Two of three Cincinnati Bengals defensive players who started every game last season were safeties George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, making that position the most stable on the team.
In fact, in his three full seasons with the Bengals since a trade from Jacksonville early in the 2010 campaign, Nelson has started 48 of a possible 51 regular-season and playoff games.
But while Iloka is still just 24 and entering his third season, Nelson will turn 31 in September. He’s been a consistent performer throughout his career and has showed little signs of aging, but history has shown few defensive backs have a lot of shelf life remaining after 30.
And the Bengals have another safety joining Nelson in that situation after signing ninth-year player Danieal Manning as a free agent following his release from Houston.
Manning, who has 91 career starts, agreed to a one-year contract with Cincinnati, while Nelson is signed through 2015, meaning the Bengals need to restock that position with some youth. And the sooner the better.
The other two safeties on the roster are Taylor Mays, who had been an inconsistent performer until last year when he found his niche as more of a cover linebacker before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in October, and Shawn Williams, a third-round pick last year who showed flashes during his rookie season.
The Bengals coaches are high on both Williams and Iloka, but depth in the secondary is becoming more and more important as offenses continue to put more emphasis on the passing game each year.
Adding a safety may not be an immediate need, but then again the Bengals don’t really have any urgent holes in need of filling. So if one of the top two safeties with first-round grades are still there when the Bengals go on the clock, they could grab one.
Here is a look at the top four safeties available in this year’s draft:
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama (6-foot-1 3/8, 208 pounds):
Clinton-Dix could be the first defensive back, corner or safety, selected. Scouts rave about his football IQ and instincts, many of whom say those skills surpass his athleticism. He’s been compared to a quarterback on the defensive side of the ball. But he still possesses a great size/speed combination.
Coming from an Alabama program that won multiple national titles and cranked out pro after pro during his time there can only help his stock. And about his unique first name, it’s a nickname given to him by his grandmother. His given name is Ha’sean.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper says: “Fluid and clean movement skills. Natural pedal and makes easy transition out of breaks. Above-average closing burst and has plus range as a center fielder.
“Underrated in (run support). While he can continue to develop strength, he is tough and aggressive running the alleys. Physical discarding blocks and avoids traffic well near the box. Takes quality angles in pursuit and shows above-average body control to secure tackle.”
Calvin Pryor, Louisville (5-11 1/8, 207)
Depending on which mock draft you’re looking at, Pryor could still be available for the Bengals at 24 or he could be long gone. Based on talent alone, Pryor is worthy of a higher pick. But many of the teams though to be targeting safeties – Chicago and St. Louis chief among them – have other holes that are more glaring.
While he’s a couple of inches shorter than Clinton-Dix, Pryor has similar speed and instincts. The AAC and its predecessor, the Big East, are no match for the talent level in the SEC, but Pryor was a first-team All-AAC selection. His coaches rave about his character as much as his play.
Kiper says: “Prototypical height and weight for NFL safety. Plays game way it’s supposed to be played. Leaves it all on field. Has nose for ball. Reads keys and quickly diagnoses run. Heavyweight fighter in run support. Diagnoses run quickly, fills alley with reckless abandon when playing high-point, and also is more than capable working in the box.
“Good quickness in pedal and is light on feet for size. Shuffles well laterally and gets good overall depth on drops. Above-average range in zone. Capable of holding up in deep-half zone and in deep-third.”
Deone Bucannon, Washington State (6-1, 211)
The AP first team All-American did it all his senior senior, leading the Pac 10 with 114 tackles while saying the conference lead with six interceptions. He’s a four-year starter who appeared in 49 games with 43 starts.
His big and physical but also was the near the top of his position group in the speed drills at the NFL Combine. Bucannon is more likely to be drafted in the second round, and if he’s still there when the Bengals pick 55th overall, he could be the target.
Kiper says: “Flashes above average route recognition. Can cut off and impede receivers transitioning out of breaks. Reads quarterback and can get an early break on ball. Playmaker with a wide catching radius. Can go up and high-point jump balls. 36.5-inch vertical is above average for position.
“Effective in box and appears to enjoy contact. Can uncoil and jar lead blockers. Gets downhill filling from a highpoint. Can slip blocks in space. Heavy hitter that can stop backs in tracks and looks to deliver kill shot when ball carrier gets stood up.”
Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois (5-10 5/8, 193)
A USA Today and Sports Illustrated first team All-American, Ward lacks ideal size. He was able to overcome that with excellent instincts, speed and hand size, but the smaller frame creates concern in terms of durability at the NFL level.
He was a dynamic special teams player early in his college career (set a school record with three blocked punts his freshman year), which is something he no doubt will be asked to do early in his pro career. There are some red flags in terms of character and discipline, that’s never been a deal-breaker where the Bengals are concerned.
He missed the Combine with a foot injury, although he did work out at his Pro Day March 7 and had surgery on the foot a week later. He proved to be durable at NIU, missing just one of 56 games in his four-year career due to injury.
Kiper says: “Quick, balanced athlete with good body control, but has a touch of stiffness in hips and has good – but not elite – top-end playing speed. Closes quickly in short area. Will get caught peeking on occasion. Can be late with key-and-diagnose, and occasionally will be late reacting to pass and will be forced to recover in coverage.
“He’s a poor man’s Earl Thomas, versatile in coverage and strong in run support, despite lack of ideal size. Not big, but is tough and has nasty demeanor. Solid wrap-up tackler in space. Usually plays under control.”