INDIANAPOLIS — Since Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer arrived in 2008 to revamp with three top 10 finishes in five seasons, he's done it with his three drafted safeties playing a total of 17 snaps all belonging to rookie sixth-rounder Corey Lynch that first season.
With the Bengals holding two second-round picks at Nos. 37 and 53 and pundits like the NFL Network's Mike Mayock calling it "the strongest safety class in years," that trend looks like it may be shattered April 26, the day of the second and third round.
"Maybe not with a bunch of first-round guys, but the depth of the class," Mayock said of a group headed by Kenny Vaccaro of Texas and Matt Elam of Florida. "After that there are at least 10 or 12 safeties jumbled together. Some are only strong, some are only free, some can play both that I think you can get in the second and third rounds. But they're all kind of jumbled together right now."
Yet Zimmer is playing it cool.
"I have no issues with our safeties," he said Sunday between Combine sessions, when he also noted he's got three safeties from the last two rookie classes that have yet to play a snap. "All three guys have (flashed) in some areas."
And he remains hopeful that the physically-gifted Taylor Mays can put it all together in his fourth season and he has no plans to move him to outside linebacker.
"I'm not down on him, either," Zimmer said.
It's doubtful that, at least right away, the Bengals are going to re-sign the man who came off the street in the fourth week of the season to save the day. Chris Crocker turns 33 in two weeks and if they need him again, the Bengals have learned not to chew him up in spring workouts and training camp.
Nate Clements, already 33, doesn't figure to be back after splitting time at cornerback and safety, but Zimmer says it's too early to think about who is going to line up opposite Reggie Nelson at safety in the first game.
"We'll see what happens in free agency first. That will be the bigger tell of what is happening in the draft," Zimmer said. "It's hard to say we need a safety right now when who knows what happens between now and the draft. We've got a lot of free agents."
Indeed, two of his top three cornerbacks (Terence Newman and Adam Jones), his middle linebacker and SAM backer (Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson), and right end Michael Johnson are scheduled to be free agents. But Newman and Jones would no doubt like to return to play for Zimmer after they revived both of their careers last season, Johnson probably gets franchised if he doesn't get signed long term, and Vontaze Burfict looks like he's ready to move into middle backer.
Safety? This is the 20th season Zimmer has been coaching NFL defensive backs and he's watched the safety position evolve. No wonder the highest ones the Bengals have picked in the last five drafts were in the fifth round the past two seasons in the 6-4, 215-pound Robert Sands from West Virginia and the 6-4, 225-pound George Iloka from Boise State. And maybe because they're built more like outside backers. The 5-10, 200-pound Tony Dye, a free-agent rookie last season who got hurt, also has the size that Zimmer says is getting rarer and rarer in the college game.
"I still think college football is getting smaller. The linebackers are still badly undersized. A lot of the corners are undersized, a lot of times these guys, some of the safeties are now playing linebacker," Zimmer said. "Back in the day, safety candidates were linebacker candidates. They were outside linebacker cover guys. That position loses a lot. I'm surprised more college corners aren't moving into be safeties. Because the safeties moved to linebacker."
Zimmer says the value of the safety hasn't changed. They are still trumped by the most valuable defensive players ("rush guys and cover guys," he calls them), but what has changed is the way they play against the spread game and that the supply has diminished.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher sees the same thing happening to linebackers.
"Because of the nature of the college game now, the physical characteristics of the linebackers that are coming out are not necessarily what we need," Fisher said last week at the Combine. "You've got to develop. They're smaller. You see safeties now playing (linebacker) because of the speed and the multiplicity of the game. So when you talk about addressing the need at the linebacker position, there's typically not a lot of depth from year to year."
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, whose first year head coaching in the NFL in Jacksonville was the same year Zimmer came into the league, has seen the same thing.
"If I was to say 10 years ago the safeties are playing linebacker today and the linebackers are playing defensive end today, depending on the style of the offensive team they're playing, that makes it a little bit more difficult at those spots that are hard to find," Coughlin said. "I think there's 19 tight ends here. There's 32 teams in the NFL. I'm not good at math, but I can figure that one out."
Back in 1994, Zimmer says they were either "a middle of the field safety or box safety."
"It's hard to do that anymore," said Zimmer, and that's why head coach Marvin Lewis gets mad when someone calls his safety a free or strong because his buzzword is always "interchangeable."
"That's how I always wanted the safeties to be: two safeties with basically the same ability level that can play strong or free or cover this guy or cover that guy," Zimmer said. "When you talk about the 11 guys, you say four defensive linemen and four DBs, I'm not sure you shouldn't be saying the starter nowadays is five DBs and two linebackers just because of the number of nickel snaps that those guys play."
Mays is supposed to be that new-age safety. Big enough (235 pounds) to stuff the run sideline to sideline and fast enough to blanket gamebreaking tight ends, Mays is still trying to break into the lineup in his fourth season and with his second team as he struggles with his consistency in space.
"I probably need to do a better job of finding some more niches for him," Zimmer said. "We're going to look for ways to play him. He's not going to move to linebacker. I'm going to continue to look for ways to use him. For a big guy he's not a real good blitzer. We're going to have to try to improve him on that. He does some good things in some of the coverages. He does some good things in run support, so we just have to make him more polished in a lot of the ways."
But the Bengals may not want to pass on this unusually deep field of safeties. The search may be on for a guy that can play both and that's also in the eye of the beholder.
After canvassing his legendary cadre of scouts, Hall of Fame reporter Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel puts Vaccaro and four others in his top 55: LSU's Eric Reid, Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien, Fresno State's Phillip Thomas and Notre Dame's Zeke Motta.
Forget Vaccaro coming to town. For one thing, Mayock thinks he's going in the top 15. The other thing is that the Bengals history is if they have a choice between an offensive or defensive lineman or cornerback or safety in the first round, they'll get the safety later and that is exactly what is going to be there at No. 21.
The four safeties pass Zimmer's size test. Reid is 6-2, 212 pounds while Cyprien is 6-0, 209, Thomas is 6-1, 210 and Motta goes 6-2, 215.
"I'm sure it's hard to evaluate because you know you have corners who can play safety and you don't want to have just a safety that's a safety," said Motta, who knows the score at his position. "You want to be able to have guys that are versatile. I guess that's why is a little hard to evaluate."
Welcome to the next 60 days for the Bengals, which brings them to the second and third rounds.