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Bengals Mailbag: Safety position expectations and kick return options

Have the Bengals found an answer to the kick return game and is there life after Reggie Nelson?

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes the same question asked can elicit different responses. Timing of the query usually dictates the answer--especially when it comes to the game of football and the ebbs and flows of the NFL calendar. Such is the case with our reader questions this week, as they are questions we have been asked already this year, but the answers may have changed with free agency, the NFL Draft and the first team workouts of the year all in the rearview mirror.

This was a popular question in the pre-draft months, as most fans weren't sure which one of the two starting safeties was returning and if the team would be selecting one at the end of April. George Iloka is inked for the next five years to stay in Cincinnati, while Reggie Nelson decided to end his career in Cincinnati by signing with Oakland after a long waiting game in free agency.

So, with Nelson gone, it appears Shawn Williams is the next man up and will be starting next to Iloka in 2016. Williams started four games last year and he had two gigantic interceptions and five passes defended in limited playing time. While he has had to make some big steps in developing as a pro safety over the first three years of his career, last season seemed to show the growth the team wanted to see out of him.

It's a big season for Williams though, as it's the final year of his rookie deal, so he stands to either make a lot of money in 2017, or look for work elsewhere. There is a bit of an open door for other youngsters to impress the coaching staff this year as the team attempts to move on from Nelson's last six productive years.

One extremely intriguing option is second-year defensive back, Josh Shaw. After stepping in for the injured Darqueze Dennard last year, Shaw impressed in limited defensive work, while also contributing on special teams. This year, he'll be working at both corner and safety, displaying the versatility the Bengals liked when they selected him in the fourth round last year.

Shaw has good speed, physicality and savviness, but some knocks on him coming out of college revolved around him being a bit stiff for an NFL cornerback. If that proves to be true, manning the slot and working as a safety should be a solid route for Shaw as a pro. If he can grasp the complexities of Paul Guenther's defense, I believe Shaw has a shot to be a sound NFL safety.

Derron Smith is another backup who could surprise. CJ friend and draft expert Joe Goodberry actually had Smith as one of the top safeties in the 2015 class, so he feels the Bengals got a steal in the sixth round. He's a bit small and had some injury nicks in college, but he seemed to make the most of his playing time at Fresno State and was very active on the back end of the Bulldog defense. Even so, Smith will have a bit of an uphill climb behind Williams and Shaw for playing time.

It's important to note that the Bengals often interchange their safeties, so players can come in and make positive waves in different fashions. Though Cincinnati is losing the net of one of their best trades in franchise history in Nelson, they have promising options waiting in the wings. If you're one who has been sold on the team's draft efforts in recent years, then you shouldn't be worrying too much about what will happen post-Nelson.


Ah, yes--the obligatory question regarding shoving Brandon Tate out of the door. Every year, fans are eager to find any semblance of a replacement for Tate, and every year those who want him gone are disappointed.

First, we'll defend Tate. While most of us on the outside don't see what he has done to earn six years of return duties on the team, the coaches trust him. With 52 regular season wins over the past five years, this staff should have earned the trust of its fan base at this point in the decisions they make. Special teams coordinator, Darrin Simmons has consistently put together sound special teams squads, so I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Even so, the Bengals recognize the lack of big plays Tate has given the club--and it's why Adam Jones sporadically contributes as a returner. But, as we look over what the club did in free agency and the draft, there aren't many new candidates from 2016 ready to take the spot.

Tyler Boyd had some collegiate experience as a returner, but with him likely having a prominent role on offense without a track record of being electric on special teams at Pitt, he isn't likely to be fielding kicks this year with regularity. The team might try sixth-rounder Cody Core on kicks, but there was no bar for success for him in the capacity in college.

The stiffest competition Tate seems to have in losing his job this year resides in second-year receiver Mario Alford. The slight speedster was a terror on kickoff returns at West Virginia and though he had just one catch in 2015, the possibility of him being able to contribute in multiple facets might make him a more coveted commodity than what Tate brings.

Marvin Lewis and his staff don't often like to heavily rely on young players, but if Alford can prove he's made strides this offseason, he might be a guy they hang on to and let go of a guy like Tate, who really only contributes on special teams. And, with recent NFL rules limiting the big-time effects of kickoff returns, using a valuable roster spot on a guy who doesn't really do much for you on offense doesn't make sense.

One other caveat to note is the future of Jones. He'll be 33-years-old shortly after the onset of the season, and though he had his best defensive season of his career in 2015, we don't know if he'll continue to be effective throughout the duration of his new three-year deal. With Dre Kirkpatrick seeking a contract extension after this year and two other recent first round picks used on cornerback with Dennard and William Jackson III, the end of Jones' career might be primarily as a returner and not necessarily a corner.

It's also important to note the team's activity after final roster cuts right before Week 1. After all, Tate was a waiver wire claim in 2011 and has stuck around on a number of rental contracts since, so if someone surprisingly becomes available at that time, they might pounce. But, with Jones being a bridge at corner for the youngsters for at least 2016 and options likely being limited in early September, Alford seems to be the likeliest guy to unseat Tate.