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George Iloka expects Bengals to draft a safety

4/22/2015
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CINCINNATI -- Fresh off his best year in the Cincinnati Bengals' secondary, safety George Iloka begins his most important season this September.

Scheduled to hit free agency next March, the 25-year-old is one of 28 players on the Bengals' current roster entering a potential contract year.

That's why Iloka will be paying close attention in eight days when the Bengals start making their nine draft picks and signing undrafted first-year free agents. With the understanding Cincinnati could be tooling up for life after him or fellow starting safety Reggie Nelson, Iloka knows a player from his position likely will be part of the Bengals' draft plans.

"We only have four safeties on the roster. We normally carry about five or six," Iloka said. "So I wouldn't be surprised if they drafted a safety."

He's right. Each of the three seasons Iloka has spent in the league, the Bengals have had at least five players at his position. Typically there have been two starters, two backups (one of which has played slightly more than the other reserve and who had the versatility to either also match up as a slot corner or as a cover linebacker in nickel) and another reserve who primarily spends time on special teams.

The last two years, Taylor Mays was routinely the top safety off the bench, and he played a key role on special teams alongside fellow backup Shawn Williams. With Mays' free-agency departure, the Bengals would like to add a defensive back who could give them the downfield tackling ability on coverage teams Mays routinely showcased.

Beyond that, the Bengals also appear to be in the market for a safety who can play close to the line of scrimmage defensively, blitz on occasion and cover downfield in rare circumstances. In theory, that player would be a carbon copy of Nelson, the 31-year-old whose contract also expires next offseason. As the highest-earning safety on the team, Nelson likely would command more than the $4.78 million cap charge he will have this season.

Combine that with the fact Iloka had arguably a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2014 (although he wasn't selected to the all-star game) and could have the same kind of performance in 2015, and it suddenly becomes difficult seeing the Bengals paying for both standout defensive backs next spring. Conventional logic favors them keeping the younger player, even if both have high potential in upcoming seasons.

Iloka will be most curious about where the Bengals select a safety next week. He rightfully believes that could be a good indicator of whether the front office thinks the secondary will be broken up next March.

"If they drafted a safety high, it means they are putting something in position to replace the guys that may be done next year," Iloka said. "That's what they have to do in their standpoint. That's actually smart. You got two safeties up next year."

Landon Collins is this year's top-rated safety in the draft and could be in the Bengals' plans at No. 21. They also could wait until Round 3 or later to add a safety.

Unconcerned with his contract status, Iloka has told his agent not to even tell him if or when talks progress. Due to performance-related escalators connected to the collective bargaining agreement, he'll be making about $1 million more this season than originally expected. So getting a new deal before the season isn't an issue, he said.

"It's just do my part, play my contract out and hopefully put some good stuff out there to help us win," Iloka said.