The Bengals open their 2013 training camp Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium. The team has made the playoffs each of the last two seasons but each time it has been a short-lived trip to Houston for a disappointing end in an AFC wild card game.
The roster is in a solid state and there is no reason to think this team can’t again make another push for the postseason but the expectations are for more than another first-round appearance.
Fox Sports Ohio will take a look at some position battles and areas of interest for the Bengals leading up to training camp with an eye on how things could play out and what it means for the season to come.
Today: Who will step up at safety?
Reggie Nelson came to the Bengals three years ago, a former first-round pick deemed expendable by the Jacksonville Jaguars for the price of a backup cornerback and a conditional draft pick. Nelson has found a home and his playing voice with the Bengals. Nelson is not a big talker but he has consistently proven the Bengals got the better end of the deal.
Now, if the Bengals could just find someone to play next to Nelson in the deep secondary.
Safety is one position where there is plenty of competition for playing time but a decided lack of experienced depth. When Chris Crocker was unavailable to play against Houston in the playoffs last season due to a quadriceps injury, cornerback Nate Clements was inserted into the lineup in his place instead of any of the backup safeties and played every snap of the game. That’s no knock against Clements, who finished the game with nine tackles, but an indication that the Bengals need an upgrade at strong safety.
That upgrade search, at least to start training camp, is going to come from within.
Crocker and Clements were not re-signed this offseason. It is time for one of the young guys to take advantage of the situation but it will not simply be handed to them.
Shawn Williams was drafted in the third round out of Georgia. He played as a true freshman for the Bulldogs and started 27 games over the last two seasons. He was a captain as a senior and there is the expectation that he is going to contribute right away.
“Whoever is in there we expect you to match the level of the other guys in the huddle,” said defensive backs coach Mark Carrier. “It’s there to take but we’ve got to see the full slate, see the full package and see how it fits with our team. They all know whoever the guy is, or is not the guy, we’ve all got to get better.”
Taylor Mays, George Iloka, Tony Dye and Jeromy Miles are Williams’ competition. Miles has been a key special teams contributor in the past few seasons. Mays is a former second-round pick of San Francisco who, like Nelson, came to the Bengals via a trade. He is trying to prove he can live up to those draft expectations. Iloka was a fifth-round pick last year who got a taste of action early in the season and impressed coaches during this offseason’s workouts.
“It takes a while to really grasp it but now everything is easier,” said Iloka. “If you see me out there now I’m making checks, I’m making calls and those are things I wouldn’t do last year. Last year I kind of had it but now I know I have it so let’s go play.”
Last year the Bengals went through the same search before re-signing Crocker. He was a stabilizing factor on the defense. Nelson will freelance – as much as one can freelance in a Mike Zimmer defense – on occasions because of his ability to read plays and improvise on the fly. He’s not Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed in that sense but there can’t be two safeties improvising at the same time.
Crocker was good at maintaining that balance. Whoever wins this job will need to bring a similar ability.
“I think we’ll find a guy,” said Zimmer. “I think he could be. I don’t know who it is. I like some of the things that Iloka did this spring. I like some of the things that Williams did this spring. I like some of the things Mays did. I do believe we’ll find it out of somebody in there.”
There are some veteran free agents still available (Kerry Rhodes, Quintin Mikell) but the Bengals’ M.O. has been to give their young guys a chance first. But they won’t be waiting around too long.