The Bengals locked up the middle of their defense for the next five years Tuesday when they announced a four-year extension for safety Shawn Williams.
Williams, who turned 25 Friday, would have been a free agent after this season but the Bengals added four more years on a deal believed to be in the $20 million range and keeps their starting safeties intact through the 2020 season.
On the first day of free agency back in March they inked George Iloka, 26, to a five-year, $30 million deal. They opted to go with the youth of Williams as Reggie Nelson signed in Oakland last month off his first Pro Bowl appearance at age 32 for a two-year deal with a $5 million average.
Although Williams, a third-round pick in 2013, has just four NFL starts, they're encouraged with what he did while Iloka was injured last season and when Nelson left the play-off game early in the second quarter. In the three games Williams started in place of Iloka, the Bengals held the Browns to a field goal, the 49ers to 14 points and the Broncos to 17 points in regulation. In San Francisco he ended one drive with an interception at his 1. He played 68 percent of the snaps in the Wild Card Game, when the Bengals held the Steelers to one touchdown on a play the NFL later said shouldn't have counted.
But it was what he did on the field with Iloka and Nelson that produced arguably the biggest play of last season. Williams saved his first NFL interception for the grandest of moments, a remarkable sliding, diving catch on the sidelines at the Steelers 45 with 5:34 left in a game Pittsburgh led, 10-6, sparking Cincinnati's 16-10 victory.
They were in a three-safety look because the Steelers were in a run formation with just one receiver and multiple tight ends. Williams, who cut in front of fullback Will Johnson, stayed on him even though the play had broken down with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger extending it a good 10 seconds.
The win lifted the Bengals to 7-0 for their best start ever and provided the pivotal two-game swing in an AFC North title chase the 12-4 Bengals won by two games over the Steelers.
With the Bengals now signing draft picks and over the $166 million salary cap with the Williams deal, they probably signed him out of their roll-over salary cap money of about $6 million. Before the Williams' deal, spotrac.com reported the Bengals were $560,000 under the cap. It's believed they're also working on extensions for other contract-year guys, such as running back Giovani Bernard and fullback Ryan Hewitt. Hewitt becomes a free agent after three years because he was undrafted.
They'd also like to get extensions for cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and right guard Kevin Zeitler, playing on their fifth-year options as 2012 first-round picks.
Last Thursday was the first day that unrestricted free agents can be signed by other clubs and they won't count against the compensatory formula. As they have done recently, the Bengals don't appear to have anyone on that horizon but have turned to their own to get something done. But the fate of their own UFA cornerback Leon Hall could be decided soon.
Hall, 31, a first-round pick in 2007, has played all nine of his seasons in Cincinnati. Since the end of the season, the Bengals re-signed starting corner Adam Jones, are making plans to try and re-sign the other starting corner, Kirkpatrick, and drafted Houston cornerback William Jackson in the first round.
The Bengals had a hard time letting go Nelson, but it was only because they feel like they are locking up a rising player in Williams heading into his prime. Since 2013 they've done it with guys like Iloka, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, and left guard Clint Boling, as well as A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, and Vontaze Burfict.
"Shawn is one of our bright, young players, and we're excited to have him as part of the team moving forward," said head coach Marvin Lewis in a news release. "He has been a physical player, and he has increased his value as a playmaker on the ball. This is just one more part of our plan, which is to draft the right players, develop them and retain them."
In the final 2015 rankings for 88 safeties in the league, profootballfocus.com ranked Williams 28 and Iloka 33. Plus, Williams is versatile enough to be a cover linebacker on passing downs.
"We see Shawn as an ascending player," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther in the release. "He's smart, he's tough, and he's not limited in his role. He can do a lot of things well."