Bengal fans were ecstatic when the team locked up George Iloka to a five-year deal this offseason, and rightfully so. The safety, who turned 26 this year, has shown signs that he's capable of becoming one of the top players at his position. In fact, Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit believes Iloka will be one of the NFL's top 10, if not top five, safeties by the end of the 2016 season.
On the latest episode of the MMQB Podcast, which is currently ranking the top 15 players at each position, Iloka fell just short of the overall top 15. Benoit, Gary Gramling and the show's producer all made their own lists of the top 15 safeties in football, and averaging the three lists (with a heavier weighting of Benoit's and Gramling's lists), the three are coming up with the collective top 15 for each position. Iloka made Benoit's list but did not make the top 15, which didn't seem to sit well with Benoit.
"I was surprised Iloka didn't make [the top 15], he certainly made my list. I think he and [Ha ha] Clinton-Dix (who also did not make the list) will be top 5 or 10, certainly 10, by the end of this season. They're built very similarly too; they're long-armed, thick-chested guys. [They're interchangeable.] They can play free safety or strong safety; they're built for it physically, and if you've got guys with strong safety size, yet the agility and range to play in center field, that's a rare commodity. I was surprised Iloka didn't get more money in free agency; [he] got a five year, $30 million deal."
"In the NFL, most defenses don't have an answer for the tight end position; there are more good tight ends than there are safeties, and a guy like Iloka can cover tight ends and man-to-man. He's not asked to a lot, because that's not Cincy's scheme, but he could do that. He did that a little bit in college."
Anyone interested in Benoit and Gramling's opinions on safeties should definitely check out the podcast. Benoit's discussion on Iloka starts right around the 40-minute mark.
As I've written this offseason, Iloka will need to start forcing turnovers if he wants to be considered a top safety, because like it or not, most casual NFL fans and a surprisingly high percentage of well-respected NFL analysts value statistics over what players show on film, simply because looking at box scores saves time. Benoit and other people who value film study will point out how Iloka rarely gives up big plays in coverage, makes game-breaking hits on opposing players and is as consistent a player as can be.
But unless Iloka picks off passes like his former teammate Reggie Nelson, who finished 60th on the NFL's Top 100 Players of 2016, he likely won't earn the respect that he already deserves. Just look at Marcus Peters, who was the NFL's most targeted corner in 2015. Despite giving up a Pro Football Focus record 137 targets and at least seven touchdowns in 2015, Peters was an All-Pro, simply because he tallied a league-high eight interceptions. His play didn't warrant the kind of recognition it received, but numbers excite people more than what they see on film, and Peters benefitted as a result.
As the best safety on Cincinnati's roster, Iloka will likely see plenty of opportunities to make big plays in 2016. Hopefully he'll be able to capitalize on those opportunities and make Benoit's prediction become a reality.