Bengals looking at youth pipeline

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After barely playing 400 downs in his three seasons, Margus Hunt (99) figures to get a shot at more playing time this year.

A re-set with the first round of the NFL Draft an even three weeks from Thursday:

The Bengals, who are focusing more and more on the draft these days rather than signing veterans, are poised to get on the field next month with their pipeline of young talent on defense and that was never made more clear than when reports surfaced Wednesday night that Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson agreed to a two-year deal in Oakland.

This gallery features some of the top Tight Ends in this year's draft class.

Nelson, who turns 33 the first month of the season, is coming off his best year. He wanted to return and the Bengals were open to have him back while he stayed in free agency for four weeks.  But money and a role were complicated since they already had two starters 26 years old and younger potentially lined up for Opening Day as well as a third-safety type in sophomore Josh Shaw.

After signing George Iloka to a five-year, $30 million deal in the first hours of free agency last month, they know he'll start at safety and now 2013 third-rounder Shawn Williams gets the nod after a promising 485 snaps last season. And while the 6-1, 201-pound Shaw, 24, last year's other fourth-rounder, worked primarily as a slot cornerback, he's got the size and skills that might also work at safety if need be in a back-up role.

It's a tough move despite the fountain of youth. Nelson is one of the good guys, a solid locker-room presence who revived his career starting 77 games the last five seasons for a defense that made the post-season every year. His 23 interceptions that included an NFL-high eight last season are the sixth most in club history and won't be easy to replace.

But along with Iloka, who has five interceptions in 44 career starts, the Bengals re-signed Pro Bowl cornerback Adam Jones to a deal counting about $8 million against the salary cap for this season that helped shore up the secondary while also tightening up things for Nelson.

Williams, who turns 25 next month, made one of the biggest plays of last year with his fourth-quarter interception of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that ignited the win in Pittsburgh. When Nelson left the Wild Card Game against the Steelers with a sprained ankle after 19 snaps, Williams had five tackles and a pass defensed.

According to profootballfocus.com, Nelson was the 13th rated safety, Williams was 28th, and Iloka 33rd in a ranking of 88 players who took at least 25 percent of the snaps.

It's an interesting move for Nelson. He's back with Jack Del Rio, the Raiders coach who took him in the first round in 2007 when he coached the Jaguars and then traded him to the Bengals a few days before the 2010 season for a 2012 seventh-round pick and cornerback David Jones.      

Now that defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry has moved on to Detroit, the Bengals have lost another valued defensive veteran that has been a constant in this run. But they've also drafted for this moment and have lined up little-used and highly drafted young players like Marcus Hardison, Margus Hunt, and Will Clarke to fill the gap left by Gilberry's 58-percent play time.

Hardison, a fourth-round pick last season, was never active for a game as a rookie while Hunt, a 2013 second-rounder, and Clarke, a 2014 third-rounder, combined to play fewer than 200 snaps. That's going to change because not only did Gilberry play end, he also moved inside on passing downs.

Hardison showed he has the ability to play both spots last preseason and they think Hunt, who is more of an end, can also work some inside while Clarke looks to be pretty much an end in all scenarios.

Gilberry, 31, greatly admired around the building for his tough-man mindset, saw his production drop in his four seasons the more downs he played. After racking up 14 sacks in 2012 and 2013 on a combined 836 snaps, he had 3.5 sacks on 1,481 plays the last two years. So it will be interesting to see how they rotate the young guys.

Leon Hall, 31, last year's slot corner who played more than 600 snaps, is still looking for a deal after 105 starts and nine fine seasons in Cincinnati. The Bengals haven't ruled out a reunion with Hall even with 2014 first-round pick Darqueze Dennard and Shaw lined up to man the slot this season. Yet they may wait until after the draft to re-visit the situation.

At this stage of the offseason things always seem to change day-to-day as the draft draws closer and a wide variety of options face each team, ranging from trades to veteran signings to draft day maneuverings.

Reports had the Bengals working out a pair of 28-year-old receivers in Mike Williams and Hakeem Nicks this week. Since Nicks had all of seven catches last season and Williams wasn't in the league, it's safe to assume the Bengals are going slow here and may just be feathering their nest in case there is some draft fallout.

Until then, the Bengals seem content to focus largely on the draft. The only move of note announced Wednesday is that the local pro day is set for April 19, where prospects that played high school and college ball in the Cincinnati area are invited to work out in Paul Brown Stadium.

 

Throwback gallery of the Bengals 2001 Draft Class.

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