When the Cincinnati Bengals released their final 53-man roster on Saturday, two things on the defensive side of the ball stood out over the rest: The team only kept five linebackers, but they also kept three strong safeties.
Among those three strong safeties is fourth-year player Taylor Mays.
The announcement that the team would keep all three players—along with only five linebackers—came as quite a surprise. Even more surprising was the fact that the Bengals did not claim another linebacker from waivers. However, new information has emerged that could be an indication as to why Marvin Lewis and Co. decided to go that route.
Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer was the first to point out a possible position change regarding Mays with this tweet:
Why would the Bengals be working Mays at linebacker?
As Reedy pointed out, "It might happen out of necessity." This is due to the season-ending injury to the Bengals best coverage linebacker and starter in nickel packages Emmanuel Lamur.
This left the Bengals in quite a bind. There is not another linebacker on the roster that excelled in coverage nearly as well as Lamur.
Obviously, Mays has not shown a great ability to cover as a safety, right?
Actually, he has improved tremendously in coverage over the course of the 2013 preseason. Despite playing a high volume of snaps (172), Mays soared up the charts of Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) coverage rankings for safeties and ranked 34th out of an eligible 158 safeties—the same ranking as Bengals strong safety Reggie Nelson.
That's not to say he didn't make mistakes during the preseason—he did. However, the move is not as desperate or as drastic as you would think.
Covering the deep half of the field as a safety is quite the opposite of covering as a weak-side linebacker. A WILL generally lines up in coverage near the line of scrimmage opposite the side with a tight end.
Mays will be assigned to a running back frequently in this position, which will allow his speed to flourish. Also being a strong, sure tackler, Mays is a good candidate to wrap up an elusive ball-carrier in space.
In a recent article by Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller, he explains that defenses are becoming faster and lighter year after year due to the speed and complexity of offenses.
Miller writes, "Linebackers weighing 230 pounds and safeties running a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash sacrificed size and strength, but they impressed in foot races."
This is partly true regarding Mays—he is 6'3", 220 pounds and ran a 4.43 40-yard dash—although, he did not sacrifice any strength. Taking Miller's words into consideration, it seems as though Mays encompasses the best of both worlds.
So, will the Bengals actually make this transition? According to Marvin Lewis during an interview with NFL.com, we'll have to wait and see: "Taylor's been playing those spots since he's been here. This is not experiment time. We're trying to get ready for the Bears."
It's tough to gauge exactly what Lewis means here—he has not always been candid with the media—but the writing could already be on the wall.
If Mays has played in this role before as Lewis suggests—while keeping in mind the interesting personnel decisions made by the Bengals during final cuts—perhaps we could see a rather significant alteration in the 2013 Cincinnati defense.
All eyes will be on Mays in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears.