GEORGETOWN, Ky. — One of the reasons the Bengals didn't keep going when Donte Whitner reneged on his deal is because they looked at what was left among the free-agents safeties and decided what they had was equal or better. Until teams start to get into cutdown mode in a few weeks.
They are keeping an eye on San Francisco's Taylor Mays and who knows? He may end up here the way current starter Reggie Nelson did last season on a Cutdown Day trade.
When it comes to athleticism and speed, the Bengals think they've already got a guy here that rates pretty well. The Bengals coaches were very high on Nelson when he came out of Florida in 2007 and if cornerback Leon Hall hadn't been there with the 18th pick, the Bengals very well may have ended up with Nelson. He went to Jacksonville with the 21st pick and that's where the Bengals got him last year in the trade.
His time had run out in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars were looking for more, but he feels like his career has been revived in Cincinnati.
"I feel fresh. I feel comfortable now that I'm in here at the start of training camp," Nelson said before Tuesday afternoon's practice. "I'm used to my teammates and the defense and I feel good running around out there."
Even though Whitner played a lot of strong safety in Buffalo (he also played some on the back end), the one knock on him there is that he didn't make a lot of plays. In 66 starts, he made a slew of tackles (321) with 1.5 sacks, five interceptions, 19 passes defensed and three forced fumbles. One of the appeals the Bengals made to Whitner is that the scheme would get him more involved in playmaking. In Nelson, they've got a free safety that in 48 starts has one sack, nine interceptions, 27 passes defensed, and three forced fumbles to go with 196 tackles.
The comparison isn't meant to suggest Nelson is the better player. After all, Whitner was the eighth pick the year before Nelson came out. It's only relevant in the sense that the Bengals like their safeties to be able to play both free and strong.
When injuries decimated the Bengals last year at the position, secondary coach Kevin Coyle came away pleased with what Nelson provided in the last several weeks. A pick of Saints quarterback Drew Brees set up a touchdown, he had seven tackles against the Browns, forced a fumble on the Chargers 21, and in the finale in Baltimore he had a pick, a forced fumble, and defended two passes.
"He's got playmaking ability; he just has to be consistent," Coyle said. "If he does, he's got enough athleticism to be a quality, quality starting safety in this league. He can cover receivers. He's played a little corner in his career. He's not afraid to go out there and match up with receivers. And he's not shy about coming up on the run, either. He just has to become a more consistent player."
While Coyle would like to see Nelson and all his other players come up with more interceptions this camp, he agrees that Nelson has looked quick and active. But he wants more.
"He's got a good attitude. He's working very hard. He has a lot to prove," Coyle said. "He can run, he's got really good range, he covers a lot of ground. That's what he did in college. He played a lot of centerfield. He's got very good ball skills."
Head coach Marvin Lewis says the starting combination of Nelson and Chris Crocker is more interchangeable than when Crocker was teamed with the in-the-box exploits of Roy Williams last season. With Williams' injury in 2009 that limited him to three games, the Bengals turned to another bigger, physical guy in Chinedum Ndukwe. Now they hope Nelson, as well as Gibril Wilson and maybe fifth-round pick Robert Sands, gives them more range. If they get toasted in the games, the Bengals will no doubt keep looking.
"They're a lot more interchangeable in coverages" Lewis said. "Any time you can keep your base defense on the field in three wide receiver formations, now you have an advantage because you've got some bigger guys. I think both Chris and Reggie have that ability because we know we feel comfortable with them in matchups on wideouts. It's different that way when we were trying to make sure not to get Roy out in the wrong spot. Roy has been a very good tackler all through his career and that's what we need from these guys. We play in a physical division with big physical backs and they need to hold up in that physical part of the game."
There's no question what Lewis wants to see out of Nelson.
"I think the diligence of alignments and responsibilities (are) something that may have waned in Reggie's past and we're trying to beat it out of him so that so he gets where he belongs and does it right," Lewis said. "Hopefully that will enable him to do what we saw him do at the end of last year."
Nelson says the scheme here is a better fit for him than the one in Jacksonville, but all he has to do is remember his three years with the Jaguars to realize he can't get enamored by the starting slot on the depth chart.
"In this league, you can be starting one day and be at the bottom of the depth chart the next day," Nelson said. "It doesn't mean a thing. That's just where they put me until we play football. It's all about what you do on the field. In this league, anything goes."
Nelson feels the same way about that first-round selection. He's not out here to prove to everybody he was worthy of the 21st pick.
"It was only the opportunity to come into the league," Nelson said. "It means nothing. It happened and I've forgotten about it. It's not when you're drafted but how you play once you get into the league. I like the situation here. I'm just trying to get better every day."
That's the way it looks now. But what waits this Cutdown Day? The answers start coming Friday night in Detroit.