Bengals weighing options at safety at Williams injury

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 18: Derron Smith #31 of the Cincinnati Bengals makes the pickoff of the pass from Dan Orlovsky (not in photo) and runs for a second quarter touchdown during the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on August 18, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
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DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 18: Derron Smith #31 of the Cincinnati Bengals makes the pickoff of the pass from Dan Orlovsky (not in photo) and runs for a second quarter touchdown during the preseason game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on August 18, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The Cincinnati Bengals have yet to put a timetable on starting safety Shawn Williams’ expected return from the gruesome elbow injury he suffered Saturday night, but the absence is expected to be significant.

The most optimistic projections have Williams missing four to six weeks, but that would mean the Bengals would have to use a valuable spot on the 53-man roster to keep him active until he’s healthy.

The other option would be to place Williams on Injured Reserve with the intent of making him one of the two players allowed to return, which would mean he would have to miss at least the first seven games but the team could replace him on the roster until then.

Either way, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is going to have to figure out the best way to fill the void for at least the first month of the season.

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“It might not be just one guy. It might be a couple here and there,” Guenther said. “That’s what these (preseason) games are for, getting a feel for who can do what.

“You’ve got four games for research and development,” he continued. “Is this guy going to make it? This guy going to make it? You have to get those guys into the game against good players. And they work it out.”

Guenther has already had a head start in the evaluation process due to the knee injury George Iloka suffered July 30.

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Iloka returned to practice on a limited basis last week but has not played in the first two preseason games, leaving Derron Smith and Clayton Fejedelem to split the snaps with the first-team defense.

Fejedelem, last year’s seventh-round pick, has started for Iloka in the first two preseason games. But it was Smith, who missed a couple of days earlier in camp when he left the same practice on the same cart with Iloka, getting the longer look Saturday against the Chiefs, playing a team-high 52 snaps.

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“We’re all going to have to step up and do our part,” said Smith, a 2015 sixth-round pick who has appeared in 28 games, mostly on special teams.

“It hurts as a unit,” Smith added. “Shawn is one of the better safeties – very underrated – in this league. That was his first year starting last year, and he played great. I was definitely looking forward to seeing him play this year. The rest of us have to step up and fill that void.”

Fejedelem appeared in all 16 games last year on special teams, but he didn’t take his first snaps on defense until Nov. 27 at Baltimore. He finished the year with 40 snaps, compared to Smith’s 102.

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“He got in there last year and proved it wasn’t too big for him,” Guenther said of Fejedelem. “Hopefully he’ll take the next step.”

Also in the mix is Josh Shaw, a 2015 fourth-round pick who has split time working at corner and safety the last couple of years.

“Josh is getting some snaps at safety,” Guenther said. “He’s been playing a lot in spring and training camp, now with Shawn going down he’ll get a little bit more exposure there. It’s good, the more you can get experience now the better off you are down the road.”

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The only other safety on the roster is undrafted rookie Demetrious Cox, who played 22 snaps Saturday night, finishing with three tackles and a pass defended.

“We are a little thin there, but next guy up,” Guenther said. “At the end of the game we had to use (linebaker Marquis Flowers) back there as safety. We have to let the next guy get ready to go and the expectations won’t go down.”