rookie contracts?
The Bengals have money to spend this offseason, but they also have a lot of free agents of their own, and thus it's widely assumed they are going to have to choose between their top guys, like Iloka, Marvin Jones, Reggie Nelson and Adam Jones. Head coach Marvin Lewis doesn't want to be complacent though, which means to me, if they are true to their words, they are going to be aggressive, even if that doesn't imply signing flashy free agents. If Cincinnati's system is draft, develop and retain their own guys, Iloka should be the best example of it.
At 25-years-old, Iloka is already among the elite safeties in the NFL and has the ideal size, is a great athlete and plays well both in coverage and run support. Some, including us at Cincy Jungle, have said Iloka "should be the Bengals' highest priority this offseason". Guys like Iloka don't grow on trees, and the Bengals happened to draft him in the fifth round, making him one of their most successful defensive draft picks of the last five years.
Cincinnati is said to be prioritizing Adam Jones and Marvin Jones in free agency, and it's believed they could go with Reggie Nelson over Iloka being retained at safety. With third-year player Shawn Williams playing well last season in relief of Iloka, it's possible the Bengals let a team overpay for Iloka while they rely on Williams to take over his starting spot.
There is the feeling that Iloka might price out and as the Bengals already have a plan B waiting in the wings, it would make sense to save some money here. While I also think Williams is ready for a starting gig, I don't think you just let a guy like Iloka go to another team giving him a head-scratching amount of money.
If, say, the Jaguars come and offer $80 million, then it would be hard to argue against letting him go, but the Bengals have gone to the playoffs for five years in a row and they are built to contend. This is not about losing a veteran player in the twilight of his career, this is about a guy who has his best seasons ahead of him.
There might be some people out there willing to compare Iloka's situation to Michael Johnson's, and even though the defense end never managed to recapture his 2012-13 form after departing for greener pastures, Cincinnati had to bring him back because a natural freak like him is really hard to replace. Iloka is far more important to this defense than Johnson was, therefore the Bengals should pay him even if it means giving him more than he's worth.
Ultimately this is not about beating other teams for flashy free agents but about paying your own guys entering their prime. If the Bengals are serious about not being complacent then they have to retain Iloka, one of their core players.