The Bengals' defensive backfield is now set in stone. After re-signing George Iloka and extending Shawn Williams' contract over the 2016 offseason, Cincinnati can focus its attention elsewhere and hope its duo of safeties can start making some plays.
Three years ago, the prospect of both Iloka and Williams starting would've been a longshot to many Bengals fans. Williams, initially selected in the third round of the 2013 Draft as the presumptive strong safety opposite Reggie Nelson, struggled early in his career. Iloka capitalized on a chance, beating out Williams for the team's second starting spot opposite Nelson. And because Iloka excelled opposite Nelson, Williams had to take a back seat, waiting until 2015 to make his first start in relief of the injured Iloka.
Both players earned the contracts they received this offseason, but replacing the departed Nelson will be no easy feat. Nelson's eight 2015 interceptions are more than the career totals of Iloka (5) and Williams (2) combined. Granted, Iloka and Williams are both just 26 and 25-years- old respectively, but the two have still combined to make 48 starts with only seven picks. Last season, Williams posted the same interception rate as Nelson, but he did it in 12 fewer starts. With more time on the field, it would be surprising for Williams to maintain those same rates.
Both of the Bengals' safeties signed long-term deals, and both will start from this season on, but Iloka should, and likely will, have higher expectations than Williams. The safety has made 44 career starts, and despite performing well in coverage, he has not been able to consistently force turnovers. That's not to say he hasn't been a great player; Pro Football Focus rated him as the league's 15th-best safety last season. But if Iloka, who hasn't forced a fumble since 2013, is able to start consistently forcing turnovers, he could easily become a top-5 NFL safety.
Williams may not have expectations as high as Iloka's, but he still has big shoes to fill. The Bengals are a contender, so they'll still hold Williams to a very high standard and expect him to be a quality starter, even though it will be his first season as a full-time starter. Pro Football Focus rated Williams as football's 46th-best safety last season, which is pretty good for a guy who only started four games. He'll have to back that up in a season's worth of tape, though, which is a lot easier said than done.
Ultimately, there's a lot to look forward to with the Bengals' starting safety tandem. With Iloka and Williams locked up for nine years on contracts worth up to $49.5 million and only $9 million in guarantees, Cincinnati will definitely get bang for its buck. In terms of average per season, Iloka and Williams are the 13th and 20th-highest paid safeties in the league. Both players are just now hitting the prime of their respective careers, so the Bengals will have a lot to look forward to. But the safety tandem is going to need to start forcing some turnovers if it wants the respect as one of the league's best. The two players have the potential to become an Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor caliber duo; here's to hoping they can emerge as elite playmakers in the upcoming season and beyond.