In an odd twist to what the Bengals normally do in free agency, the team has actually been quite active this spring. While some of that activity has come with outside signings and other visits with veterans, most of the team's work has been with their own free agents, be it by re-signing or losing out on them to another team.
Reggie Nelson is the most recent example of such, as he reportedly turned down a deal with the Bengals earlier this offseason and now, will be signing a two-year deal with the Oakland Raiders, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Reggie Nelson agrees to terms with Raiders, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 6, 2016
Raiders are giving former Bengals safety Reggie Nelson a two-year deal.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 6, 2016
Nelson is the sixth of 14 Bengals 2016 free agents who went elsewhere this offseason, and the Raiders have suddenly seemed to have built a pretty solid squad in grabbing the veteran safety.
Nelson signing a contract a month into free agency is quite surprising, as many felt he was one of the better players entering the open market. With eight interceptions in 2015 (tied for the NFL lead) and his first Pro Bowl berth, many thought he would either return to Cincinnati or bolt elsewhere early in the free agency period. However, age and likely high contract demands early in the process had him settling on the Oakland deal far later than was expected.
All of that said, the Bengals' hardball negotiation tactics and allowance of Nelson to leave after six productive seasons both tells us a lot about their plan ahead, but also leaves outsider questions on the team's position group going forward.
What the team is Telling us:
First of all, even though the team has greatly changed it's frugality stripes in recent years, they made it known they aren't going to overpay for a soon-to-be 33-year-old safety who could reach his career cliff in the very near future. It's a bold move, but one that teams like the New England Patriots often make, allowing one of their better acquisitions in recent memory leave once their usefulness looks to be running low.
The Bengals are also telling us that they like who they currently have on the roster. Cincinnati's front office made the decision to give the big contract to the younger George Iloka, and are confident in the relatively unproven, but steadily improving Shawn Williams as a potential Nelson replacement. Aside from Williams, the Bengals also like 2015 sixth-rounder Derron Smith, as well as the swing guys in Josh Shaw and Taylor Mays.
It's refreshing to see the team have confidence in the youngsters they're grooming, but caution must be exercised. One glaring mistake they made in relying on Margus Hunt while allowing Michael Johnson to walk in 2014. This situation is a little different though, as Nelson will be 33 years old at the beginning of the 2016 season, while Johnson was 27 in the spring of 2014.
Impact on the Position Going Forward:
As I mentioned above, Nelson's signing could pave way for more prominent roles for Smith and Williams, as well as Shaw's Chris Crocker-like slot role. Though the Bengals have designated strong and free safeties, they like guys who are interchangeable at the positions, thus making Williams the likely starter opposite Iloka with Nelson's departure. Such was the case in the playoff game against the Steelers when Nelson left with an ankle injury.
While it looks like the draft is the way the team will go in filling Nelson's roster spot, there is one interesting free agent caveat. Donte Whitner was just released by the Browns, and while it frustrates those who cover the team when fans immediately clamor for a player like Whitner to join the Bengals, it might be a little more possible than it seems on the surface.
They added veterans on the cheap in Brandon LaFell and Karlos Dansby, who were discarded by their respective teams, and now with Nelson off the market, Whitner has the most decorated experience and is about two years younger than Nelson. In a year where Marvin Lewis is in the last year of his contract, he and the team might be more inclined to push more chips to the middle of the table than usual and sign a guy like Whitner. Keep in mind that he was set to join the Bengals in 2012 before a last-minute change of heart to go to the 49ers.
But, in what is a more likely scenario, the Bengals might look to the draft for a Nelson replacement. If past history is any indication under Lewis, the highest they'll look at a safety is in the second round, with the more distinct possibility coming in the mid-rounds. Clemson's T.J. Green, Boise State's Darian Thompson, West Virginia's Karl Joseph and Southern Utah's Miles Killebrew are all possibilities in the middle of this year's draft.