The Bengals' secondary has been in need of a face lift for quite some time now. While it is true that they have performed well over the last few years, the fact of the matter is the unit has been aging and only recently has been experiencing a youth movement. However, the young players are starting to reach the point where they have the opportunity to come in and make a significant impact.
This year, the Bengals' anticipated starting secondary consists of Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, George Iloka and Shawn Williams with Darqueze Dennard expected to play in the slot, essentially as a fifth starter.
"Someone is going to get hurt," former Bengals defensive back and current coaching intern, Chris Crocker, told Geoff Hobson. "I want to see how the rest of those guys emerge because the chances of all four of those guys playing 16 weeks, this is the NFL and guys are going to get dinged up."
Behind the starting crew, the Bengals have a number of young players with high potential. The most notable members of the backup group are second year players cornerback Josh Shaw, safety Derron Smith, 2016 first round pick, cornerback William Jackson III and fourth year cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris.
Crocker knows the pattern of the NFL well and the need to rise to the occasion when your number is called upon. After being signed by the Bengals in 2008 after Dexter Jackson was placed on Injured Reserve, Crocker was the kind of player who always seemed to be on the fringes of the roster. His role as a nickel corner made him valuable as both a cornerback and a safety, giving him the ability to continue to find his way back to the 53 man roster before following Mike Zimmer to Minnesota in 2014.
Today, he's back in action with the team as a coaching intern in the Bill Walsh Minority Fellowship program, trying to make an impact on other players as he did with his teammates during his playing days. One of those players who many are comparing to Crocker is Josh Shaw, due to his versatility as a defensive back.
"I do think it's paramount that you have two or three guys back there who can play multiple positions because the more you can do, it helps the coaches." Crocker said of Shaw's versatility and value to the team. "Going into game day, if you know you have a DB that can play two or three spots, you don't have to carry another DB."
Shaw was drafted in 2015, so he hasn't experienced much playing time in a Bengals system where young players are typically given a chance to sit and learn before being thrown into the fire.
In 2012, the team drafted cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in the first round and safety George Iloka in the fifth. Kirkpatrick was a full-time starter for the first time in 2015 and Iloka has been a starter since his second NFL season in 2013. But, young guys who have been drafted since 2013 like Shawn Williams, Darqueze Dennard, Shaw and Smith have yet to be given the chance to start due to older, more experienced veterans taking the top spots.
Williams, in particular, received quite a bit of praise from Crocker. The fourth year safety has not had much starting experience yet, but due to the departure of Reggie Nelson, who left for the Oakland Raiders in free agency, he should have a clear path to the starting position. It helps that he impressed in the few on-field opportunities he had while Iloka was hurt in 2015 and proved enough to earn himself a four-year, $19.5 million contract.
"He's really prepped himself based on what he got to learn," Crocker said of Williams. "I think it's been really good for him to have that progression. He's looked good so far."
It's high praise for a player who hasn't even officially been declared the starter yet. But, Crocker seems to be pretty sure of what's in store for Williams' immediate future. However, Crocker does understand that making an impact isn't guaranteed for Williams, even if he is handed the starting job.
"He's ready to play, but it's really unknown," Crocker told Hobson. "This is going to tell you going into his first year as a starter, so I couldn't tell you what his goals are. I'd just like to see him be consistent."
Williams has a blueprint for success laid out by Iloka, who was thrust into a starting position early in his career, despite being a fifth round draft pick. Despite not playing much in his first few seasons, Williams' big contract extension shows the Bengals have faith in their players, even when they're riding the bench more often than not in their first few seasons.
"George has been a good player for a couple of years now," Crocker said. "He's going into his fifth season and now he has the big money he has to take another big step."
Crocker thinks Williams resembles Iloka as "headsy" players and that the two show a very developed football IQ. But, like Williams, he also admits that there are still things for Iloka to work on in 2016.
"Get his hands on a lot more balls. He needs some more interceptions," Crocker said. "He's a headsy player obviously, and he's going to make plays, but I'd like to see him get a lot more interceptions, get a couple more this year. And I think that's his goal, too."
The presence of talented young players like Iloka, Williams, and Shaw are just a few examples of how fortunate the Bengals are to have such a well developed drafting and player development strategy. With Nelson now gone, Leon Hall still a free agent, and Adam Jones pushing 33-years-old, there should be plenty of opportunities for the young players to make their mark.