Mike Zimmer has been nothing less than a Godsend to the Bengals. In his relatively short time in the Queen City, he’s managed to turn the Bengals defense from an annual sore spot and laughing stock to the unit that often single-handedly wins games.
Perhaps most impressively, he’s done it with a hodgepodge of parts exhumed from the waiver wire, plucked late in the draft, or dug out of the deepest sludge of the NFL scrap heap. Individually, many of these players were written off as failures, but collectively under his tutelage have found resounding success.
Call him the MacGyver of defensive coordinators. He gets us a top-10 defense annually with little more than some duct tape, fishing line and wire coat hangers.
This is principally why I have supreme confidence in the team’s defensive outlook for 2012, even with perceived depth issues at linebacker and safety.
While the Bengals pulled a coup of sorts in bringing back starting free safety Reggie Nelson, who was ticketed to the Jets, the team didn’t do much to shore up the strong safety position, where longtime starter Chris Crocker was released on April 6th.
Some expected a high draft pick to come in, but the only safety selected was Boise State’s George Iloka in round five. Iloka joins Taylor Mays, Robert Sands, and Jeromy Miles as the likely candidates to replace Crocker. None have more than a handful of snaps to their name, most belonging to Mays.
Mays is a former second round pick of the 49ers, and a player the team traded for. He has perhaps the most athleticism in the group, but Zimmer doesn’t seem to be tipping his hat to anyone yet.
We’ve got to find out who is going to be the most consistent. Who can make the decisions on the run. The guy that gives me the most confidence for the other 10 guys on the field
Mays has gotten good reviews, but so far no one wants to discount the efforts of Sands and Miles, guys who have been groomed in the system for a year, as well as rookie Iloka, who many considered a steal in the fifth round.
What’s perhaps most intriguing was this little snippet Hobson wrote:
Zimmer wouldn’t shoot down a scenario that had him playing three cornerbacks and Nelson.
Would it be possible that the Bengals might split time at safety with one of their abundance of cornerbacks?
Think about it. They clearly are thin at strong safety, even if the young guys stay healthy and blossom. Meanwhile, Zimmer is going to have a very hard time cutting down his cornerbacks.
The Bengals clearly have more depth and competition at corner right now that at any time in recent memory. Who do they cut?
- Obviously Leon Hall will regain his starting position once he’s medically cleared. He is as solid a cover corner as you’ll find, and is a consummate professional.
- Nate Clements proved last year that he still has plenty left in the tank and is a capable, NFL-quality starter.
- Jason Allen was added to the club during free agency to provide depth, and to perhaps try safety as was speculated at the time. He bloomed in Houston, becoming more adept at creating turnovers and was rewarded with a 2 year, 8.2 million dollar contract. It’s hard to believe the Bengals paid him that kind of cheese to sit on the bench.
- Adam Jones continues to progress, stay out of trouble, and is finally healthy. His coverage skills are on the rise and no one can deny his playmaking ability with the ball in the open field. He is my favorite for the punt return duties at this point in time too.
- Newcomer Terrence Newman meanwhile has done nothing but impress Zimmer.
“I like him,” Zimmer said. “I can’t figure out what’s wrong with him and I’ve been watching him for seven days now.” Based on that, I don’t see Newman being an easy cut.
- Besides all of those former first round picks (that’s right, all five of them are first rounders), we can’t overlook this year’s first round pick, Dre Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick will have plenty of mentors, and will surely see the field at some point this year.
Could it be possible that Zimmer rotates Mays or Iloka with a Newman or Allen at safety? Does the possibility exist that Zimmer could take advantage of Mays’ hard hitting and run support on early downs, then shift to a more fluid cornerback as his safety on more obvious passing situations?
I for one, think it could work, and would be the most effective use of the talent on the team. Zim hasn’t closed the door on it yet, and while the safeties may make the argument moot with a strong training camp, I see this as some pretty juicy speculation.
No matter what, the Bengals should feel very good about their cornerback depth, and they should take advantage of it in whatever way makes the most sense.
I trust Zimmer, the junkyard dog that he is, to find the right pieces.