Don't tell Shawn Williams he's the Opening Day starter in Reggie Nelson's spot.
Shawn Williams, the odds-on favorite to replace safety Reggie Nelson, is oddly similar to his predecessor in some ways.
For instance, neither of them says much even if they have a mouthful.
"I just like to go out and play football. Just get my gloves on," Williams said Thursday. "I think that's what Reggie liked to do. Just go out and do what he gets paid to do."
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After reviving his career with five years in the middle of Cincinnati's perennial play-off defense, the classy Nelson is going to get paid to do it in Oakland. According to reports he agreed to a two-year deal with the Raiders in a development the Bengals had developed a long-range plan if it did happen.
It starts with Williams, the third-round pick from 2013 who began to assert himself with nearly 500 snaps last season, mostly in place of George Iloka. It also begins with Iloka, healthy and freshly-inked to a five-year, $30 million deal. He just turned 26 and already has 44 NFL starts. Williams turns 25 next month. The Bengals love what Nelson did for them. But while he turns 33 in September, they envision Iloka and Williams being a tandem for several years.
"The transition should be smooth," Iloka said Thursday. "Shawn played a lot last year and even before last year he's (practiced) with the ones by design. Coaches always like to mix things up. You hear Marvin (Lewis) say it all the time. He likes to mix the ones and twos. In terms of the chemistry, I don't think it will be that big of a gap to make up. We just have to work some things out. I see him picking up the torch and running with it."
Williams made his name at Georgia as an in-the-box safety, but he's turned into a good enough cover player in the league that defensive coordinator Paul Guenther used him last year as a linebacker-type in nickel.
"Shawn has prepared his way all the way through. He doesn't say two words," said Guenther back in February at the scouting combine. "When he got an opportunity in the spring when George got hurt, he went in there and you didn't realize he was in there."
Iloka has noticed, too. He thinks he can develop the same kind of hash-mark rapport with Williams that he had with Nelson.
"He's a hard-hitter, y'all know that. Coming out of college and now in the NFL," Iloka said. "I'm excited to see him get a full year. For me coming into (spring ball) it's just going to be me building chemistry with him. Sometimes Reggie and I could look at each other and know what we were going to do without really having to discuss it. I don't think that will be hard to do just because we've known each other for the last three years."
Nelson figures to count about $5.5 million against the Oakland salary cap this season. With Iloka in at $6 million, cornerback Adam Jones in at $8 million and the other starting cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick, in at $8 million in the last year of his deal, the Bengals are tapped out in the secondary.
But that's why they draft.
"George has been in our system. He understands all our adjustments. He's real, real smart," Guenther said at the combine. "He s been there since we put it in and he sits right in the front row . . . and he asks all the questions and he's good and he's accountable and all those things."
Williams, rated the 28th best safety by profootballfocus.com last season (yes, one place better than Donte Whitner), figures to be the Opening Day starter next to Iloka, taken with the 167th and last pick of the 2012 fifth round. That's how the postseason ended with Nelson sidelined by an ankle injury.
But don't tell Williams that.
"Being a full-time starter, I don't know if that's true or not," Williams said. "I don't know what's going to happen here in the next couple of weeks. I' m just going to do what I've been doing. I have no idea what's going to happen. All I can do is continue to work out, be in the best shape and continue to learn and contribute."
No one was more popular in the Bengals locker room than Nelson. Williams gets the same kind of "good dude," aura.
"He's a good dude. He works hard. He always comes to work," Iloka said. "I've known him for the last three years. He knows me as a person. I know him as a person. I think we'll be fine . . . We lost a big piece, but the next pieces have to step up.
"(Nelson is) a good dude. He's a good locker room dude. He's always a leader. He's always truthful. He'll help you out when he can. I'm sure if they survey the locker room what they think about Reggie will be positive feedback."
Williams has been watching both.
"Having a vet around like Reggie kind of taught me what it's all about," Williams said. "And George was only a year older than me, but I was always able to look to him to see what to expect the next year."
Iloka is getting anxious for April 18 to arrive, the day the Bengals open their off-season workouts. There is a new position coach waiting in veteran Kevin Coyle. There is a new mix of players in the secondary with youngsters like Darqueze Dennard and Josh Shaw claiming Leon Hall's slot. But Iloka says he won't change his approach to leadership as he replaces Nelson as the most senior safety.
"I just have to be who I am as a player. Be myself," Iloka said. "We have different types of leaders. (Adam Jones) leads in his own way. (Andrew) Whitworth. Vinny. (Vincent Rey). They all lead in a different way. Some guys are quiet, some guys are in your face, some guys lead by example. I just lead by example. How I prepare. How I prepare in meetings. I'm not looking to be a leader. I'm just looking at making plays and being impactful and that would naturally put you in a leadership role."
Iloka figures Williams isn't one of those guys he has to drag around.
"Shawn doesn't need much leading. He's going on his fourth year. He's seen Reggie," Iloka said. "The only thing I can help him with is certain things he hasn't seen only because he hasn't experienced it yet."
Throwback gallery of the Bengals 2001 Draft Class.