The Bengals’ safety position might be one of the most stable units on the team. George Iloka is a solid free safety, currently under contract through 2020. He is backed up by the very talented, but undersized, Derron Smith. At the strong safety position, Shawn Williams is also under contract through 2020 with 2016 draft pick Clayton Fejedelem at the backup spot.
The Bengals are known for utilizing a best player available strategy in the NFL Draft, regardless of their positional needs. This year, with potentially 11 draft picks to play with, that ‘best player available’ mentality makes even more sense.
Therefore, we could easily see the Bengals make a move for one of Mel Kiper’s top 10 safeties in the 2017 Draft, despite the position being one of the least notable needs on the team. Who among these players makes the most sense?
*1. Jamal Adams (LSU)
Adams is the kind of safety who can truly take over a defense. He is an undeniable leader, perfectly sized for the position, and possesses very refined instincts and technique. Perhaps his best trait is his awareness that allows him to both command his unit and rarely be caught off guard. He could stand to turn his aggressive mindset down a notch or two, but there is no question he should be a top-10 draft pick in 2017. If he even lasts to the Bengals’ No. 9 overall pick, the Bengals would have to jump on him immediately if they want any chance at selecting him.
**2. Jabrill Peppers (Michigan)
Peppers’ draft stock is interesting, to say the least. There was a time when he was considered a sure top-10 pick in the NFL due to his legendary versatility. The man once played 10 different positions. In one game. He has experience at safety, linebacker, running back, H-back, wide receiver, all cornerback spots, quarterback, field goal blocker, kick returner, and punt returner. With that kind of resume, how could any team not jump on him at No. 1 overall?
Unfortunately, teams will be weary of taking too much of a chance on him because his resume is overly diverse. He has experience across the board, rather than being an expert at one position. Go ahead and ask former wolverine Denard Robinson how that worked out when he made the jump to the NFL. He fell to the fifth round in the draft and has recorded just over 1,000 yards and five touchdowns in four seasons, despite the hype surrounding him coming out of college. For that reason, the Bengals should probably find someone safer at No. 9. But, if he makes a fall to their second round pick, as some are projecting at this point, his extreme athleticism and versatility could give the Bengals enough reason to take a chance on him.
**3. Malik Hooker (Ohio State)
Compared to former Bengals Pro Bowl safety, Reggie Nelson, Hooker employs a very cerebral aspect to playing safety. He always watches the quarterback’s eyes and trusts his instincts for quick, decisive action. He is versatile but, unlike Peppers, that versatility is much more concentrated within his own position. He can go high, low, or spy. At 6’2”, you probably aren’t going to consistently beat him on the deep ball. But, he is also relatively untested. Due to Ohio State’s depth at safety, he didn’t start until his sophomore season. Granted, he put together an impressive year, but he declared for the draft immediately after. He could have used an extra year in college to refine his instincts against the run, his tackling technique, and his balance. He will likely go in the late first round, so likely won’t be an option for the Bengals.
*4. Budda Baker (Washington)
At 5’10”, 180 pounds, Baker certainly does not pass the eye test when you first look at him. As a safety, you’re definitely hoping for both more height and bulk in that role. However, he displays a level of passion and explosive athleticism that brings scouts back to considering his potential to develop at the NFL level. He lacks strength and can be overpowered off tackles as a result. But, you won’t find a more efficient blitzer, more refined instincts, and his sheer speed paired with his refined ball skills anywhere else. The Bengals already have an undersized safety project in Smith, but might be intrigued by Baker if he makes a similar free fall in the draft like Smith did in 2015. He is expected to be a second round pick, so the Bengals probably won’t consider him that high. But, Smith was projected to go in the third round in 2015 and fell all the way to the sixth.
*5. Marcus Williams (Utah)
Marcus Williams’ strengths surround his finesse and athleticism, which play well at the free safety role. But, he isn’t much of a hitter and it shows with how often his is dragged along after initial contact. He could use some improvement with relying on his instincts rather than watching the quarterback’s eyes too closely. But, you simply can’t argue against his production (10 interceptions on 44 targets the last two seasons). At 6’1”, 195 pounds, he is tall enough to make an impact as a safety in the NFL, but definitely needs to bulk up if he wants to compete. He could be a third round selection, but the Bengals might be able to wait until Day 3 to pick him up, depending on how many teams are willing to take a chance on his development as more than just a pure ball hawk.
Here’s the rest of Kiper’s top 10 quarterbacks:
6. *Josh Jones, NC State
7. Marcus Maye, Florida
8. Eddie Jackson, Alabama
9. Justin Evans, Texas A&M
10. Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut
One asterisk denotes a junior, and two asterisks denote a redshirt sophomore for the 2016 season.