Building an NFL defense is a lot like putting together an intricate puzzle. Some pieces fit perfectly within the frame, like Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith in Minnesota. Others, unfortunately, are square pegs in a round hole. They have a place somewhere, but not with the Minnesota Vikings.
For Mike Zimmer, the picture is nearly complete — a top-five unit in 2015 has a chance to become even more dominant next season. But one of those pieces has long been a blemish in what should be Mike Zimmer’s masterpiece — strong safety.
From Andrew Sendejo to Robert Blanton, and even Terence Newman, no one player has been a perfect fit beside Smith in the secondary. Despite the revolving door at the position, general manager Rick Spielman does have options. The draft is chock full of potential contributors, and players like Anthony Harris will continue to develop, but the safest path to the perfect puzzle may begin in March.
That’s when free agency opens. And that’s when safeties like Eric Berry, Reggie Nelson, and Eric Weddle will hit the open market. They’re fine pieces to add to the puzzle, but they’re not the right piece for Zimmer’s defense. Enter George Iloka, current Cincinnati Bengals strong safety and soon-to-be free agent target.
Who is George Iloka?
At 6’4″ and 230 pounds, Iloka is easily one of the biggest safeties in the NFL. He not only outweighs Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, but is taller, has longer arms, and larger hands than his West Coast counterpart. According to the Star Tribune’s Matt Vensel, Iloka’s 34 1/2-inch arms were the longest among DBs at the 2012 scouting combine. Chancellor has long been considered one of the hardest-hitting, most intimidating defensive backs in the game, but Iloka has developed a similar reputation over his four years in Cincinnati.
“George is an intense player and very smart player,” secondary coach Vance Joseph said during Bengals training camp last year. “He’s a big safety, so he wants to be a contact player. He’s having a helluva camp.”
Taking a step back, Iloka was a three-year starter at Boise State from 2009 to 2011. In his four years as a Bronco, the team went 50-3 and finished each season ranked 11th or better in the AP National Poll. His senior year, Iloka started 11 games at free safety and one at cornerback, helping the Broncos finish 12-1 in 2011. That year, he earned All-Mountain West Conference first-team honors and a trip to the Senior Bowl; the national attention shot Iloka to the top of many NFL Draft boards.
Coming out, he was described “a superb zone defender” who understood how to diagnose and react to plays. The analysts at NFL.com called Iloka the “quarterback of the secondary” with the speed, length, and range to make plays in the deep zones. Still, Iloka’s deficiencies — a perceived lack of toughness, stiff hips — dropped him to the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, where the Bengals selected him with the 167th-overall pick.
It was there that Iloka met Zimmer, the Bengals’ then-defensive coordinator. Though he hardly played his rookie year, Iloka made the leap in 2013, starting all 16 games at strong safety. Much like the players in Zimmer’s current scheme, Iloka was asked to fill the role of a traditional Cover-2 safety — defending the deep half of the field while filling the “alley” against the run. Iloka’s size and length helped him in coverage, but he didn’t have the same success as an in-the-box defender that season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Iloka missed 13 tackles in the 2013 regular season and earned a Tackling Efficiency mark of just 5.4 (attempts per miss) — the sixth-worst mark in the league at safety. What he lacked in aggressiveness and consistency against the run (-0.6 run defense grade), he more than made up for on the backend of the defense. The analytics site gave Iloka an overall grade of +3.4, citing his work in coverage as the boost in his ranking. He allowed a reception once every 42.4 snaps in coverage, hauled in an interception, and defended another six passes that season.
The following year, Zimmer left the Bengals to become Minnesota’s head coach. Though Cincinnati was losing arguably one of the league’s greatest defensive minds, players like Iloka were confident in new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s abilities.[quote_center]”I would say Pauly tries to really help everyone just understand, he wants us to know the defense. He really coaches us as a group. The D-line or the secondary. Just kind of makes you overall have a better grasp of the defense and help us understand why he’s calling certain plays.”[/quote_center]
It’s possible that Zimmer’s exodus to the Vikings was beneficial for a young, inexperienced player like Iloka. As many have seen with the Vikings, Zimmer isn’t the most patient of coaches. He mentored Trae Waynes throughout training camp last year, but has often been hypercritical of his best cornerback, Xavier Rhodes. Iloka noticed many of the same patterns in Cincinnati, regardless of talent level or NFL experience. “He reminded me of my high school coach,” Iloka said. “He’ll get in your face if you’re a rookie or a five-time All-Pro.”
Like any coach, Zimmer expects his players to know the system, put themselves in the right spot on the field, and finish the play. In 2013, Iloka’s greatest struggles came at the end of plays, as evidenced by his 13 missed tackles. He’d consistently put himself in a spot to make a tackle, but miss the opportunity to finish; a habit that’s frustrated Zimmer, especially with his crop of strong safeties in Minnesota. That changed in 2014, a season that earned Iloka the title of “Pro Football Focus Secret Superstar.”
A sign of Iloka’s maturation, he improved every area of his game. Against the pass, the third-year standout allowed a reception just once every 51.8 snaps in coverage, the highest mark among all qualifying safeties. He gave up just 12 receptions throughout the year for a total of 176 receiving yards — the 12th-best total in the league. And against the run, his PFF score jumped 4.2 points to +3.6 in 2014. Iloka’s shown an ability to grow as a player, and it’s part of the reason he has the potential to thrive under Zimmer with the Vikings.
Long-considered a player with a high football IQ, Iloka only recently gained a reputation as an able-bodied run defender. The three examples above are highlights of Iloka finally combining his awareness with a consistent ability to finish. Not only does he recognize the running play before the snap, but he navigates into the backfield to make three textbook tackles. Like Harrison Smith, and at times, Andrew Sendejo, Iloka shows a knack for sniffing out a running play’s direction and disrupting the flow — all without sacrificing technique or assignment.
Iloka has five career interceptions, three of which came in his 2014 breakout season. He’s also broken up 20 passes in his career and shows a willingness to fight receivers for the football in 50/50 situations. Most defensive backs are defenders for a reason; they’re “butterfingers” who can’t catch the ball. In the examples above, Iloka displays three essential traits critical to playing safety for Zimmer; range, the ability to play the football, and scheme discipline. He’s rarely out of position, and baits quarterbacks into attempting dangerous throws. Peyton Manning, Nick Foles, and Blake Bortles fall for Iloka’s deception, leading to interceptions down the field.
Free Agent Situation
The league’s highest paid strong safeties currently make more than $7 million per year. Chancellor, Miami’s Reshad Jones, and Cleveland’s Donte Whitner top the list, and Minnesota’s Smith may soon join the ranks of the league’s highest-paid free safeties. He’s entering the fifth-year option of his original rookie contract, and the Vikings could very well ink him to a long-term deal worth at least $10 million this offseason.
With that in mind, the question becomes: Does Rick Spielman want to give his two starting safeties $15 to $16 million per year starting in 2016? Signing Iloka at his base calculated value would do just that, if, of course, they give Smith $10-plus million per year. Below is Iloka’s projected market value and base calculated value in 2016, per Spotrac:
- Market Value: Four years, $22,593,361 million ($5.6 million per year)
- Base Calculated Value: Four years, $25,950,366 million ($6,487,591 per year)
Iloka is currently Rotoworld‘s fifth-ranked free agent safety, making him a more reasonably-priced option than players like Eric Berry and Reggie Nelson. Still, his price tag is reasonable given three important factors — his age, his relative familiarity with Zimmer and Newman, and his improved production over time. Iloka missed a handful of games with an ankle injury early in 2015, but rebounded late in the year to start 12 straight games. His numbers are relatively similar to those of Chancellor and Jones, and in the right system, could match their totals.
As of now, he’s a better, if more expensive option than rookie draft picks or players currently on the roster. While Anthony Harris and Antone Exum have potential to become solid players for Minnesota, no player has the proven track record Iloka can bring to the Vikings. He’s not a perfect safety, by any means, but he’d be an adequate fit for a team that is missing one of its most important defensive puzzle pieces.