The Cincinnati Bengals may have a serious issue at safety, but they’re not panicking just yet.
Shawn Williams has quietly become one of the NFL’s better strong safeties in recent years, enough that the Bengals gave him a lucrative extension last year. His numbers weren’t great while playing in a defense that finished 19th in sacks (33), which makes life harder for safeties.
But, even with his game more exposed, Williams still finished with a respectable 78.5 Pro Football Grade, ranking him 39th among 90 qualified safeties. And with 2017 being Williams’ second season as a full-time starter, along with an improved pass rush, there was plenty of reason to expect a breakout season from the fifth-year safety,
That’s now in jeopardy after Williams suffered a scary elbow injury during the Bengals’ preseason loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The reported timetable for Williams’ recovery is 4-6 weeks, but even that looks iffy, especially with a franchise that’s notorious for muddying up injury timetables.
For now, it’s best to just assume Williams is out for the first month of the regular season and be pleasantly surprised if he returns sooner. Even if he does return in Week 3 or 4, he’s going to be rusty from the long layoff and probably not at his best.
In the meantime, the Bengals will have a new starting strong safety while George Iloka sticks to free safety. Unfortunately, Iloka is still recovering from a hyperextended knee but he may return for the dress rehearsal on Sunday against Washington. He’s returned to practice on a limited basis, and is expected to get back to practice fully this week, so he shouldn’t miss any regular-season games.
It will be interesting to see how well the young, inexperienced safeties hold up against Josh Doctson, Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder on Sunday in the third preseason game.
With Iloka out for the last two weeks, Clayton Fejedelem started in his place. Now that Williams is going to be out, the Bengals could go with Derron Smith, Demetrious Cox or even cornerback Joshua Shaw or stick with Fejedelem, if Iloka does in fact return.
Shaw is who defensive coordinator Paul Guenther singled out when asked about who will replace Williams.
“Josh (Shaw) is getting some snaps at safety; Derron (Smith) is getting a lot more,” Guenther said, via Bengals.com. “He played 40-some the other night. It’s good for those guys. (Cox) has been in there a lot playing. It’s good, the more you can get experience now, the better off you are down the road.”
While those guys may be fighting for a starting spot in the preseason, once Iloka returns, expect Fejedelem to start across from him in Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens. Fejedelem has seen extensive work in the preseason while starting in place of Iloka. The second-year safety is physical enough to play strong safety but agile and quick enough to cover centerfield at free safety.
Fejedelem is also who Iloka is endorsing.
“I think he’s a blue-collar guy like myself,” Iloka said. “You know his story. How he ended up at Illinois. How I ended up at Boise. I know that about him right there. He plays with a passion, he’s physical. He’s someone I trust out there. He’s a guy that’s taken advantage of his opportunities, and I hope he continues to do that.”
Guenther is hoping the next two preseason games give him enough time to figure out how the revamped safety rotation will be executed come Week 1.
“You can manage it by personnel. It might not be just one guy. It might be a couple here and there,” Guenther said. “That’s what these games are for. Getting a feel for who can do what. You got four games for research and development. Is this guy going to make it? This guy going to make it? You have to get those guys into the game against good players. And they work it out.”
Depending on how long Williams is out, he could end up going on Injured Reserve with the hopes he can return later in the season via IR-return. That means Fejedelem, Smith and even Shaw could be in line for bigger roles this year than anticipated.