With Nelson gone, so too are his 461 combined tackles, 62 pass deflections and 23 interceptions in 93 games with Cincinnati since 2010. That's a lot of production to replace, not to mention new starting safety Shawn Williams hits free agency next year.
You could make a good case for the Bengals to take a safety early in this year's draft, but they'll more than likely wait until the latter rounds to nab one. That's where a guy like Middle Tennessee State's Kevin Byard may be a name to watch for and the Bengals will be meeting with him prior to the NFL Draft.
The 5'11", 216-pound Byard played in the 2016 Senior Bowl after a standout season and made a good impression. However. Byard was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, despite being a two-time first-team All-Conference USA pick (2014-15).
This past season, Byard racked up 66 tackles to go with a team-high four interceptions and six pass breakups in 12 games. He was a quality safety who played well in his biggest games, including eight tackles, one TFL and one interception vs Alabama. He also notched 11 tackles vs Illinois and then four tackles with a pick vs Vanderbilt.
Despite playing in C-USA, Byard got his fair share of shots at bigger schools and played well. Even with all that production, NFL.com' Lance Zierlein did not have a favorable report on Byard, which explains his 5.28 grade (Developmental prospect or special teams potential).
SOURCES TELL US "Ankle tackler so that's a concern and I just don't trust him in coverage. I know he has all the interceptions but I don't see a player who can match up in space against NFL-caliber receivers. I know some scouts love him because of his football IQ, but that’s not enough for me." -- NFC Director of Scouting
BOTTOM LINE Byard is a four-year starter whose ball skills and high interception total has garnered him attention since his freshman season. While he has the looks of a player who could excel near the box, he lacks the consistent physicality needed and he does his best work as a deep safety. Scouts are all over the place on Byard and his draft stock will head in one direction or the other starting with his week at the Senior Bowl.
CBS Sports has Byard ranked as their 191st-best prospect, which puts him in the Rounds 5-7 draft range. That's probably the range to watch for him as a Bengals target. Even with Nelson gone, there's no guarantee the Bengals will look to add a safety in this draft if they like what they have in Derron Smith, Taylor Mays, Shawn Williams and George Iloka.