The Bengals’ decision to part ways with Reggie Nelson after a stellar 2015 season was generally seen as one of the most disliked moves the team made during the 2016 offseason. Due to the number of key free agents the Bengals had in 2016, the team had a lot of big decisions to make, but most fans agreed that Nelson should have been a priority. When the Bengals didn’t re-sign him and he ended up with the Oakland Raiders, many Bengals fans (including myself) were distraught.
The situation seems more unfortunate when you consider that Nelson followed up his first career Pro Bowl selection in 2015 with another Pro Bowl season with the Raiders in 2016. Even at 33-years-old, he is still one of the best free safeties in the NFL. However, the Bengals have moved on and at this point it seems to have been the best move they could have made in the situation.
At the time, Nelson’s contract talks were seen as impeding the Bengals’ completing a deal with George Iloka. Both players likely could have been re-signed without much issue, especially considering the number of key free agents the team failed to re-sign. But, the Bengals made the decision to focus on Iloka’s extension and ended up losing Nelson in the process. Iloka received a sweet five year, $30 million deal, while Nelson found a new gig with the Raiders. Iloka still isn’t quite at Nelson’s level yet, but he did put together a solid season in 2016 and will be around much longer than Nelson in the NFL.
As good of a season as Nelson had in 2016, his replacement, Shawn Williams, had a comparable year. Nelson recorded more interceptions (five) than Williams (three). He also recorded more passes defensed (12) than Williams (five). But, Williams recorded more tackles (59) than Nelson (50), and recorded a sack, which Nelson has not accomplished since 2014.
While it took some time for Iloka and Williams to form the chemistry Iloka shared with Williams, the duo was much improved toward the end of the season, which is a good sign for what’s to come. It seems as though the Bengals’ free safety position is in good hands these days. Williams appears to be less of a ballhawk than Nelson, but his coverage skills aren’t much different. There is something to be said about stability at a position, which is what the Bengals now have in spades.
After renewing Iloka’s contract and extending Williams’ contract last offseason, the Bengals have both of their young starting safeties under contract through 2020. In addition, they have two backups in Derron Smith and Clayton Fejedelem who are very well liked by the coaching staff and have shown plenty of promise when given an opportunity on the field.
The Bengals were able to accomplish this level of stability by letting Nelson go in the offseason and drafting Fejedelem to shore up the depth behind Williams. It was a tough decision to make, but it has worked out so far. If Nelson had been re-signed, Williams would still be riding the bench gathering very little experience for the future, and Fejedelem might not even be on the team at all. If the Bengals did draft Fejedelem, he would likely have been relegated to a practice squad role.
Purely from the standpoint of overall success, the Bengals’ rough 2016 offseason was a big reason why the final results in the season were so poor. But, the move to invest in the new generation at safety, while taking the risk of letting a Pro Bowl-caliber player move on, seems to have been the correct call. Right now, the Bengals’ safety position appears to be one of the most stable on the team. If Williams and/or Iloka can elevate themselves to a Pro Bowl level in the next year or two, there will be no question that the Bengals made the right move last offseason.