2017 Bengals positional review: Safeties


The Cincinnati Bengals have been looking for another versatile safety to add to their already talented group. Could they improve in 2018?

The Cincinnati Bengals safety position group took a step back in production during the 2017 season. Both Shawn Williams and George Iloka came away with only one interception a piece, contributing to the low 11 interceptions the Bengals defense hauled in last season. Iloka had his second lowest season number of pass deflections with five and Williams matched that while missing five games.

The team has yet to find a third safety that can contribute consistently on defense and make the group more versatile. Clayton Fejedelem struggled with his increased role in the defense last season and was mostly a help on special teams. Lack of depth and production from the safety group is a strong indication of why Cincinnati has been flirting with free agent prospects like Kurt Coleman and Eric Reid this offseason.

Since signing their contracts in the 2016 offseason, Williams and Iloka have yet to “dominate” in the Bengals defense. What was once hoped to be a special duo of safeties is looking to be just average at this point and a possible area in need of an upgrade. The Bengals needed the two players to step up in 2017 with injuries and suspensions especially in the linebacker group and the duo was unable to provide an answer.

What changed from 2016

After the departure of safety Reggie Nelson to the Oakland Raiders, it was expected to see a good dropoff in production from the safety group. That was not the case as Williams stepped into the role next to Iloka after being on the roster since 2013 and played well. There was a slight dip according to Pro Football Focus but it wasn’t as much from Williams play who graded out at 80.6 in 2016 while Iloka graded at 78.1.

Williams stepped into the role of a great duo of safeties that was left by Nelson. Cincinnati’s due of Iloka and Nelson was one of the top graded safety groups by PFF and the fact that Williams was able to step in immediately and keep the pair of safeties a solid group was a sigh of relief. He also saw a huge uptick in playing time which prepped him for his new role.

Williams had a career best of 3 interceptions in 2016 to go along his 81 combined tackles while Iloka had 3 interceptions and 73 combined tackles. Still some pretty solid numbers from the Bengals safeties. Unfortunately the due fell a bit in 2017 due to Williams being injured for a stretch and being asked to fill other holes in the defense left by other injuries.

How can the safety group improve in 2018

Moving George Iloka back to free safety in order to get that production back. Both players are better at the free safety position and the team needs to find a player for a more strong safety role like they had in Reggie Nelson. They need a player that will be more of a ballhawk and more aggressive.

New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is looking to bring in a more aggressive scheme and feel for the Bengals defense in 2018 but they could still use another strong safety. The team has entertained the idea of bringing in guys through free agency like Kurt Coleman and Eric Reid which shows the interest level in the position for Austin. There is little playmaking in the secondary, the weakest part of the defense, and grabbing a guy that could come in and play that strong safety role and move around the defense while letting Iloka and Williams stay up top is the best scenario.

Draft prospects the Bengals could target

While we are all fixated on drafting an offensive lineman in the first round considering it’s the biggest need by far, the team could wait until round two to start addressing the line. There is a good group of safeties hitting the draft this year that would be immediate impactful players and playmakers. With the high quarterback draft class and linebacker class, we could see some safeties that would normally be an early first rounder fall to the late first round early second round area.

Some guys to take a look at are Standford safety Justin Reid, Eric Reid’s little brother, Florida State Derwin James, and Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison. All three of these safeties have a chance of being there when the Bengals pick at 21 and bring a huge presence in the defense. They all can play anywhere on the defense including hybrid linebacker roles which is a need considering Cincinnati still has yet to find a linebacker outside of Burfict that can drop into coverage.

Next: 2018 Bengals positional review: linebackers

They also are all guys that like to make a play on the ball. Whether they are playing at safety or slot cornerback roles, these guys love to attack at the catch point. This is something the Bengals defense desperately needs as they ranked towards the bottom last season forcing only 14 total defensive turnovers. Bringing in one of these guys does not necessarily mean you have to drop Williams or Iloka either as the team has been looking to bring out more three safety sets.