With the offseason here, we've been spending the last several days taking a position-by-position review of the Cincinnati Bengals' 2013 season and giving a sneak peek at what may lie ahead in 2014.
The good: You didn't much see the Bengals' safeties get burned deep or appear out of position much this season, and for that reason, you have to consider 2013 a rather strong season for them. If you constantly saw them sprinting to catch up to receivers who caught passes behind them, well, that would certainly be a different story. Some of the safeties' success can be measured in the pressure they got on quarterbacks. Reggie Nelson and Crocker were used often in the Bengals' most timely blitz packages. Crocker, who came out of retirement in Week 4 as a backup nickel corner, eventually had his responsibilities changed to the point that he became considered a safety. Nelson's most memorable blitz of the year was his pressure on Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford on Cincinnati's final defensive play of the Week 7 game. After Stafford threw an incomplete pass, the Lions punted short, giving the Bengals enough time and distance to march into position for Mike Nugent's second game-winning field goal in as many weeks.
The bad: Perhaps the biggest issue for the Bengals' safeties was their difficulty in coming away with turnovers. Specifically, George Iloka struggled to get his hands on interceptions or fumbles, and that had him frustrated much of the season. The second-year safety was seldom in position to make an interception, although he did have six pass breakups. He ended up eventually causing and recovering a fumble at San Diego in Week 13, and grabbed the first interception of his career in Week 16. Nelson had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Crocker had two interceptions, as well.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Nelson ($4.5 million), Shawn Williams ($653,986), Iloka ($610,075). The Bengals likely will break training camp with the same lineup at safety that worked this season. Look for Nelson and Iloka to get the bulk of the snaps at the secondary positions that are largely undefined in the Bengals' scheme. There is no true free safety or strong safety. Although responsibilities of the positions differ slightly, the Bengals regard them equally from a terminology standpoint. After a strong rookie season on special teams, Williams has probably earned himself some additional defensive playing time in 2014. The Bengals are hopeful about re-signing Mays, an unrestricted free agent, but nothing is guaranteed. After finally starting to contribute after his role had changed several times at the start of the season, Mays was lost for the year in Week 8 when he suffered a shoulder injury. Although Crocker has spent the bulk of his career in Cincinnati, he's likely not coming back next season. He's either heading into retirement for good, or might look to follow former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to Minnesota.
Draft priority: Moderate. With Crocker likely gone, the Bengals will have a need for secondary depth. Since the cornerback position is an area of extreme need, they're more likely to add multiple corners than drafting say, two corners and a safety. Still, the fact remains that depth behind Nelson and Iloka could become quite thin if Mays isn't re-signed. With him out of the mix, that only leaves Williams. Drafting a safety who could star on special teams like Williams would be a smart addition.