A big, new contract brings higher expectations and the Cincinnati Bengals have done a masterful job at extending core players in recent offseasons, both before and after their contracts expired. Fifth-year safety George Iloka is one of the more recent examples, and was one of the team's biggest signings just hours prior to the start of free agency.
For that reason and a couple of others, Iloka needed to be on this list. While he has a number of quality teammates on defense he can work with, Iloka's performances will be under more scrutiny because of the $30 million contract he signed in March. Will he live up to the money he's receiving? Hopefully 2016 will be the first year of many where he proves his worth as one of football's best safeties.
Why he makes the list:
Bigger Contract, More Eyes: Any time a player signs a big deal, expectations are automatically higher. While they are usually still lower than if the player bolts to a different team in free agency, the hometown fans are still wanting big plays on a regular basis. Because of Reggie Nelson's success, Iloka flew under the radar at times during the past few seasons. He's now the team's big dog at the safety position, so he can't shiver under an increased spotlight.
No More Reggie: For a long time, the Bengals had major issues with the safety position--both before and during the early parts of Marvin Lewis' tenure as head coach. This changed in 2010 when the team swung a trade for Reggie Nelson and he repaid them with six quality seasons at the position. When Iloka arrived via the 2012 NFL Draft, Nelson took him under his wing, especially as the former Boise State defensive back turned into a full-time starter in 2013. Some rumblings had Nelson lining up the inexperienced Iloka along with others in the secondary, and Iloka's breakout 2014 campaign coincided with a quality season from Nelson as well. Iloka is now assuming the veteran mantle at safety and the hope is he'll remain productive while becoming a mentor, as Nelson was for those six years.
A Dip in 2015: As mentioned above, Iloka had a breakout year in 2014, logging three interceptions, 74 tackles and 10 passes defended. An injury kept Iloka out of the lineup for four games in 2015, and because of it and other factors, his production dropped to just one interception and 47 total tackles. With Nelson and his eight interceptions from last year now off to Oakland, Iloka will need to revert back to 2014 form to keep the Bengals' defensive unit a formidable one.
What he needs to prove:
Be the Mentor Nelson was: The NFL is cyclical sometimes and Iloka finds himself at an interesting crossroads in his career. Not only does he have far more money than when he last strapped on the pads, but he'll also be working next to Shawn Williams, a guy who is stepping into a full-time starting role for the first time. If Nelson indeed was the mentor most think he was to Iloka, it would benefit the team greatly if he took Williams under his wing in a similar fashion.
The 2014 Season was the Norm, not the Exception: Unlike Tyler Eifert, who is wanting to prove last year wasn't a fluke, Iloka will want to prove the opposite. He was still effective when healthy and on the field in 2015, but he just wasn't as consistent of a player to the one we saw in 2014. Refuting that notion a bit was Pro Football Focus' labeling him as the second-best safety on the free agent market this offseason, pointing out positive grades against the run and pass over the past two seasons. So, if you're a metrics junkie, the outlook is strong for Iloka to have another quality season more akin to 2014 than 2015.