With roster cutdowns still 13 days away, the Cincinnati Bengals already made a surprising move: the team decided to release starting safety George Iloka yesterday, effectively clearing the way for second-round rookie Jessie Bates to take over. Iloka, who spent his entire six-year career with the Bengals, now hits the open market and is projected to be a popular player two weeks into preseason.
One of the teams that should at least take a look at the 28-year old are the New England Patriots – even though the squad appears to be relatively set at the safety spot right now. After all, the Patriots have one of the NFL’s better safety trios at their disposal in Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon. All three come with plenty of experience and proven qualities against the pass and the run.
They clearly do not need to be upgraded, but the depth behind them is suspect: Jordan Richards has been wildly inconsistent when used as a defender, while Eddie Pleasant is no guarantee to win a roster spot. Nate Ebner and de-facto linebacker Brandon King are primarily special teamers; Damarius Travis has failed to show any real progress during his second offseason in the NFL.
At least when it comes to defensive contributions, Iloka should be an upgrade over any of them. The former fifth-round draft pick also brings plenty of versatility and experience to the table: Iloka was used all over the formation in Cincinnati, and even though he spent around 60% of his snaps as a deep center fielder – like McCourty and Harmon –, he also is no stranger to lining up closer to the box in a more traditional strong safety role.
From the Patriots’ perspective, Iloka would therefore be an intriguing player to possibly add at this point during preseason preparations. However, chances are that they will not be able to do that: Iloka will draw plenty of interest by teams that are not set at the top of their safety position. Furthermore, there are plenty of franchises that have more salary cap available than New England’s $8.6 million.
So why should the Patriots still take a look at Iloka, even if the odds of him actually joining the team appear to be slim? One word: knowledge. Bringing the veteran in for a workout should help the team update its file on him, in case it a) opts to pursue Iloka at a later point in time (possibly next year’s free agency), or b) has to face him this season. The opportunity to expand the knowledge about the defensive back is one the Patriots should take advantage of if it presented itself.
And, who knows, maybe Iloka stays on the open market longer than anticipated – not unlike cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who visited Foxboro two weeks ago – and could turn into a possible emergency call-up option. The more Bill Belichick and company know about him, the better they can judge him in case they crossed paths even if him filling the final roster spot on the 90-man team should not be in the cards at the moment.