- By Laurel Pfahler Contributing Writer
Dre Kirkpatrick said he was shocked when he found out Sunday the Cincinnati Bengals were releasing veteran safety George Iloka.
A seventh-year player, Iloka appeared in 83 regular-season games with 76 starts for the Bengals over the past six seasons, and there had been no indication the Bengals were thinking of letting him go.
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“I was very surprised,” Kirkpatrick said. “This one came out of nowhere for me. I didn’t see this one. It was a real shocker. At the end of the day the team has to do what is best for the team.”
Kirkpatrick considered Iloka a close friend and said he will miss Iloka more as a friend than a teammate, though he “learned a lot” from him as a player.
The two came into the league together in 2012 – Kirkpatrick as a first-round draft pick and Iloka as a fifth-rounder – and their lockers were right next to one another. Iloka became a starter at free safety his second season, while Kirkpatrick had to wait until 2015 to become a full-time starter at cornerback.
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“I’m not going to say (I was) disappointed because it’s a business, but it bothered me a little bit,” Kirkpatrick said. “But at this time I just wish him the best. I was telling some of the guys, everybody has their day. So you have to make sure you’re ready when the dust settles, you can still stand up and hopefully he has everything in line and be successful where ever he ends up.”
Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said long-term the decision makes sense for the team, which seems to be moving toward a greater focus on young players.
Rookie Jessie Bates, the team’s second-round draft pick, was the No. 2 at free safety on the team’s first depth chart, behind Iloka, and looks to be first in line to step in as the starter.
“George is a true professional, really good worker, great guy, great teammate, but in the long-term interests, we feel really good where we are with our young safeties and feel really good that way,” Austin said.
Austin said Bates shows several similarities to Iloka, as the newcomer also is known for a high football IQ and great ball hawking skills.
The former Wake Forest safety got some snaps with the first-team defense during the offseason workout program while Shawn Williams was out with a hamstring injury and also some this preseason to see where he could fit in.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis alluded to the fact Bates could “become the guy real quick,” but Bates wasn’t expecting to earn the job this way.
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“It was very surprising,” Bates said. “George is a good guy. I was in the training room when I heard the news. It’s not a bad thing. I know that God has different plans for George. He was a great leader for us and an even better man. I like what he did for me and my transition as a rookie. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Iloka still could have provided value on the bench, if the decision was solely based on wanting Bates as the starter, but Kirkpatrick said the decision likely had more to do with freeing up some money for other players. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap, for example, is hoping for a contract extension before he becomes a free agent next year.
Iloka would have been due $5.3 million this season after re-signing with Cincinnati on a five-year deal ahead of the 2016 season when Reggie Nelson moved on to Oakland.
“I feel like there’s some other things that probably played a role in that,” Kirkpatrick said. “Gotta pay some guys. Some guys about to get some big, big money. You never know. The team hasn’t come and said to us what was their decision based off of. You can only assume. But for the most part, I just feel like at the end of the day they made the best decision for the team.”
The Bengals haven’t had a rookie starter on defense for a season opener since Rey Mauluga in 2009.
Bates doesn’t necessarily feel any pressure to fill Iloka’s shoes, but added he understands his youth and inexperience won’t be an excuse.
“I think I have the same mindset,” Bates said. “I think going into this thing I just to come in and gain the respect and the trust of my coaches and my (teammates). That will help us as a defense and a team. I think this is kind of confidence boost, but anything can happen still and nothing is going to be given.”
Kirkpatrick has confidence Bates will be ready.
“I believe in Jessie,” he said. “Just watching the film, he’s popping up. He’s all over the field, making great plays. Saturday night he was all over ther field communicating. We were doing some great things and that’s where we’re at right now. That’s what we have to put our trust in and belief in.”