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Bengals' free-agency strategy keeps defense among NFL's best

Retaining safety George Iloka was an important move for the Bengals this offseason. Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- Turmoil appeared to be on the horizon.

Following the Cincinnati Bengals' fifth-straight wild-card round playoff loss, many around here tried to brace for the slew of changes that were expected to hit the roster. With 14 unrestricted free agents, many of them starters or regular contributors, sweeping roster modifications were anticipated. The potential for a 2016 drop-off started becoming reality.

But right now, six days into free agency and the start of the league year, the changes -- at least as far as Cincinnati's defense is concerned -- don't appear to be as big as once feared. "Drop-off" wouldn't be the best way to describe what has been going on with that side of the ball. "Retooling" is more like it.

After last week's re-signings, on paper, the Bengals' defense looks remarkably similar to the productive unit they trotted out last fall. Perhaps after a couple more signings, re-signings and additions in the draft, a case could be made that this year's defense will be even better.

It all started last Wednesday when safety George Iloka agreed to a five-year, $30 million deal with a $5 million guarantee that kept him stripes. When cornerback Adam Jones agreed that night to his own new three-year contract -- which still hasn't been made official by the Bengals -- the secondary got another necessary jolt. In real danger of losing Jones and Iloka, getting them back firmed up two positions that had arguably the most uncertainty entering free agency.

Then there was Vincent Rey, the team's leading tackler the past two seasons. When the outside linebacker agreed to a three-year, $11.5 million contract, Cincinnati kept another key piece of its defense. A longtime Bengals reserve, Rey has appeared regularly in the starting rotation in recent seasons because of injuries to other players. He could start at strongside linebacker later this season, but is likely to begin the season as the starting weakside linebacker while Vontaze Burfict serves a suspension the first three games.

Even after those re-signings, the Bengals aren't done making moves in free agency. Defensive end Wallace Gilberry is still on the market and is likely to re-sign. Defensive tackles Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims also are still available.

The door also might not be completely shut on safety Reggie Nelson's return. It originally seemed like an either/or proposition for the Bengals when it came to keeping either the younger Iloka (25) or going with the Pro Bowler Nelson (32). But since Nelson has had relatively few bites after reportedly turning down a two-year offer the Bengals made him last week, perhaps Cincinnati will retain him after all. If the Bengals bring him back, they will have their starting base secondary back. Nickel cornerback Leon Hall isn't expected to re-sign. He's visiting Arizona on Monday.

Though defensive implosions late in January's playoff game contributed to the Bengals' loss, had it not been for their defenders, they wouldn't have been in the playoffs in the first place. Nelson, Iloka, Jones and Rey played active roles in helping the Bengals rank second in scoring defense, allowing just 17.4 points per game in the regular season.