Something isn't right between the Bengals and Reggie Nelson.
OK, let's rewind a bit.
Safety Reggie Nelson was once considered a bust; the vernacular liberally applied to any player selected during the first round of the NFL draft (some use it for any player drafted from any round but my definition is a bit more confined to a single round) when they don't meet expectations. As these stories naturally begin, disfavor toward Nelson wasn't immediate. In fact, after being selected with the 21st overall pick during the 2007 NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Nelson had an excellent rookie season with five interceptions, a sack, 11 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. It created a path for even higher expectations going forward.
Then, after a combination of depleted talent surrounding him, coaches ridiculously playing him at cornerback and obvious underperformance, Nelson took residence in the doghouse of then-coach Jack Del Rio. After spending three seasons with the Jaguars, Jacksonville was ready to trade Nelson. Cincinnati called and struck a deal, shipping cornerback David Jones to Jacksonville, along with a conditional pick, in exchange for Nelson.
It was a perfect marriage.
As Roy Williams, a starting safety in 2010, and Chinedum Ndukwe, a spot starter (and fan favorite), were inching closer toward their eventual departures, Nelson progressively watched as his playing time incrementally increased (thanks to a season-ending injury to Chris Crocker) before he became a full-time starter in 2011. In addition to bringing stability to a position that rotated random free agent veterans and fringe late-round prospects, Nelson excelled as a serviceable role player into playmaker that year. Months later as a free agent, despite varying interest from other teams (notably the Jets), Nelson eventually struck a four-year deal with Cincinnati worth $18 million.
The relationship was as smooth as any.
During his five-year reign as a starting safety in Cincinnati ('11-'15), Nelson secured 23 interceptions, leading the team (or at least tied for the team lead) in all but one season (he was second in 2013). Additionally, no Bengals defender has generated more interceptions during that span than Nelson, who also posted 5.5 quarterback sacks and five forced fumbles during his time in Cincinnati
Nelson's career culminated with a career-year last season during which he was voted to his first Pro Bowl with a league-leading eight picks.
Yes, he's done well. He's even better against specific teams.
Let's stroke the incendiary fires of a boiling rivalry against that team out East. Of Nelson's 23 career interceptions in Cincinnati, six were recorded against the Pittsburgh Steelers (11 games played).
These aren't meaningless interceptions either.
Nelson's Week 16 pick during the 2012 season, set up Josh Brown's game-winning field goal, propelling Cincinnati into the postseason and eliminating the Steelers from the playoffs. Nelson added another fourth quarter interception to preserve a 20-10 win in 2013. During Cincinnati's 16-10 over the Steelers last November, Nelson picked off Ben Roethlisberger with 2:57 remaining in the game, leading to a field goal that extended Cincinnati's lead to six points with 1:47 remaining.
Now, Nelson is a free agent. "I would love to be a Bengal," Nelson said last month. "I did my part. I played football. It's time to handle business and we'll go from there."
Minnesota has expressed limited interest and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are linked to Nelson, who reportedly rejected a two-year offer from the Bengals this week. Regardless, Yahoo! Sports NFL reporter Charles Robinson sent out a tweet that if Nelson entered the free agent market, the Bengals "don't want him back." These are his words, not to be interpreted as a fan's overreaction.
My response: What. The. Hell.
One argument is that George Iloka's contract, worth $30 million over five years, closed any possibility of Nelson's return. I'll never claim to be a capologist (another media-invented word), nor do I find value in pretending to have a deep understanding with the league's financial structure floated by the NFL, NFLPA, players or individual teams.
That being said, with the exception of promoting a cap-friendly situation (especially after the $263 million set aside for rookies, injuries, practice squad players, etc...), Cincinnati can afford a 32-year-old player who is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and won't redefine the value/pay structure for all safeties in the NFL. How quick are we to discard an all-star player who frustrates one of the team's biggest rivals?
Nah, I don't buy that.
Another argument can be made for the promotion of fourth-year player Shawn Williams. While I tend to favor opportunities for younger players (see my arguments for Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard in 2013 and 2014 respectively), Williams has provided a limited sample on defense compared to Nelson, who is still playing at a high-level while playing the role as a migraine-inducing villain against the Steelers. We'll call this debate an example between a man of faith (believing that Williams is a serviceable replacement) and a man of science (knowing that Nelson is still coming off an all-star season).
For Cincinnati to irrationally slam shut this proverbial door, simply because Nelson entered free agency, is a definite head-scratcher. Yes, we're talking about the application of negotiations, which includes one-sided perspectives and lacks any context (especially from twitter).
Nah, I don't buy this door being shut.
Not at all.