The safeties for the Bengals have been constant over the last several years. Can the position match the strength of the cornerbacks this year?
We’re almost done with our roster projections, with the safeties wrapping up our defensive projections. Although training camp hasn’t quite started yet, the roster is clearly taking form. The Bengals haven’t seen much change at the safety position in the last few years. The mainstays have been some of the most reliable players on the team. However, there should be some strong competition for the spots behind the starters.
The locks for the roster – and likely starters – are George Iloka and Shawn Williams. Iloka and Williams have been playing together since 2013 and have played really solidly. Both guys secured long-term extensions recently, too. Iloka received a 5-year, $30 million deal while Williams got a 4-year, $16 million contract. Barring something extremely surprising, Iloka and Williams will return for 2018. They shoudl also start at free and strong safety, respectively. A healthy Iloka-Williams tandem is among the best safety units in the NFL.
The only other lock for this roster at safety is second round pick Jessie Bates II out of Wake Forest. In our film review, I already noted how the Bengals could use Bates several different ways. Iloka and Williams are really solid, but both are natural strong safeties, so Iloka plays somewhat out of position as a free safety. Bates, though, is a pure free safety who can cover large swaths of ground really effectively.
For this season, Bates will definitely play behind the veterans. However, he should see the field in certain packages. Hopefully, the Bengals deploy some three-safety sets with Teryl Austin as defensive coordinator this year. The trio of Iloka, Williams, and Bates could be really intriguing in a three-safety set.
Behind those three players, there is an open competition for the last two spots on the roster. Historically, the Bengals have kept only five safeties, although six is in the realm of possibility. Likely, it will depend on who they keep, since some of these potential backups have positional versatility. A strong candidate to make the roster again is Clayton Fejedelem. He was the primary backup last season. A 2016 7th round pick, Fejedelem made 5 starts last year in place of Williams and played adequately. He recorded 57 tackles and an interception for the season, and graded out as PFF’s 66th safety, which is just below average.
More importantly for Fejedelem, he outplayed safety Josh Shaw. Shaw is also vying to make this Bengals roster. A 2015 4th round pick, he was a slot corner who can now play both safety and corner. Shaw saw the field a decent amount last year, but played definitively behind Fejedelem. He notched 36 tackles with no interceptions, and graded out as PFF’s 85th best safety, which is poor.
Shaw, therefore, will see stiff competition from Brandon Wilson. Wilson was a 6th round pick last season out of Houston. He is a total Swiss Army knife who played both running back and safety. Wilson missed almost all of last season, but his raw athleticism and versatility are certainly an intriguing asset for this roster. The Bengals have signed two UDFAs at safety as well – Trayvon Henderson and Tyrice Beverette. While both were strong college players, it is extremely unlikely that either make the team.
For the purposes of consistency with the past, I will assume that the Bengals only keep five safeties on this roster. In that case, I do think Josh Shaw edges out Brandon Wilson. That’s because Shaw is a known quantity on this roster. The Bengals will definitely give serious consideration to Wilson, though. Whether it is as a safety, a utility player, or even a returner, Wilson will have a real shot to make the cut.
With Shaw making the team, the final safety projection looks like this: George Iloka, Shawn Williams, Jessie Bates II, Clayton Fejedelem, and Josh Shaw. With that unit, safety may not be the best position on the team. However, it’s certainly a strength for the Bengals.