CINCINNATI -- Free agency officially begins a month from Tuesday as the 2016 league year begins.
Which of the Cincinnati Bengals' 15 unrestricted free agents will be back under their control that day? It's a question both the players and the team will spend the next four weeks scrambling to answer. Before we get too deep into the offseason, we'll take a daily look at each of Cincinnati's free agents. On Thursday, we continue with:
Bengals service time: Six seasons (traded to Cincinnati in 2010)
2015 cap charge: $4,775,000 (16th among NFL safeties)
2015 stats: 72 tackles, 8 INTs (tied NFL lead), 2 fumble recoveries
The lowdown: It's amazing to think that the playmaking lifeblood of one of the NFL's best defensive backfields could be looking for a new home next month. Indeed, Nelson, the safety who had a league-leading eight interceptions en route to being named to his first Pro Bowl, could end up elsewhere.
Should he? We'll get into that in a bit.
In addition to Nelson, fellow Bengals safety George Iloka also is slated to hit free agency next month. At 25, Iloka likely will earn his first big contract, making significantly more than the $1.58 million he received in 2015. Price tag aside, Iloka could be part of the Bengals' long-term future at the position along with younger players Derron Smith and Shawn Williams. Although 2016 will be the final year of Williams' deal, it's clear Bengals coaches want to get him more involved. He made a tangible impact when he did play defense this past season. Williams' biggest contribution came late in the Nov. 1 game at Pittsburgh when he dove along the Bengals' sideline to intercept Ben Roethlisberger just ahead of what would be Cincinnati's game-winning touchdown drive.
As much promise as Williams and Smith (a sixth-round 2015 draft pick) have, there is something to be said about having proven veterans at one of the most important positions on the field. As a result, Iloka and Nelson's experience could keep one or both of them around Cincinnati a little longer.
Stay? Or go? Whatever deal Nelson signs will be an interesting one. The last safety to sign a new contract at 32 or older was Chicago's Antrel Rolle, who agreed to a three-year, $11.25 million contract last March. Paid an average $3.75 million, Rolle received less than the $4.5 million Nelson averaged the past four seasons. The Bengals, or any NFL team for that matter, would want to use Rolle's deal as a baseline for what a safety Nelson's age might be worth. But since Nelson already was being paid more than that and is coming off four solid seasons, it would be an insult to even offer Nelson a deal of comparable value to what he was just paid. Just how high could Nelson's value go? That number could determine whether the Bengals are able to bring him back.
Cincinnati doesn't want to lose Nelson. But it also doesn't want to overpay for a player who could be headed to his final contract -- only time will tell if that's the case. Expect the Bengals to make a nice push to keep him, even with the young up-and-comers on the depth chart behind him. Nelson should be in stripes again next year.