There is no way around the fact that the 2019 Bengals’ defense didn’t play up to par. It was a big reason we saw the team focus on that side of the ball throughout the entire offseason. From spending a large amount of money in free agency (especially for Cincinnati’s standards) to drafting mostly defensive players in the draft, the defensive side of the ball should see plenty of changes.
One thing that remains to be seen is if safety Shawn Williams will be apart of those changes.
Hometown: Damascus, GA
Experience: eighth years
Williams is set to make $4.485 million in 2020, according to Spotrac. This will be the final year of his contract, and he is set to become an unrestricted free agent following the season. There is very little chance that Williams and the Bengals will be able to agree on an extension prior to or during the season. With the pandemic still going on and possible replacements on the roster, there seems to be plenty of uncertainty into how this situation will be handled following the season as well.
Williams was a third-round draft pick by the Bengals in the 2013 NFL Draft. After accruing nearly 800 special teams snaps in his first two years, he played significant snaps at safety during the team’s impressive 2015 season. His promising work from that year led to the team offering him a four-year extension worth over $20 million and a full-time starting role on defense.
Williams essentially replaced Reggie Nelson, who left for the Oakland Raiders during the 2016 offseason, and has been a very solid player since, and the past few seasons has been one of the key defenders for this team. In 2018 he played roughly 88 percent of the defensive snaps, and last season he was on the field for over 90 percent of the defensive snaps.
The past two seasons have been pivotal in Williams’ career arc. 2018 saw Williams as his most productive self in coverage; his five interceptions and 78.7 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus attest to that. This past season saw Williams dramatically regress back to the mean, specifically in run defense. His 23 missed tackles were a career-high and even the average viewer could tell he was out of position more times than he ever was before. With a forgettable year behind him, he enters 2020 as an acclaimed locker room leader and one of the most experienced players on the roster.
Outlook for 2020
The biggest mystery that needs to be solved during training camp is what the Bengals are going to do with their three safeties. Cincinnati made headlines when they added former-Saints’ safety Vonn Bell in free agency; a move which sparked some speculation over Williams’ future with the team considering the roles the two players play.
Some fans and analysts have speculated that Williams would play more of a nickel (or dime) linebacker role. Others have said that Bell fits better in that role, and this would free Williams and Bates up to play more coverages with two deep safeties. The truth seems to be that the plan is still up in the air at the moment, but Williams is confident that each safety will have a role.
We could see Williams and Bell both interchangeably in the lineup as a safety or linebacker, and that could be decided once the team has a chance to see each player in each of the roles. It seems like Bell did excel more when he played closer to the line of scrimmage, and Williams has been underrated in coverage. That could give you an idea as to how this will play out. However, it is naive to think Bell’s presence on the roster doesn’t hurt Williams’ possible stats for the upcoming season
The truth is that the uncertainty over COVID-19 has also played into Williams favor as far as the security of his roster spot. Every NFL team is dealing with having less time to prepare on the field for the upcoming season. That means it could be beneficial to have Williams—who has a year of experience under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo—starting over Bell who has yet to take the field and practice under this system.
It is very likely that the plan prior to the pandemic getting worse was to have Williams play out his contract, but these conditions have really helped assure that. Still, Cincinnati did shock everyone when they cut George Iloka in order to start Jessie Bates III during his rookie season when many expected them to run more three safety looks. That leaves a mild amount of doubt as to whether Williams will take the field for the Bengals this season. Hopefully we get a chance to see these three very talented safeties take the field together.
Roster odds: 90 percent