There are a couple of positions the Cincinnati Bengals have traditionally held in somewhat-low regard in their history. Aside from tight end and offensive guard, safety has rarely been a position that the team has taken early in draft classes.
Yet, in recent years, Cincinnati has invested some good money in the latter-mentioned position. Whether it was in a couple of contracts to Reggie Nelson, or two 2016 offseason deals to George Iloka and Shawn Williams, Cincinnati has begun to value the spot a bit more than before.
Aside from having those two starters in the fold, the team made a pretty solid push to add veteran Kurt Coleman this offseason. Though he didn’t force a turnover in 2017, he has 21 interceptions and four forced fumbles in eight previous seasons, which piqued the interest of new defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin.
Between the Coleman pursuit and the idea that the team might still be keeping an eye on the free agent market, we decided to discuss the topic on this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider.
The current issues:
Big money tied up in the starters: Williams’ cap hit is just north of $4 million in 2018, while Iloka’s is $6.2 million in 2018. It’s a manageable overall number, but the truth is that the team has put in some big capital to starters at what is largely considered a non-premium position in the NFL.
Does the production match the money?: Since both Williams and Iloka signed big deals in the 2016 offseason, most had hoped it would be a dominant duo at the back of the defense. They’ve made plays and have peaked out at the level of “solid” since the contracts, but there is a prevailing belief that both should be providing more big plays for the defense.
Both Iloka and Williams had just one interception apiece in 2017, after they both had three in 2016. Even with the latter number though, both safeties got off to a slow start after inking their respective deals.
Iloka had the second-lowest amount of defended passes of his career in 2017 with five, while Williams had the same amount and missed five games. These don’t exactly scream to domination and it’s clear that these two make the most plays when all parts of the defense are on the field and healthy.
It’s in these areas as to why the Bengals flirted with Coleman around the NFL Combine. Austin is looking for guys who can create turnovers, as both he and Marvin Lewis are re-examining many parts of the defense.
Lack of depth: We mentioned the lack of big plays, but that also is part of the issues from players behind both Williams and Iloka. Clayton Fejedelem is a fine special teams player, but struggled with extensive defensive play last year, while Brandon Wilson is still an unknown.
The wild card is Josh Shaw, who is technically listed as a cornerback, but is also a swing safety. While he has flashed at times as a pro, the draft knock of his potentially being unable to find a true niche in the NFL has surfaced a bit.
Because of the inconsistencies with the backups on defense, the Bengals put out the feelers to Coleman and potentially others.
Available free agents:
Kenny Vaccaro: We’re not quite sure what it means when the Saints opted to sign Coleman to a lucrative deal and let their former first round pick walk. If you remember, Vaccaro was a player many Bengals fans wanted back in the 2013 draft and was frequently mocked to them.
It’s unclear what kind of a deal Vaccaro wants and if he’ll take a potential rotational role with a team like the Bengals in 2018. He does have eight career interceptions, including three last year and that could intrigue the Bengals.
Mike Mitchell: This one would likely only be popular in an effort to stick it to the Steelers. Mitchell wasn’t always the most sound player in pass coverage, but he does have 10 career interceptions, though he had zero last season.
The veteran is an enforcer and is a guy fans only like when he’s on the team they specifically root for. Interestingly enough, it seemed as if Mitchell’s best performances with Pittsburgh came against Cincinnati.
T.J. Ward: The veteran was a solid piece to the Super Bowl-winning Broncos team in Super Bowl 50 and has three Pro Bowls to his name. He’s entering his eighth year, has only played all games in a season twice in his career and is 31 years old, though.
Like Mitchell, Ward is more of an enforcer type than a ball hawk, as he only has eight interceptions since 2010. The Bengals could get him on a one-year rental deal like the Buccaneers did in 2017.
Eric Reid: The veteran safety has had a pretty productive career, but has also had some ups and downs. He’s only played 16 games in a season twice in five seasons, but has 34 passes defended and 10 picks since 2013.
The unfortunate aspect with a team signing Reid is that is comes with major off-field ramifications and subsequent questions. Reid has been vocal in the political realm and has knelt during the national anthem, causing much division in the eyes of front offices and fans.
High-profile draft options:
Minkah Fitzpatrick: The Alabama standout is one of the top overall talents in this year’s draft and could be used in a number of ways. In today’s pass-happy NFL, it’s hard to find safeties you can keep on the field for three downs and in different packages and Fitzpatrick is one of those guys.
However, Fitzpatrick is unlikely to make it out of the top-15 of this year’s class. Yes, safety has mixed value with teams, but he still should be one of the first defensive players off of the board.
Justin Reid: Like his brother, Reid is projected to be a first round talent in this year’s class. Fair or not, it’s going to be interesting to see if both his brother’s and his own political views affect his draft status.
Reid had five interceptions last year, as he helped Stanford charge to a solid season. He’ll probably be available at No. 21 overall, but some talented interior offensive linemen will likely be available at that spot, so the board will have to fall in a very funky way if Cincinnati pounces on Reid in the first.
Derwin James: The Florida State standout is one of this year’s very best players and should be taken in the first 10 picks. Again though, strong safety isn’t necessarily a premium position for teams to use high picks on, so front offices need to believe they are getting a Jalen Ramsey or Tyrann Mathieu type of player in the secondary (though James’ game differs from theirs) if they are going to use a high pick on him.
DeShon Elliott: From a Bengals perspective, this is a more realistic option. Elliott is a day two or maybe even early day three kind of guy, who should be helpful to a defense.
This guy makes plays, as evidenced by his six interceptions last season, with two being taken to the house. He has some work to do at the pro level, but if Austin is truly looking for guys to create turnovers, Elliott is one of the best in this class in that regard.
Should the Bengals be looking to add a high-profile safety, or should they stick with more immediately-pressing needs?
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