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Bengals 2016 Roster Battle: Backup safety spots

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It's time to look at the biggest roster battles heading into the summer. Up first, we take a look at who will be the backup safeties behind George Iloka and Shawn Williams.

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Barring injury, there's no questioning who the Bengals' starting safeties are this coming season.

George Iloka and Shawn Williams were given new contracts this offseason that will pay them more than $50 million combined through the next five years. That's as good an indicator as any that they'll be the top two safeties this year, but who the third, fourth and possibly fifth guys remain a mystery.

And as important as the top two spots are, the third safety is essentially a starter for many teams, including the Bengals last season when both Iloka and Reggie Nelson missed time due to injury. The early contender to take on this spot is second-year man Derron Smith.

A full-time starter for the Fresno State Bulldogs from 2012-2014, Smith registered 187 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 14 interceptions during his three-year college career. He had 13 picks from 2012-13 playing free safety, but that number declined to one after he moved to strong safety in 2014 while also playing some slot cornerback.

That brief playing time as a slot corner will help him win the third safety spot since the Bengals have occasionally used a third safety as a slot corner in certain packages. While Smith really never did anything in game action in the preseason or regular season to showcase his talents as a rookie, the Bengals showed how much they liked him when they kept Smith as the fourth and final safety over veteran Shiloh Keo last September.

Despite that faith, Smith finished his rookie year with just four tackles in limited snaps, which mainly came at free safety. He never did give up a big play on the rare occasions he got defensive snaps, which mainly came at free safety, but is still a big unknown at the NFL level.

Still, he figures to be a significant part of this defense in 2016 if he has a good training camp and preseason. After him, the only safety on the roster who Cincinnati drafted is Clayton Fejedelem, whom the team drafted in the seventh round of this year's draft.

As a senior, Fejedelem finished 2015 with 140 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and seven pass defenses. That came after his junior year in 2014 when he was a part-timer racking up 49 tackles and two pass deflections.

He's got the talent to play in the NFL, but he'll need to bulk up and adjust to the pros before he's even ready to make an impact on special teams. While Fej 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 with the Bengals on a one-year deal, originally left the Bengals in 2015 as a free agent to sign a one-year deal with the Vikings, which reunited him with his former defensive coordinator turned head coach, Mike Zimmer. That didn't last long as he was cut, signed by the Lions, cut again and then signed by the Raiders, cut again and then signed again by the Raiders a few weeks later.

Mays has played 50 games for the Bengals, including an eight-game stretch in 2013 where he played a linebacker/safety hybrid role, filling in for the injured Emmanuel Lamur, who left this offseason to sign with the Vikings. Mays later suffered a season-ending injury at the mid-season point that year.

Other than that, Mays was primarily a special teams guy with the Bengals. His limited upside and liabilities in coverage helped lead to Minnesota cutting him less than three months after signing him in the 2015 offseason. Mays was also picked up and cut by the Lions.

Mays ended up playing in 14 games with the Raiders in 2015. He even made five starts at safety and finished with a solid 64.6 Pro Football Focus grade. He would've seen some interest on the open market this offseason, but his four-game suspension to start the 2016 season killed any interest other than Cincinnati wanting him back.

The suspension is for violating the NFL's policy on substances of abuse, and since he'll miss the first four games in 2016, he won't count against the 53-man roster during that time. At worst, he'll remain a member of the Bengals through the first month of the regular season.

The only other safety currently signed is Floyd Raven. The undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M appeared in 45 games over his four-year college career and finished with 88 total tackles.

Raven signed with the Bengals as an UDFA in 2015, but rarely got practice snaps, let alone reps in preseason games, which made him an easy cut. However, he must have shown the Bengals enough behind the scenes that they wanted to bring him back. He also spent time on the Patriots practice squad during the regular season.

It's also possible that the Bengals bring back Leon Hall to play safety, something he's dabbled with in the late years of his career. It was reported this week that the Bengals have remained in talks to re-sign Hall.

At this point, it's hard to see Smith and Fej not being the two backup safeties, if for no other reason than the Bengals actually having invested draft picks in them, whereas Raven was never projected to last in the NFL. He may be in the running for a practice squad spot, but that's about his ceiling, at least until we get to hopefully see more of him in training camp and the preseason.