In the weeks since the completion of the NFL draft, I have been looking at the various position groups in an effort to shed light on where the team currently stands with their personnel and to foreshadow needed moves once free agency begins. You can see the history of these articles in my archives. Today, I focus on the safeties.
The Bengals secondary was a big disappointment in 2010, and a big part of the reason was a rash of injuries that hit them hard, especially at safety. Last year’s starters, Chris Crocker and Roy Williams, both missed time due to injury. Crocker, who missed the final seven games last season after tearing his MCL, figures to remain the starter at strong safety assuming his recovery goes well. Williams has only played in 12 games the past three seasons due to injury and is an unrestricted free agent that is not expected to be retained. Reggie Nelson, who was traded from Jacksonville before the start of the season after failing to meet expectations as the 21st overall pick in the 2007 draft, filled in for Crocker at the end of last season and stands to inherit a starting spot. Jeromy Miles and Tom Nelson, both college free agents that saw playing time last season, are exclusive rights free agents and should remain with the team. Regular contributor Chinedum Ndukwe, a 7th round pick from the 2007 draft, was not given a tender offer and will be an unrestricted free agent. Another 2007 draft pick, fourth rounder Marvin White, was brought back late in the season as an injury fill-in after being released in 2009 . He will be a free agent, as will Gibril Wilson, who signed with the team last spring but missed the season due to an ACL injury. The team did catch a bit of rare good fortune when they were unable to trade their 5th round pick to move up three spots in the draft to acquire QB Andy Dalton, as they got their man anyway and were able to select safety Robert Sands from West Virginia with the 3rd pick in the 5th round. Sands, who has a rare blend of size (6’4”, 217 pounds) and speed (4.54 forty yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) figures to be a great late round pick that should see plenty of action with the likely departure of Williams and Ndukwe.
Best case scenario: Crocker is a solid veteran and good locker room guy that has been great when healthy since coming to the Queen City in 2008. Nelson, who had two interceptions and 2 forced fumbles in limited playing time last season, never met expectations in Jacksonville but seems poised to show the skills that made him a 1st round pick. Sands has the physical tools needed to be a long term NFL starter, and should he play well he will be hard to keep out of the lineup.
Worst case scenario: As with the cornerbacks, injuries have been a concern and another season of bad breaks will keep us in the bottom half of the league against the pass. We have the talent, but they have to remain on the field. Should Ndukwe and Williams leave as a free agents, this unit will be very young outside of the oft-injured Crocker.
Another Possibility: I would love for the team to pick up a middle tier veteran to add depth to the unit, or perhaps keep Ndukwe around at a modest price. Nelson has yet to put together a complete season in the NFL, and Sands is a bit stiff and could struggle in coverage. Having an experienced veteran that can play the pass would be a great contingency plan.
Outlook: It is disappointing that the team devalues the position, as we haven’t drafted a safety higher than the 2nd round since Darryl Williams in 1992. With Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed in the division, it’s easy to recognize the impact a star safety has on a team. Crocker is one of my favorites, a hard hitter that isn’t afraid to mix it up with the opposition. I think that Sands can develop nicely under his tutelage. I have been waiting for the next David Fulcher for a long time. Hopefully Sands can develop into an intimidator in that mold.