Just a couple of days ago, I wrote an article about Cincinnati Bengals rookie safety Jessie Bates, a player that the Pittsburgh Steelers expressed interest in prior to the draft. Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis called him “gifted and talented”, complimenting his work in the run game and finding the right spots in coverage. “He could end up being the guy back there real quick”, he said.
And maybe it will be the season opener. According to Ian Rapoport, the Bengals are releasing George Iloka, the more veteran of their two starting safeties, in a decision that was described to him as financially based.
A stunner: The #Bengals are releasing starting safety George Iloka, per @MikeGarafolo and me. He’s started every game he’s played in since 2013. Purely a financial decision, but a 28-year-old safety hitting the market at this point is good news for interested teams.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 19, 2018
Iloka is set to make a base salary of $4.8 million this season with a $500,000 roster bonus. He signed a five-year, $30 million contract in 2016 and has escalating base salaries in his final three years. He would have made $5.2 million in 2019 and 2020 in base salaries.
With Iloka being released, it goes without saying that it opens the door for the rookie Bates to land a starting job alongside Shawn Williams. Williams entered the starting lineup full-time in 2016, recording 81 tackles and three interceptions that year. He was limited to 11 games in 2017 and was reflected in his statistical decline.
Iloka has been a starting safety for the team since his second season in 2013, missing only four games in that span, all of which came in 2015. He recorded a career-high 80 tackles last season with one interception. Overall, he has recorded 343 tackles with nine interceptions, 32 passes defensed, and two forced fumbles.
The only other true safeties on the Bengals’ roster are Clayton Fejedelem, Brandon Wilson, and rookie Trayvon Henderson. Fejedelem has gotten some playing time and is the most veteran of the three, entering his third season. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Bates is listed as a defensive back, however.
On the Bengals’ first official depth chart released earlier this month, Bates was listed as the second-team free safety behind Iloka. With this financial decision being made—and no doubt largely influenced by what they’ve seen from the rookie—he figures to have the chance to start now.
So now the Bengals secondary will feature two players that Steelers fans wanted—actually three, if you go back to 2014 and Darqueze Dennard, though Pittsburgh came out of that first round with Ryan Shazier, so no complaints there.
The other is of course cornerback William Jackson III, who had a very promising second season a year ago after spending his rookie year on injured reserve. He will be entering the starting lineup full-time this year after the team chose not to pick up Adam Jones’ contract option.