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.
Secret Superstars: Cincinnati Bengals
In 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
Gordon McGuinness | 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.