One Bengals player poised for a breakout 2016 season is second-year defensive back Josh Shaw.
Back in the 2015 NFL Draft, Cincinnati used the 120th-overall pick to select Shaw, an all-conference player at USC while playing both cornerback and safety. The Bengals love having versatile players who can play multiple positions on defense, which made Shaw very attractive to them, so much that they almost traded up to get him.
This offseason, Shaw has been working more at safety after playing mainly at corner as a rookie. Though it's not been an easy transition, Shaw likes the progress he's made thus far.
"I played safety, corner and nickel in college, so it’s what I’m used to," Shaw said, via Dayton Daily News. "I haven’t done it in a while, so it’s just kind of getting my feet back wet as far as the safety aspect. But it’s definitely coming along. I think from Day 1 to practice 7 or whatever today was, it’s come a long way."
With a cornerback unit loaded with first round Draft picks, if Shaw wants to see time on the field, it may be easier for him to prove his worth as a safety.
"There’s mistakes here and there, just like everybody, but I’m definitely enjoying it. Safety is just different from being out there on the island. At safety, you kind of have to take more control. You have to be able to recognize and diagnose things quicker. It’s fun. It’s another challenge. I’m always open to that."
The Bengals may also be looking to develop Shaw into the kind of player Chris Crocker was for them from 2008-13. And coincidentally, Crocker just re-joined the team as a coaching intern.
"The coaches always pull up a lot of old film, and often it’s of Crocker," Shaw said. "He was playing everywhere. Shawn (Williams) and George (Iloka) played with him, and they’ve been telling me the main thing about him was how much of a professional he was and how smart he was on the field."
Defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle returned to the Bengals this offseason after leaving to become the Dolphins defensive coordinator back in 2012. He helped develop Crocker into the Swiss Army Knife he was in Cincinnati, and Coyle sees that kind of player in Shaw.
"We’re always looking for safeties that have both physicality to play the position but also the coverage skills," Coyle said. "He has size and coverage skill that put him in that either/or role. When we look at our depth on our roster, we felt it would be in our best interest, and in his best interest, to get him in a situation where he might be able to get on the field sooner at the safety position and continue to build our depth.
"We’ve got some young corners that are still up and coming, and we felt that the safety position would be an area where he could play. He’s still playing nickel, he’s still doing a lot of different jobs for us, and that’s a good thing."
In college at USC, Shaw didn't become a full-time starter until 2013, where in the 14 games he started, 11 were at corner and three at free safety. He notched 67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, seven pass defenses and four interceptions. He had a pick-six against Cal and returned a blocked punt against Cal for another defensive score. It looked as though Shaw was becoming defensive star and a likely top-50 pick in the 2015 draft.
However, a disastrous 2014 season (off-the-field) led to Shaw's stock plummeting to the point where Cincinnati was able to snag him in Round 4. After a good showing in training camp and the preseason, Shaw played in 15 games in 2015 as he became a key special teams contributor while also getting occasional snaps on defense.
That was thanks in large part to Darqueze Dennard's season-ending shoulder injury in Week 11, which effectively made Shaw the fourth corner for the rest of the season. Now that Dennard is getting healthy while the Bengals also spent a first-round pick on Houston corner William Jackson III, playing time at corner will be hard to come by for Shaw. That's why the Bengals have been working Shaw at safety a lot this offseason.
That may be his best chance of making it onto the field in 2016 with corner being so deep. Shawn Williams and George Iloka have the starting safety spots locked down, but no other proven safety is behind them. That could allow Shaw to be the third safety, which effectively has been a starter role in the Bengals defense.
And one other takeaway from this news: The fact that the Bengals want Shaw working at safety while Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick sit out until training camp due to shoulder injuries would seem to indicate how much they think of Jackson, who has been reportedly impressive in OTAs thus far. Perhaps they think Jackson is going to play a lot as a rookie, which naturally would keep Shaw from seeing the field. That said, a move to safety may be in Shaw's best interest.