While the Bengals suffered a rash of injuries at two position groups last year – linebacker and wide receiver – their starting safeties were remarkably durable.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, George Iloka only missed 12 of 1,222 defensive snaps, while Reggie Nelson missed a mere 25. That means the two of them were on the field for 98% of Cincinnati’s defensive plays.
The safety duo was nearly as durable in 2013 as Iloka and Nelson were on the field for 94% of the Bengals’ defensive plays.
As a result, there haven’t been many opportunities for Shawn Williams to play safety in his first two NFL seasons. The former Georgia standout has been a key contributor on special teams, but has only seen 39 snaps on defense.
“I understand what’s going on and I respect the guys in front of me,” said Williams. “George and Reggie are two very good safeties, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be ready when my number is called – whenever that may be.”
The third-round 2013 draft pick got the call to practice with the first team defense when the Bengals opened OTAs on Tuesday as Iloka sat out with an undisclosed minor injury.
“Shawn’s doing good – really good,” said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “George (Iloka) is a little dinged-up, so Shawn has the opportunity to run in there and get a lot of snaps. It’s a big time for him. It’s his time to make a move.”
That’s not the first time that a Bengals coach has mentioned that it’s time for Williams to play a more significant role. In an interview with Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson and the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr. at the NFL Owners Meetings in March, Marvin Lewis brought up Williams when asked which young players would be expected to emerge in 2015.
“I think Shawn Williams now is going into his third season,” said Lewis. “He’s a little different than Darqueze (Dennard) – he’s like where Dre Kirkpatrick was. He’s done everything we have asked of him on special teams. He’s a guy who in practice does a great job. I think he does things in practice that ought to transition well onto the playing field. This season he’s got to challenge Reggie and George and give them everything he can to work to play.”
“I feel like I’ve grown and matured and I’m doing everything I can do to show that I’m dependable,” said Williams. “I have to stay focused and be ready for whenever my time comes.”
Williams faced a similar situation in college. Shawn only started three games in his first two seasons at Georgia, before starting 27 of 28 possible games at a junior and senior.
“Patience is hard for me,” said the former Georgia captain. “But I feel like I’ve been put in that situation before so I have to take it in stride. That’s part of being patient, growing, and learning.”
Nelson and Iloka are both due to be free agents at the end of the season, so the Bengals need to know if Williams is capable of taking over in case either does not re-sign.
But for now, Shawn is simply focusing on being ready if his opportunity to play arises.
“Reggie is awesome and George has had two very good years,” Williams told me. “I respect their work. So for me, I have to back up both of them and be ready in case anything happens.”
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