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Top 10 Bengals with most to prove in 2016: No. 4, Shawn Williams

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We continue our countdown with a player set to step into a full-time starting role for the first time in his career. Will the young safety be able to fill the shoes of the departed Reggie Nelson?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season marks a point in time where the Cincinnati Bengals are showing the fanbase -- and players -- that they greatly trust their recent draft strategy. After letting some veteran starters leave for other opportunities this offseason, it's time for some young players to step into full-time starting roles for the first time in their careers.

Shawn Williams, a safety the team took in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, is a recent example of the team's trust in their process. After negotiations with Reggie Nelson broke down this winter and Nelson left for the Raiders, Williams assumed the starter's mantle and was also rewarded with a contract extension. It's these and other factors that have the fourth-year safety quietly becoming one of the more critical and mysterious players on the team this season, and why Williams makes our list of the Bengals with the most to prove in 2016.

Why he makes the list:

The Big Contract: While the four-year deal is worth up to $21.5 million and has a team-friendly, and quite paltry $4 million guaranteed, it's still a large sum of money for a player with just four NFL starts under his belt. It all but ensures he'll be the starting safety next to George Iloka, who signed his own big contract this offseason, for the foreseeable future. The deal comes with increased expectations, so he's diving in head-first in an effort to replace six productive years from Nelson.

Inexperience: As I mentioned earlier, Williams only has four starts under his belt and has been more of a special teams mainstay in his previous three professional seasons. Williams will need to grow up fast and prove his draft time label of "run-stuffer only" is truly behind him. He did make the most of his opportunities last year, logging two interceptions in limited playing time, so that label might be proving to be something of the past.

What he needs to prove:

Continued Improvement: Williams proved capable on defense when his number was called, getting two critical interceptions and playing the role of an enforcer at the back of the defense. With the new contract and increased playing time, the potential for Williams to become a solid NFL safety seems relatively high--especially with tangible growth over the span of his career. Coaches and teammates have been singing Williams' praises and in 2016 he'll be given a large opportunity to show fans why.

Reliability and Health: Williams was a nice ace-in-the-hole off the bench if Nelson or Iloka got injured, but now even more unproven youngsters like Derron Smith and Josh Shaw would be his replacements. While excitement is high on those two going forward, they have far less of a track record of productivity than Williams does in year four. Williams can only get better with more playing time and staying on the field, so remaining injury-free and proving his worth will help ease the loss of Nelson.