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Will Reggie Nelson Influence Bengals’ 2015 NFL Draft Plans?

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Dec 28, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cincinnati Bengals safety Reggie Nelson (20) runs the ball against Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lance Moore (16) in the second half at Heinz Field. The Steelers won the game, 27-17. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Many fans and pundits have suggested the Bengals should target a safety in this year’s NFL Draft, including myself.  But today, I wanted to take a moment to play devil’s advocate (to an extent) by looking at Bengals veteran safety Reggie Nelson.

The focus on Nelson is simple.  Many people suggest Cincinnati should target a safety, again including myself, for a couple of reasons: Nelson’s age and his (and George Iloka‘s) impending free agency.

Reggie Nelson is no spring chicken in NFL years; he’ll turn 32 near the start of the 2015 season.  The Bengals will inevitably ask themselves if they want to rely on a 32-year-old player for another few seasons?  And, if so, how much money are they willing to invest in such a player?

The 2014 season may have been Nelson’s finest.  This is reflected in his stats, which were undeniably impressive last year.  Here’s a look at Reggie Nelson’s stats versus 2014 First Team All-Pros Eric Weddle and Earl Thomas.

[table id=97 /]

As is easy to see, Nelson kept pace with both of last year’s All-Pro safeties.  On a personal note, he set a career high in tackles, tied a career high in pass deflections, and had his second best year in sacks and interceptions.  2014 was an impressive season for Nelson on paper.

Anyone who watched last season closely also knows Reggie Nelson’s impressive season had to do with more than just stats.  His leadership was great when quarterbacking the secondary.  He led the unit to another impressive season, which has been the case for the past few seasons.

Nelson was also impressive in big games and in big moments.  He had a big interception against the Panthers, which helped keep Carolina off the scoreboard and forced overtime after the teams traded field goals.  Nelson also had the big interception against the Broncos in Week 16, which secured the Bengals a spot in the playoffs, and how about Nelson’s ability to read Peyton Manning and make stops like this.

And Reggie Nelson did all this at a very reasonable pay scale.  Despite performing as one of the league’s best safeties, Nelson counts only $4.775 million against the cap (16th amongst safeties).  By contrast, Weddle will count $10.1 million against the cap (first amongst safeties) and Thomas will count $7.4 against the cap (sixth). And Nelson’s average salary of $4.5 million (his current deal is four years/$18 million) is 24th highest amongst NFL safeties.  Reggie Nelson does a lot for a player paid at such a team-friendly rate.

The point of all this is, when the Bengals approach this Thursday’s draft, how much should they focus on replacing a player like Reggie Nelson?

They have several, much younger free agents to address in 2016, but would Nelson be amenable to a team-friendly deal to stay with the team who resurrected his once lost career?  Is replacing a player who just had the best year of his career prudent?

Reggie Nelson has been a stalwart in Cincinnati’s secondary having missed only three games in five years. He’s “quarterbacked” the secondary during numerous productive seasons and has proven to be one of the NFL’s best despite being severely underrated.  When the Bengals approach Thursday’s draft, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them wait until the draft’s latter rounds to invest in a safety, and this would have everything to do with Reggie Nelson.

Next: Safeties the Bengals Should Target in the Draft

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