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Bengals roster breakdown, 90-in-90: Shawn Williams perfect example of draft, develop, retain

After a strong finish to the 2016 season, the fifth-year safety will hope a better pass rush makes his life easier. Williams is the Bengals’ strong safety of the present and the future.

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Cincinnati Bengals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After making four starts in relief for the Bengals in 2015, Shawn Williams showed enough to draw a four-year extension in 2016 and allow Cincinnati to let former standout safety, Reggie Nelson, walk in free agency. The latest example of the team’s “draft, develop, retain” philosophy, Williams did well in his first season as a full-time starter and improved as the rest of the defense got better in the second half. The strong safety is a lock to keep his job despite the recent emergence of young draftees, and will again be key for Paul Guenther’s unit.

Shawn Williams

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 210 pounds

Position: Safety

College: Georgia

Hometown: Damascus, Georgia

Experience: Fifth-year player

Draft status: 3rd round, 84th overall pick, in 2013

Cap status

In 2016, Williams signed a four-year, $20,185,000 contract extension with the Bengals, including a $2,000,000 signing bonus, $4,000,000 guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $5,046,250. In 2017, Williams will earn a base salary of $3,100,000, a roster bonus of $234,375 and a workout bonus of $300,000, while carrying a cap hit of $4,034,375 and a dead cap value of $1,600,000, per Spotrac. The dead cap hit in all future years (2018-2020) is very minimal, meaning the Bengals could part ways with Williams if he has a poor season at any point before his contract runs out in March 2021.


After spending the first two years of his career sitting on the bench, a 2015 injury to George Iloka opened up a spot for Williams and he did his best keep it. He not only held his own out there, but also had a key play in the Bengals’ biggest win of the 2015 season, picking off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh in outstanding fashion. He also stepped up when Nelson had to leave the Wild Card game, ranking third in tackles with five and defending a pass.

Williams didn’t have a great start to the 2016 season, but the entire defense struggled, and as it improved after their game in London and the bye week, so did he. For a team with an anemic offense, every stop was crucial, and Williams became a nice contributor on the field, adding 81 tackles, three interceptions and one sack, while grading out as one of the best strong safeties in the game according to and The Bleacher Report’s NFL 1000.

The departure of key veterans like Nelson and Leon Hall was tough to overcome for a secondary that was also deprived of its first round pick, William Jackson III. The transition of Iloka, from being a role player to becoming the man - or “The General”, in the backend has taken time, and has also taken a toll on everybody else. With one more year of experience together, the sky's the limit for the Bengals’ safety tandem.

Roster chances

Despite Derron Smith’s rise there’s no way the Bengals take away the starting job from Williams in 2017. The box-to-box safety has his flaws, but he posted a stronger grade in coverage than guys like Tony Jefferson or Landon Collins, for example, in 2016. The absence of Nelson might have had a lot to do with the slow start for the entire Bengals secondary in 2016, but by the end of the season the defense was one of the stingiest of all in the NFL, in spite of a really poor pass rush, and Williams was an important factor.

Williams’ versatility is something Guenther and the rest of the coaching staff value, and they’ve always been looking for a guy who could play both the linebacker and safety positions. He’s got the ideal size and athleticism to match up against opposing tight ends. And he was one of the most disruptive blitzers for a team that was forced to bring in extra pressure often. Even in the unlikely scenario in which he lost his starting spot he could still garner playing time as a utility guy and on special teams, where he made a living when he first joined the Bengals.

With a revamped pass rush, replenished with youth and speed, the weigh on the secondary’s shoulders should be less, allowing Williams to look as good or better than he did in the second half of 2016. That and, hopefully, an improvement in his ball skills could go a long way in the Bengals’ chances of getting back to the playoffs after failing to do so last year.

Roster odds: 100 percent.