Upper management still expects Jessie Bates, their young and talented safety, to sign the franchise tag and get back with the team, but they’re prepared for life without him.
The 25-year-old and former second-round pick in 2018 were officially absent from the team’s training camp, which started on Wednesday in Cincinnati. It was widely expected, as he and Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. are the only players yet to sign their respective one-year franchise tags. Bates was an important piece for the Bengals’ defense in the past few seasons and was especially good during their playoff run last winter. Had he fit the market as an unrestricted free agent, he would have been a highly coveted player.
The Bengals never seemed interested in extending him a long-term offer, and a one-year at a little less than $13 million was the ideal scenario for the franchise. That tag would make Bates only the 10th highest-paid safety in the NFL by annual average value, which considering his youth and past performance, is a bargain. The safety position, though, doesn’t have the same pedigree as a cornerback, pass rusher, or offensive tackle, and the amount of young starting-caliber players at the position who are allowed to become free agents is proof of this.
The Bengals figured they could get the same talent level at a way cheaper rate via the draft and selected Daxton Hill, out of Michigan, with their pick at the end of the first round.
Hill can play all over the secondary, and most pundits thought that he could even become the Bengals’ number 2 outside corner when he was drafted because of his athletic traits and coverage skills. However, with both Bates and Vonn Bell on basically one-year deals, it was obvious that Cincinnati’s Director of Player Personnel, Duke Tobin, was preparing for the future by adding Hill.
With Bates missing, Hill has received all the first-team reps as he did during the Organized Team Activities and has impressed the coaching staff so far. Getting a head start during the spring to familiarize with defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo‘s system has surely helped, and Hill’s speed and range make him the perfect partner for Bell.
The Bengals also added former Toledo Rockets safety Tycen Anderson in the draft’s fifth round, but the key piece if Bates isn’t with the team is veteran slot corner, Tre Flowers. The 27-year-old, 6’3″ Texas native joined the team on waivers from Seattle in mid-October of last season, and he went on to have a very important role in the second half of the campaign as the designated tight end stopper in big nickel packages. Suppose Hill, considered the first man off the bench when the Bengals went to those formations, is the starter. In that case, Flowers will be in line for an expanded role and more playing time. Considering how offenses have evolved, attacking the intermediate zones between the numbers, his performance could be key for Anarumo’s unit.
The depth behind those is a bit shaky, though, as Brandon Wilson, their returner and sometimes safety, suffered a torn ACL in Week 9 of last season and started camp on the active/PUP list. Veteran Michael Thomas is the other sure thing within the room, but he provides little upside and is more of a special teamer at this point of his career. The former Stanford Cardinal played eight games for the Bengals in 2021 after being picked up in the first week of October after spending the 2020 season with the Texans.
It is unlikely that Cincinnati will sign a veteran to contribute to this role regardless of Bates’ situation, especially if Hill is as game-ready as advertised and Flowers can step into the bigger role as he showed he can during the last season Winter.