The Cincinnati Bengals have few free agents to focus on. Michael Johnson and Andre Smith are priorities, while Rey Maualuga looks set to leave. Manny Lawson, Pat Sims, Thomas Howard, Nate Clements, Chris Crocker, Terence Newman and Adam Jones have all been reliable contributors in different forms and over different times, but all have unclear immediate futures. Each player did enough to return to the team, depending on the value that the market sets for them, but the Bengals also have the opportunity to aggressively pursue other players who could improve the roster.
One area where turnover is expected is the secondary. Three of the team’s top four cornerbacks are coming available, while starting strong safety Crocker is also free of his contract. Crocker had a solid season for the Bengals. He and Reggie Nelson formed a partnership on the backend of the defense that played a major role in helping the team into the playoffs. However, there are multiple options in free agency that could upgrade the position from both a performance and talent point of view in Crocker’s place.
The safety position in today’s NFL doesn’t demand players to play either strong or free safety, but instead it has formed an amalgamation of the two positions to create a new hybrid safety label. Because of the impact of hybrid tight ends, the demand of safeties today is for them to be big enough to fight with those big athletic bodies in tight as well as have the ability to play in space. That means that the Bengals don’t need to focus on a strong safety to pair with Nelson this off-season; instead, they can pick the best player from all available safeties.
A lot of diversity exists in this safety class both in terms of on the field play and career points. Jairus Byrd, Ronde Barber, Kenny Philips, William Moore, Dashon Goldson, Jim Leonhard, Abram Elam, Jamarca Sanford, Louis Delmas, Ed Reed and LaRon Landry are all coming free from their contracts this off-season.
It’s difficult to see Reed or Landry in Cincinnati, while Sanford, Elam, Leonhard, Goldson and Barber wouldn’t justify snubbing the continuity that would come with re-signing Crocker. Byrd will be the main attraction, so much so that it is unlikely the Buffalo Bills don’t franchise tag him before he hits the open market. That leaves Philips, Moore and Delmas as the most likely potential free agent additions for the Bengals.
Philips is the most physically gifted of trio, while Moore has arguably been the most consistent performer on the field. Delmas has never lived up to his billing with the Detroit Lions, but has also played his whole career encapsulated in a bad situation without the kind of coaching/discipline he would receive in Cincinnati. Any of these players would offer new dimensions to the Bengals’ back four while also improving the individual play of the position alongside Nelson.
It would be simple for the Bengals to re-sign Crocker and retain the corp that created one of the team’s strongest aspects last season, but if this franchise is to take the next step in the post-season, they must look to continually develop and improve.
The Baltimore Ravens went through a similar transition at the safety position a few seasons back, as Dawan Landry had been a solid performer but was replaced by the more impactful Bernard Pollard in free agency. The Ravens didn’t win the Super Bowl because of Pollard’s addition, but they did take the attitude of an organization always looking to improve itself and that attitude ultimately shaped the roster that came away with a championship this year.
The Bengals have a relatively long list of priorities to sort through this off-season, and while safety is not atop that list, there should be serious discussions about how the franchise can improve the position. There are too many avenues available for them to discover this off-season to simply re-sign Crocker without considering what others have to offer.