Bengals must spend to keep secondary intact

Ben Stockwell previews free agency for the Cincinnati Bengals, taking a hard look at approaching secondary decisions.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/David Richard)

(AP Photo/David Richard)

Bengals must spend to keep secondary intact

Postseason success continues to elude the Bengals, but coming off of their fifth straight playoff appearance, their roster remains one of the strongest in the league, with just a few tweaks still needed to push them over the top and through that playoff barrier.

The focus point for the Bengals free agent decisions this year lie in the secondary, with 80 percent of their outstanding nickel secondary due to hit the open market. Cincinnati boasts a wealth of cap space, so they have flexibility to bring back whomever they want.

With free agency quickly approaching, we examine the impending free agent decisions facing the Bengals’ front office.


S George Iloka

After failing to see the field in his rookie season, Iloka took quickly to his starting role in 2013 and has been a strong start for the Bengals ever since. A solid performer both against run and pass, Iloka is exactly the kind of player teams like to retain in free agency: a late-round pick that they have developed into a key starter who they don’t want to see walk away. Iloka has graded positively in coverage every year as a starter for the Bengals, and they shouldn’t entertain letting him hit the open market.

CB Leon Hall

In spite of the Bengals’ investment in first-round cornerbacks in recent seasons, none of those picks have elevated their game to push aside Hall as a starter, and they certainly haven’t shown the skill-set to take over his snaps in the slot in sub packages. Earning a positive grade in coverage every single season as a Bengal, Hall’s consistency and versatility will be crucial as the Bengals try to develop their next generation of starting corners around him.

WR Marvin Jones

After his stellar season for the Bengals on limited snaps in 2014, 2015 wasn’t quite the money-making season that Marvin Jones might have hoped for, and that could just keep him in the price range for the Bengals to retain. At his best in 2014 Jones was one of the league’s top No. 2 wide receivers, and a perfect complement to A.J. Green on the opposite of the field. Jones has forced 27 missed tackles over the last two seasons, and though his touchdown count dropped with Tyler Eifert’s emergence, his presence in the offense will be key to the Bengals in maintaining their momentum under a new offensive coordinator.

S Reggie Nelson

His arrival in Cincinnati was a turning point both for Nelson and the Bengals as a franchise. One of our highest-graded free safeties over the last five years, Nelson may be north of 30 now, but his partnership with George Iloka has been fundamental to the Bengals’ defensive success in recent seasons. Safeties with Nelson’s instincts and range have been hard to find in recent drafts; his eight interceptions and five pass defenses this season (21 INTs, 22 PDs in the last five years) suggest he has plenty left in the tank.

Let walk

OT Andre Smith

After struggling during his first two years in the league, Andre Smith’s career appeared to be on an upward trajectory after big improvements in both 2011 and 2012, but his form has ebbed away ever since; he turned in the worst season of his career by far in 2015. Smith surrendered 35 pressures (three sacks, four hits, 28 hurries) in pass protection, and struggled all season long as a run-blocker. After investing their first two picks in offensive tackles last year, it’s time for the Bengals to move on from Smith.

CB Adam Jones

It’s tough to move on from corners who are still covering well, but at some point, the Bengals need to clear the space for their first-round picks to stake their claim as the future of the Bengals’ secondary. Jones will be 33 in September, and thus far 2014 first-round pick Darqueze Dennard has only played 268 career snaps, with just one start to his name. Jones can still play very well (passer rating of 60.0 allowed last season), but if the Bengals have any interest in maximizing Dennard’s rookie contract, they need to push him into the starting lineup this season.

WR Mohamed Sanu

His threat to be a passer on rare trick plays adds an extra dimension to the Bengals’ offense, but as a receiver, Sanu simply doesn’t offer enough for the Bengals to extend his stay in Cincinnati. A career-high 104 targets in 2014 yielded a league-high 14 drops; a year later, the emergence of TE Tyler Eifert and a full season from Marvin Jones saw Sanu marginalized in the Bengals’ offense. For the role in the offense that Sanu would fill, the Bengals can get better value by drafting a replacement for Sanu and letting him walk.


DT Terrance Knighton (Redskins)

The Bengals don’t have many holes on their roster, and with a focus on keeping their secondary together in free agency, that would plug their biggest potential hole. One area that is a consistent problem, however, is a defensive tackle to pair with Geno Atkins in the heart of the defense. A force like Knighton to pair with Atkins could elevate the Bengals’ defense to another level.


More NFL team free agency previews:

– Baltimore Ravens

– Cleveland Browns

– Pittsburgh Steelers

– All NFL teams

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • Christian Giaconi-Bonaguro

    Come on, Ben, really? So many errors on so many levels?

    Your opinions are fair and not worthy of much criticism, save for Knighton; why would the team pick up an aging, albeit still good NT, when they can draft one in arguably the deepest Dline draft in NFL history? That just smacks of not thinking it through.

    Marvin Jones did all of that great stuff in 2013, not 2014; he didn’t even play a pre-season snap in 2014 (or maybe one game, but can’t remember) and Iloka never saw the field his first year? He played in 7 games; had you said he never STARTED his rookie season, sure; this just smacks of not doing homework.

    Otherwise, good points.

  • Al Fonso Capone

    Geez dude don’t take it so literal. The points of emphasis are players that should stay and those that should go.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Great job as usual Ben. Ignore the critics….they’re still upset you picked more winners than they did during the season.

  • donnyscott

    If the team has it’s choice why keep the injury prone 3rd CB with the back problem over the pro bowl starting CB? Why try to push Dennard into the starting RCB job rather than ease him into the nickel role? Sorry but you’d make a terrible GM.

    • JudoPrince

      There is no ‘easing’ into a nickel role. It’s not like nickel is a starting point used to gain experience to advance to outside corner. Playing nickel requires its own special skill set.

      • Shanker

        But Dennard has played some Nickel Corner well until his season ending injury, so going back to one of his old roles would be easier than taking on the new role of RCB.

        • donnyscott

          Thank you Shanker. Dennard has been getting backup snaps at nickel in practice for the last 2 years when healthy. He’s ready to play more. That will be addition by subtraction.

  • Shanker

    Iloka has a lot of value IMO, a safety of his size and ability is way to hard to find. We may have to let Nelson walk but we will have a young duo of Iloka and Shawn Williams (who has proved to be a capable starter) for years to come.