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Strong safeties

Posted May 12, 2010


Gibril Wilson

Gibril Wilson, one of the two newest Bengals, comes from Sierra Leone like Madieu Williams and he’s a hero in his African homeland like Chinedum Ndukwe. He’s more comfortable at strong safety like Roy Williams and at 6-0, 205, he’s built like another Tennessee safety that just joined the club in DeAngelo Willingham.

But if Wilson’s situation reminds you of any recent or current Bengals safety, it has to be Chris Crocker. And if the Bengals get close to anywhere near the production and leadership from Wilson that they have been getting from Crocker, it is going to prove to be a very nice pickup indeed.

It will be recalled that during defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s first season with the Bengals in 2008, he went to the street to get Crocker, one of his former players in Atlanta that had just been cut by the Dolphins. Wilson started 15 games in Miami last year, but got cut.

“This is the same defense we played in New York. The exact same thing. That’s what drew me here and Coach Zimmer,” Wilson said after his first practice with the club Tuesday. “It’s just different terminology. This is a great opportunity for me and I’m going to try and take full advantage of it.”

Sound familiar? Wilson is 28 with 80 NFL starts and on his fourth team and third in three years. Crocker, who has 73 NFL starts, arrived here at 28 on his fourth team and third in two seasons. Crocker ended up becoming a building block of Zimmer’s defense over the last half of the ’08 season, earned a four-year, $10 million deal, and continues to be key locker-room component off the field and glue on the field.

“Everybody is in different situations as far as far their careers go,” Crocker said. “There are some guys getting their careers back on track. There are some guys getting older. There are some guys coming off injuries. (Wilson) is doing everything he can to get back to where he was and I’ll help him any way I can. I’m not one these selfish vets.”

Music to Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis’ ears. He knows it takes all kinds to heat roster competition and never has the Bengals depth been this charged in his eight springs here. Nowhere is the kiln hottest than the melting pot at defensive back, where 17 names are currently listed, 10 at safety. Consider they will most likely keep just four safeties and six cornerbacks.

And consider that four of the safeties have at least 25 NFL starts, with Williams’ 99, Wilson’s 80, Crocker’s 73 and Ndukwe’s 25.

“Yes we do,” exulted Lewis when reminded he is teeming with DBs. “I think back to the guys we started with in 2003 and it’s amazing. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions along the way. But we’ve got five preseason games and guys are going to have an opportunity to play a lot of football. If not here, it’s going to be somewhere else because they’re going to be on tape. We want to get the best 80 players to take to training camp.”

With a few more college free agents expected to sign, the Bengals could bloat to as much as 87-88 players. Certainly Wilson noticed the company at safety.

“I see that; I see that,” he said with a smile.

But he said showing up with guys like Williams and Crocker and Ndukwe didn’t turn him off.

“I have confidence in my abilities. I just want to come in here and play hard see what happens,” Wilson said. “It’s the right fit for me. I’m a strong. I need to be around the ball. I can do plenty of things and I need to be used that way. The other spots I’ve been I was just in the middle of the field and that’s not my strong suit. I just need to do different things this defense is going to allow me to do.”

After playing his first four seasons in the NFL with the Giants and leaving the season after he started 13 games for the 2007 Super Bowl champions, Wilson was cut in both Oakland and Miami a year after signing big deals. The Bengals researched why and didn’t come away with anything damming. Except maybe that he asks the coaches a lot of questions.

But Zimmer is already putting up with inquisitive middle linebacker Dhani Jones and loves the way the guy runs his defense. Wilson suggested he was out of position in Miami at free safety and was there a right position to be in Oakland in 2008? What impressed the Bengals is that people that were with Wilson while he was having his best years with the Giants spoke highly of him.

While Crocker played a year for Zimmer in Atlanta, it is almost like Wilson played for Zimmer in New York even though Zimmer was coaching the Cowboys when the Giants took Wilson in the fifth round in 2004. The key move probably came in 2007, when Steve Spagnuolo moved from being Eagles defensive coordinator to Jim Johnson’s top lieutenant in Philadelphia to Giants defensive coordinator.

Zimmer has never hid his admiration for the late Johnson’s schemes or his penchant to poach the best ideas. They all did it in the NFC East. He thinks the Bengals defense is pretty similar to what the Eagles do.

“I know we stole a lot from each other in that division,” Zimmer said. “You take from the best defenses and we took from each other. I think we’re close to what Philadelphia does. The Giants play a 4-3 and I think the coverages are similar.”

Wilson is comfortable with it and flew around pretty confidently Tuesday. But then, he’s used to flying around. When he showed up at his workout a week ago, he was fresh off a jet lag journey that took him from Sierra Leone to London to the States to a quick change to a plane to Cincinnati.

That was another thing that impressed the Bengals. He was clearly tired in his workout but he gave it a game effort and looked good despite the lag.

He’s used to the travel to his native land on the west coast of Africa. He left when he was five and settled in San Jose, Calif., but he says he goes back two or three times a year and likes to devote his causes to building schools. 

Maybe he’s most like Dhani Jones. He said he traveled to London “just for giggles.” But he’s clearly got some substance to him. Two years ago the Sierra Leone president named Wilson one of his nation’s youth ambassadors to the United States. He has also been crowned a chief in Lungi, a coastal town in the Northern Province.

Nobody noticed the chief because he’s now the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the other DB the Bengals signed the day they signed Adam Jones?”

But Lewis insists this is not a trivial signing and the track records agree.

“Last year we got a lot of injuries late in the season,” said Crocker, who had ankle surgery after the season and is poised to be back on the field in the next few weeks. “They’re looking for depth. They’re trying to get as many good players as possible. That’s what is supposed to happen. Look what happened last year.”


 

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