What once appeared to be a strength of the Cincinnati Bengals defense now is the type of liability that could threaten to derail a season.
Shawn Williams, the Bengals’ starting strong safety, went down with what appeared to be a serious elbow injury during the second quarter of Saturday night’s preseason loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Starting free safety George Iloka hyperextended his knee during training camp and, although he returned to limited practice last week, will probably not be available before the start of the regular season.
Brandon Wilson, the all-purpose safety out of Houston that the Bengals traded up to nab of the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, is currently on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list and will likely miss the entirety of the season. Cedric Thompson, an undrafted free-agent safety from the University of Minnesota, was recently given and injury settlement and waived by the team.
That leaves the Bengals with only three healthy safeties at the moment in Derron Smith, who is coming back from his own training camp injury, Clayton Fejedelem and Demetrious Cox, an undrafted free agent from Michigan State.
While Cincinnati’s cupboard might be getting dangerously low, there are still a number of big-name safeties out there who are seeking an NFL home for the 2017 season, and at least one of those might provide the necessary added insurance the Bengals seek.
Probably the top name on that list is former New Orleans saint and Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, the NFL’s interception leader as a rookie in 2009 and a Pro-Bowler as recently as 2013. But injuries, including a torn lateral meniscus knee ligament in 2014, have stalled his once promising career. As of yet, no team has been willing to give him another chance.
Donte Whitner went to the Pro Bowl while with San Francisco 49ers after the 2012 and 2013 seasons, and earned a third straight trip in 2014 after signing with the Cleveland Browns. Whitner signed with Washington in 2016 and was the starter at strong safety for the Redskins before a quad injury ended his season. Whitner, the eighth-overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, recently turned 32 years of age.
Isa Abdul-Quddus is another ultra-talented safety who has been plagued by injury concerns. Abdul-Quddus was cut by the Miami Dolphins for medical reasons and an apparent nerve problem in his neck makes it unlikely that he will be cleared anytime soon.
Another injury-plagued safety is Kendrick Lewis, who was drafted by Kansas City in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Lewis was a starter for Kansas City, Houston and Baltimore before missing the 2016 season with a thigh injury.
Rashad Johnson played the first seven years of his career for the Arizona Cardinals before moving on to Tennessee last year. Johnson has solid coverage skills but can be a liability in coverage.
The Bengals should probably steer clear of a pair of former Baltimore Ravens safeties in Matt Elam and Will Hill. Elam was arrested on multiple felony drug charges in February, and in May was charged with grand larceny and battery in a separate incident. All charges were subsequently dropped. Hill was facing a 10-game suspension, his fourth time running afoul of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, when he was released by Baltimore in March of last year.
Two individuals who made their marks at cornerback provide intriguing possibilities for the Bengals in their search for a safety. The first is Leon Hall, who broke in with the Bengals as the team’s first-round selection in 2007 and played for the New York Giants last year. Hall, at 32 years of age, is known and trusted by Bengals’ coaches and is a fan favorite.
The other possibility is Darrelle Revis, once known as Revis Island because of his status as the best coverage cornerback in the NFL. Revis, who just turned 32, has struggled at cornerback the best two years but may be able to revive his career with a switch to safety.
Ultimately, the Bengals have plenty of options if the injury to Williams misses extensive time. And that is not even taking into consideration the list of undrafted college free agent safeties too numerous to mention.
But let’s hope that Williams is fine and the back end of this defense can once again live up to its billing as the backbone of the team.