Secret Superstars: Cincinnati Bengals

In a division that boasted some of the best safety play in the league for quite some time, a new name at the position is emerging.

| 1 year ago
SS15-CIN

Secret Superstars: Cincinnati Bengals


SS15-CINIn an AFC North that once featured almost certain future Hall of Famers in Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, a battle is being waged to see who the division’s new top player at the position will be.

The duo of Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner are getting quite the reputation, while time and time again Will Hill proves that when he’s able to stay on the field, he’s a very good defensive back. The name that might surprise some, at least outside of Cincinnati that is, is the Bengals’ George Iloka. Heading into his fourth season in the league, and third as a full time starter, he’s ready to challenge the other three and emerge as a top safety in the NFL.

Despite having the size that has teams salivating when it comes to a prospect, Iloka had to wait until the 32nd pick of the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, falling much further than many expected, with most having a mid-late second round grade on him. Perhaps it was his 4.66 40-yard dash time, but in the end it just made for a bigger steal for the Bengals, with Illoka taking over as a starter in 2013.

It wasn’t the perfect first season as a starter, with several ups and downs, but overall he had a solid year in 2013, finishing the year with a +3.4 grade in the regular season at safety, good for 22nd in the league. The biggest issue for him that year was his tackling, with the former Boise State standout missing 13 tackles in the regular season, and earning a Tackling Efficiency mark of just 5.4 (attempts per miss), the sixth-worst mark in the league at safety. Still, on the balance of play his first season as a starter looked promising, setting him up to impress in 2014.

He set the tone early in the year, picking off Atlanta Falcons safety Matt Ryan twice in their Week 2 encounter in Cincinnati, also coming away with a pass breakup in the first of what would go on to be seven games where he didn’t allow a single reception into his coverage. The first of those two interceptions were helped by his 6-foot-4 frame, with Iloka leaping up to grab a throw by Ryan that was behind the intended receiver with 1:49 remaining in the third quarter. The throw was off target, but Iloka showed good awareness and ball skills to get up high and pick it off.

On the year Iloka allowed a reception just once every 51.8 snaps in coverage, the best mark in the league at safety, and a step up from the already impressive 42.4 he posted in 2013. He allowed just 12 receptions throughout the year, and just 176 receiving yards, giving him a Yards Per Coverage Snap allowed average of 0.28, good enough for 12th in the league.

He also improved against the run, where he had a grade of +3.6 in 2014, after grading at -0.6 in 2013. More notably, His Run Stop Percentage when lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage increased from just 2.7% in 2013, to 5.3%. That was only good enough for 30th among the 54 safeties with enough snaps against the run, but he still almost doubled his output against the run in the space of a year.

Iloka also saw his missed tackles drop from 13 to 9, and his Tackling Efficiency improve to 8.2, with was 27th at the position. Like his work against the run, there is definitely still room to improve here, but in both areas he took a big step forward in 2014.

What makes him a good candidate to break out even further, and potentially become one of the best safeties in the league, is that he has shown significant progression in his areas of weakness from one year to the next, while also impressing in coverage. Illoka has just turned 25 so it’s likely that we’re not done seeing him improve and if he can show a similar gain in his third year as a starter, there’s nothing to stop him challenging for Pro Bowls and All-Pro honors as early as this year.

 

Follow Gordon on Twitter: @PFF_Gordon

 

 

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.

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  • Chris

    I think Gilberry of Eifert were better candidates for this.

    Iloka has progressed, a bit, I just get the feeling that he’s going to be a solid, decent, starter quality safety. Not a superstar of any kind, and not as good as Nelson.

    Gilberry struggled last year when tasked with a full time role, but he should become much more effective again as a situational rusher on passing downs. He could put up some good pressure numbers on a limited snap count.

    And especially with Gresham gone, I Eifert might finish 2nd on the team in catches behind Green. Dalton looked his way early and often in the opener last year before that freak injury put him out the rest of the season.

    • Dalen Erickson

      you hit it on the head with Gilberry. He will definitely do better. They did a great job by bringing back 2 guys from their D-lines best seasons. Micheal Johnson will be great for them and Pat Sims is very underrated. I think he is a diamond in the rough as well. That big Ukranian Margus Hunt will eventually be really good as well. Just waiting for him to take the leap so to speak. Hes a guy who has a hard time fitting in a 4-3 defense. Hes probably more suited to be a 3-4 end

      • Chris

        IMO

        It really tells about the lack of development from Thompson and Still that they had to bring back Sims. They were drafted to replace Sims and now Sims is back to replace them. He struggled in Cinci but has been a pretty decent run stopper in Oakland and he could be a bit of an upgrade over that duo in terms of stopping the run.

        I really think Still doesn’t make it this year. They cut him last year before the season only to add him back later, and with the arrival of Sims and Hardison it’s really crowded on the DL. Plus they seem to value Thompson more, and he’s actually a pretty decent run defender when he isn’t asked to play too many snaps.

        If they keep 9, that leaves Johnson, Dunlap, Gilberry, Hunt, and Clarke at end and Atkins, Peko, Sims, and Hardison at tackle. Thompson and Still can fight amongst themselves to be #10, but I honestly don’t see where either fit into the top 9 right now.

        I love Hunt. He was a decent run defender last year, and improved getting pressure. He needs to continue to develop into year 3.

      • Matt

        Estonian. That big estonian

    • Dalen Erickson

      I think they didnt put Eifert because its common knowledge that hes a good player and a rising star. Illoka is relatively unknown

      • Chris

        It’s hard for me to be unbiased about it because I’m a Bengals fan, so no one is an ‘unknown’ haha.

        IMO, sure Iloka is unknown to most. But I also think his ceiling is relatively low – I don’t think he’ll ever be a superstar. But Eifert I think will be the 2nd best weapon in the passing game this year. He was already showing signs of making the leap last year (3 catches for 37 yards on 6 routes run), but the injury derailed it. I know the sample size is incredibly small (8 snaps), but for the 1st quarter of that game his Yards Per Route Run was nearly 3x what Gronk finished the year with. As I said, he was involved early and often. It was such a promising site in the opener and then it was snatched away after the injury.

        I guess it depends on whether you focus more on the word secret or the word superstar. Eifert might not be a very big secret, but he’s also currently not a star and I think he’ll become one this year. Iloka is a pretty big secret, but I don’t think he’ll become a star. I guess that’s the best way I can try to explain my thought process.

  • Dalen Erickson

    Great article.

  • Dalen Erickson

    Cowboys could’ve drafted Illoka and man did I want them to. I knew he would be a good player.

  • reedsewardpff

    Very well written article. Reggie Nelson and Iloka both FA’s in 2016. Both going to ball out this year, with an insane D-line rotation… Superbowl bound!! Heard it here first!!!!!