The Cincinnati Bengals had the luxury of fielding a quality pair of starting safeties last season with veteran Reggie Nelson, who snagged eight interceptions in 2015 with 14 passes defensed, as well as the much younger George Iloka, who in 12 games had one interception. In 2014, in a full season, he recorded 74 tackles with three interceptions and 10 passes defensed.
Both safeties hit free agency this offseason, but the Bengals elected to take the either/or than the and, re-signing Iloka to a five-year, $30 million deal after just recently turning 26 and very much on an upward trajectory. Nelson eventually signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Raiders.
As a result, it will be up to Iloka to move up into the leading position in the secondary, as the top safety and the communicating hub at the back end. And the Bengals did not look to replace Nelson in free agency or the draft. Instead, they are turning within for help.
Fourth-year safety Shawn Williams figures to be the player entering the starting lineup on a full-time basis in 2016. He started four games in place of Iloka last season, recording 32 tackles, two interceptions—one against the Pittsburgh Steelers—and five passes defensed.
Williams was a third-round draft pick of the Bengals out of Georgia, a six-foot, 210-pounder hard hitter who even started one game at linebacker for the Bulldogs. He has largely been relegated to special teams during his first two seasons, but partly because of the time Iloka missed, he was able to log 474 defensive snaps last year, in addition to 271 special teams snaps.
Iloka just turned 26 in March, and Williams just turned 25 on Friday. Both are young, talented safeties who, with enough time, could develop into a formidable long-term pairing. While Williams has limited starting experience, Iloka has been a three-year starter already, entering his five NFL season, while Williams heads into the final year of his rookie contract.
It will be interesting to see how Williams plays in his first full season, in a contract year, no less. But the Bengals have cap space, and he is reportedly the sort of player that the team would be interested in investing in long-term, if he manages to earn himself a nice-sized contract heading into 2017. Iloka netted $6 million per season on average.
The Steelers, meanwhile, are looking to formulate their own starting safety duo as well, with Mike Mitchell the fixture at one end, while the strong safety position remains in flux. The effective incumbent is fifth-year safety Robert Golden, who like Williams saw his first significant playing time last year.
But unlike the Bengals, Pittsburgh chose to address their safety position after losing a starter with a high draft investment with Sean Davis in the second round. Steelers rookies don’t always start on defense, but there is a chance that he could win a training camp competition with Golden. Either way, expect both to play.
As for the Bengals, they did look to free agency for depth, bringing back Taylor Mays, who has seen time in their sub-packages as a nickel backer. But he is set to begin the season serving a four-game suspension.