When this offseason began, many believed the Cincinnati Bengals were about to undergo major changes in their secondary.
Between Reggie Nelson, Leon Hall, Adam Jones and George Iloka hitting free agency, there was plenty of reason to think this was going to be a rough offseason for the Bengals' secondary. Of all the impending free agents, Iloka was viewed as the most likely guy to end up leaving as he was easily one of the best defensive players in the NFL set
to hit the open market.
But somehow, the Bengals managed to get the stud safety back under contract for a very reasonable five-year, $30 million deal, just hours before free agency began. At just 25 years of age, Iloka is still one of the game's best young safeties who should only get better in the years to come, which thankfully will come in Cincinnati.
In 2015, Iloka battled through several minor injuries as he played in 12 games with 35 tackles, 12 assisted tackles, four pass defenses and one interception. Over the course of his four-year career with the Bengals, he's had 189 total tackles, 20 passes defensed, five interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Iloka finished 2015 as Pro Football Focus' 15th-best safety. His new deal is a very good one for both the Bengals and Iloka. $6 million per year makes Iloka one of the highest-paid safeties, but doesn't break the bank for the Bengals as they look to re-sign other key free agents in the coming months and years.
However, the Bengals were not able to keep both of their top safeties as Nelson left to sign with the Oakland Raiders this offseason. The good news there is, Cincinnati already had his replacement lined up in the form of Shawn Williams.
It was easier to let Nelson go after the way Williams played last season at both safety spots. For the majority of his college and early NFL career, Williams resembled more of a hard-hitting strong safety who could lay the big hit and put fear into any receiver coming across the middle.
But Williams has improved his pass-coverage abilities to the point he ended up getting the bulk of the snaps at both safety spots whenever Iloka or Nelson were out. Williams finished 2015 with career-highs in tackles (32), pass deflections (5) and interceptions (2).
Williams also finished as Pro Football Focus' 43rd-best safety with a 73.7 grade in 2015, which is in their 'starter' tier of grades. He did so in just 535 snaps, whereas most of the safeties graded above him played 800+ snaps.
That also helped lead to the Bengals signing Williams to a four-year extension through the 2020 NFL season as he was set to enter a contract year in 2016. The deal averages out to $4.875 million per year and has only $4 million guaranteed, which makes it a pretty team-friendly deal for a player who has yet to be a full-time starter.
Entering the 2016 season, Williams and Iloka figure to be the full-time starters barring injuries. However, one promising second-year guy set to take on a bigger role is Derron Smith. As alluded to, the Bengals ended up playing their third safety a lot this past season, which means Smith could be poised to step into a much bigger role with the team in 2016.
Though he was viewed as one of, if not the best, draft selections the Bengals made in the 2015 NFL Draft, Smith didn't hear his name called until the sixth round when Cincy scooped him up. He was a dynamic playmaker during his career with the Bulldogs, racking up 187 total tackles and 14 interceptions during his three-year college career
Still, Smith finished his rookie year with just four tackles and rarely saw anything more than special teams work. He's still a big unknown at the NFL level, but he figures to be a significant part of this defense in 2016 if he has a good training camp and preseason.
The fourth and likely final safety on the roster this year should be seventh-round rookie Clayton Fejedelem, whom the Bengals selected with the 245th overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. The 6'1" safety has the height to play in the NFL, but he'll need to put on a lot of weight if he wants to make an impact down the road. He sits at around 190 pounds entering the summer.
Fej finished the 2015 season with a ridiculous 140 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and seven pass deflections. While he has a good chance to be the team's fourth and final safety when the initial 53-man roster is set, he'll have a tough time remaining on the roster once Taylor Mays returns from his four-game suspension to open the season.
Mays, who's back in the Queen City on a one-year deal, originally left the Bengals in 2015 as a free agent to sign a one-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings. Mays has played 50 games for the Bengals, including an eight-game stretch in 2013 where he played a linebacker/safety hybrid role, but later suffered a season-ending injury at the mid-season point that year.
After being cut by the Vikings and later the Detroit Lions last summer, Mays would sign a one-year deal with Oakland, where he played in 14 games with the Raiders and finished with a respectable 64.6 Pro Football Focus grade. He would've gotten more interest on the open market this offseason, but a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season likely killed any interest other than the Bengals'.
That suspension will likely keep him with the Bengals until at least the start of Week 5, but whether he makes it to the active roster is a big question mark. Other than Mays, Floyd Raven is the only other safety on the 90-man roster, but he'll have a tough time just earning a spot on the practice squad, let alone the 53-man roster.
Starters: George Iloka, Shawn Williams
Backups: Derron Smith, Clayton Fejedelem, Taylor Mays
Practice Squad Candidate: Floyd Raven
Wildcards: Will Josh Shaw play a lot of safety this year as he's alluded to? If he ends up being effectively the fourth or even third safety, that may make it harder for Clayton Fejedelem to make the 53-man roster, especially since the Bengals know Taylor Mays is an option after Week 4.