For the second time in two weeks the Bengals rocked their world Sunday when they released a veteran starter in the name of youth. First it was Brandon LaFell, 31, their most experienced wide receiver. Now it is their most seasoned defensive back, safety George Iloka, gone less than 12 hours after they returned from Saturday night's 21-13 pre-season victory in Dallas in a move that indicates they're elevating second-rounder Jessie Bates III.
That can't be all that much of a surprise since head coach Marvin Lewis indicated a few days ago Bates could become a contributor sooner rather than later.
Iloka, 28, who had such command of the secondary he earned the nickname "The General," has started 76 games since he won the job in 2013, the year after he was drafted with the last pick in the fifth round in 2012. He was heading into the third year of a five-year, $30 million deal, which makes it an uncharacteristic move for the Bengals. They detest dead money and now have $1.8 million on the books. But they also save about $3 million in a preseason they're trying to extend Pro Bowl sackers Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
The always accessible Iloka remained classy to the end. Contacted minutes after he confirmed the release on Twitter, he wouldn't elaborate and said he'd let the two tweets stand:
Since he arrived in January, new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has made no bones about seeking safeties that get turnovers. During one of his first weeks on the job he interviewed free-agent veterans and his first draft pick as coordinator was Bates, a 21-year-old from Wake Forest some thought was the only pure free safety in the draft. The Bengals are looking for more than Iloka's nine career interceptions.
Plus, they've also been pleasantly surprised by another rookie safety in Hawaii's undrafted Trayvon Henderson. And, they're looking to keep speedy sophomore safety Brandon Wilson, a special teams ace they hope can develop into another role. Clayton Fejedelem, now the first safety off the bench, is one of the special teams' de facto captains along with linebacker Vincent Rey. Iloka set a worthy standard for Bates when it comes to reliability and durability. He only missed four games since he won the job in the camp of 2013, all in 2015, giving him a streak of 33 straight starts.
With Shawn Williams, the other starting safety, nursing a hamstring injury in the spring, Bates started rotating with Iloka and the 1s almost immediately and that has continued into camp with Williams healthy and Bates rotating with both. Against the Cowboys Bates got into the game in the second series and looked comfortable playing the rest of the first half while racking up four tackles.
Bates said last week he knows the veterans are looking for him to be more vocal, something Iloka and Williams also had to learn in the Education of a Pro Safety, where the safeties are the quarterbacks of the defense.
"Getting in a lot of plays with these guys can only help me," said Bates after Saturday's game of his work with the 1s. "It doesn't only help me, it also helps the older guys because I can get in there and show them I can do my job and do it in the right way and very fast. I feel like that will make them play fast as well and help us as a defense."