I am excited about what the Bengals’ defense could do this year. They made upgrades on a defensive line that was already pretty good, especially on the interior, which ought to benefit all of the guys behind them. The more pressure that the line can generate, the shorter time that the coverage guys have to cover.
But let’s start in the backfield with the group that concerns me the most, mainly because of how few choices there are, and that is the safeties.
|Starter||On The Roster||Camp Battle||Long Shot|
|George Iloka||Robert Sands
The Bengals are likely to keep four safeties and a hybrid safety/corner on the roster, giving them maximum flexibility in a secondary that does not elicit the strongest of confidence. While corner was a main concern, they have brought in plenty of options to find a solution. With safety, however, the options are limited and, in a division featuring Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, seems a little lackluster.
Starter: Reggie Nelson
It is easy to forget because he was on the team last year, but the Bengals landed one of the more sought-after safeties in free agency. The Bengals stayed in the hunt instead of reverting to their typical content-to-watch-him-walk approach. This position would have been scary thin had they done that.
Despite getting burnt occasionally on a bad guess (as in Carolina last year), Nelson is a solid safety. He is still pretty quick, a hard hitter, and one of the better pass protectors in the group (although that is something like being the prettiest girl in the bar at last call… the competition ain’t all that fierce for that title).
Starter: Taylor Mays
That Mike Zimmer really liked what he saw in Mays and very much wanted to draft him in 2010 (until SF snatched him) is a poorly kept secret. The guy’s size and speed are freakish, but his transition to the pro level has been slow. He did see more playing time as the 2011 season waned, and the team is clearly comfortable with him as the starter since they cut ties with the goat of the playoff game in Houston, Chris Crocker. Let’s hope they are right.
Backup: George Iloka
Though the Bengals got him in the fifth round, don’t forget that Iloka was projected by some to go as high as the third round. There is plenty to like with this kid, including decent speed and good pop. He needs coaching to clean up technique, but his potential is high. He also has experience at corner, making him a fairly safe pick to make the team as a backup — maybe as the hybrid guy — and to beat out one of the veterans.
Camp Battlers: Robert Sands and Jeromy Miles
I decided to put these two together because there is little to separate them other than Sands’ extra 2″ of height and where they were (or weren’t) picked. Both have good size and speed, and they are more than willing to deliver the big hit when given the opportunity, just like a safety should. Despite being a UDFA in 2010, Miles appeared in every game last year, registering a total of 15 tackles. And despite being a fifth round pick, Sands saw the field in only one game last year with no tackles registered. One of these two will make the roster, but good luck guessing who right now.
Camp Battler: Tony Dye
The Bengals continue their string of finding incredible value with the signing of UDFA Tony Dye. A three-year starter, the UCLA product was a leader and significant contributor on the defense, so much so that at the end of the 2010 season he looked to be as high as a second round pick in the 2012 draft. But a neck injury and subsequent ankle injury torpedoed his senior season, dropping his stock to the point that he was not invited to the combine.
On paper at least, this kid looks like someone who could raise the level of play at the position in time. Like most rookies, he needs to clean up some technique issues, so he will need to make an impact on special teams early on. But he is one of the UDFAs who may have a shot to crack the squad.
Long Shot: Patrick McClellan
McClellan, the UDFA out of Eastern Kentucky, is a significant underdog to make the team despite the limited competition. He did not earn an invitation to the combine, and he was not on anyone’s radar for the draft. But congrats to the kid for getting this close to an opportunity that eludes so many. I hope he enjoys every bit of his time on a pro roster.
The safety position was not a black hole last year, but it was by no means a strength either. Getting improvement from the group will be incumbent primarily on Mays, who must reward Zimmer for believing in him by being an upgrade from Chris Crocker, as well as on the rookie Iloka. Also, Hue Jackson must draw better pass coverage skills out of this group, who all seem to be much better suited to playing the run than the pass.