Losing Reggie Nelson to free agency is probably a bigger blow to the team than the Bengals are willing to admit. Not only did he lead the league in interceptions last year (8), but he's been one of the most steady contributors on the defense since arriving in 2010. Shawn Williams seems to be a good enough replacement, based on his minimal playing time so far, but that still leaves a huge hole at safety for the team to fill with depth behind George Iloka and Williams.
It's safe to say the Bengals like Derron Smith and Taylor Mays heading into the 2016 season, but there's still plenty of room for competition and depth at the position. As steady as Mays was in his first stint with the Bengals from 2011-2014, he wasn't particularly effective and the team didn't make an effort to re-sign him when his contract was up. They absolutely stole Derron Smith in the sixth round of last year's draft, but he has yet to show any signs of being good enough to count on should Williams or Iloka suffer an injury.
Therefore, safety depth seems to be a pretty big area of need for the Bengals heading into the 2016 season. By signing Brandon LaFell and Karlos Dansby in free agency, they took some of the pressure off of two of their other biggest needs. At this point, you could say that, if the right player is available, safety could be considered a possibility at virtually every pick.
Top DL prospect Chris Jones visits Bengals
Chris Jones is someone expected to be off the board within the first two rounds and may sneak into the first round.
So far, the Bengals have met with Karl Joseph (West Virginia), Sean Davis (Maryland), Kevin Byard (Middle Tennessee State), Leviticus Payne (Cincinnati), Miles Killebrew (Southern Utah), and Clayton Fejedelem (Illinois). They're obviously doing their homework and are preparing to take a safety at some point this year, potentially early on. Here's a few of the top prospects who could be available at different points throughout the NFL Draft:
Keanu Neal, FS, Florida
Neal is a punisher, plain and simple. He plays with something bordering on hatred for any person on the opposing team carrying the football, yet he doesn't let it get him in trouble on the field. He's intimidating to look at, yet has a balanced enough physique to make him perfectly built for the safety position. A little bit of work on his instincts and tackling technique could make him one of the most feared safeties in the NFL. If he's available for the Bengals in the second round, they should absolutely take him.
Projected round: 2
Karl Joseph, SS, West Virginia
Joseph is one of the two players on this list that the Bengals have already met with. They're probably pretty high on him because of his physicality and quick reflexes that his short stature wouldn't suggest. He's a lot like a hybrid of Shawn Williams and Derron Smith, so you know he'd fit the scheme pretty well. He'll require at least a second round draft pick and could be off the board late in round 1, so they should be absolutely sure that he is their guy before they take him.
Projected round: 1-2
Jalen Mills, FS, LSU
Mills continues the tradition of LSU putting high-quality defensive backs into the draft. If Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu are a preview of what Mills could be, any team would be foolish to pass on him in the draft. He's pretty much the polar opposite of Keanu Neal in that he's less determined in his tackling, but has very good zone instincts. The Bengals shouldn't reach for him in the second round but, if he's available in the third, he should provide good value.
Projected round: 2-3
Darian Thompson, FS, Boise State
Darian Thompson might be my favorite safety in the draft. There are other, more talented safeties out there like Jalen Ramsey, Neal, and Mills, but Thompson fits the Bengals' scheme like a glove and won't require a high draft pick. He reminds you a lot of Reggie Nelson in that he has a nose for finding the football. He anticipates the pass very well and is built like an NFL safety. He could use some work on his one-on-one coverage, but there's no reason why the Bengals shouldn't pick him up if he's available in the third round.
Projected round: 3
Miles Killebrew, SS, Southern Utah
Killebrew is the other safety on this list who the Bengals have met with so far. There are some questions about his tackling technique and vision, which can lead to quite a few missed tackles. With how many problems the Bengals have had with missed tackles over the last couple of years, you'd think they wouldn't want to add another player with this issue. However, he was very productive at Southern Utah due to his speed and love for hitting hard. He's got very good size for the position and he uses that to his advantage. If he's available in the fourth round and they still haven't taken a safety, they should go ahead and pick him up.
Projected round: 3-4