Photo Credit: AlexanderJonesi (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jessie_Bates.jpg)
First it was Mike Hilton. Then Logan Wilson joined in. These two were saying what the entire Bengals’ fan base was thinking: bring back Jessie Bates III.
The Bengals drafted Bates back in 2018 in the second round of the NFL Draft. Bates quickly solidified himself as one of the better players on the Bengals’ defense and one of the better safeties in all the NFL, culminating in being named Second Team All-Pro in 2020. Some even argued that second team was too low for Bates. Pro Football Focus (PFF), the Cincinnati-based, sports-analytics company, named Jessie Bates their highest-graded safety of the entire 2020 season.
Now, Bates is a free agent and will be looking for a contract that goes well beyond his $1.2 million salary for 2021. Admittedly, he didn’t have the best 2021 season. In fact, according to the aforementioned PFF, this was actually Bates’ worst season - even worse than his rookie year. With all that being said, Bates isn’t a player the Bengals can afford to lose.
Bates has been the Bengals’ life-support system on defense. From Bates’ rookie season to 2020, the Bengals never ranked above #22 in the NFL in points allowed and never more than #26 in yards allowed. If the Bengals defense was a trapeze artist, we would be scraping them off the pavement were it not for Bates’ safety net.
In 2021, supposedly Bates’ worst professional season, the Bengals defense managed to rank #17 in points allowed and #18 in yards allowed. Now, I’m not suggesting that Bates doesn’t have room to improve, and Bates himself has even admitted that he wasn’t playing his best earlier in the year. But Bates is the glue that allows the rest of the defense to play with aggression and confidence. Linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt have the freedom to attack ball carriers. Corners Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple can take chances in coverage, all while knowing Bates is around to clean up any mistakes.
Bates is a crucial element of Bengals’ culture, which played a huge role in helping the team get to Super Bowl LVI. In a press conference, head coach Zac Taylor spoke about what made Bates such an important part of the team, “Jessie's approach has been tremendous all year. Really been proud of him. He's a big part of what we do. We're really proud of how he's led this team and how he played for us, really, over the last four years.”
So, would the Bengals be crazy enough to let a 24-year old, former All-Pro, home-grown safety who has been a fixture in the locker room to walk out the door for nothing? Probably not. Hopefully not. Maybe not? No, definitely probably not.
It seems unlikely that the Bengals don’t bring back Bates in some capacity for 2022. They still have the Franchise Tag in their back pocket if they need it. That won’t make Bates happy, though. No player ever wants to be franchise tagged because it limits their ability to maximize their potential value on the open market. While it's not a particularly good idea to upset one of your best young players, the Bengals might not have a choice.
Right now, Bates is looking to become one of, if not the highest, paid safeties in the NFL. Unfortunately there’s a big problem. The highest paid safety in the NFL right now is Jamal Adams of the Seattle Seahawks. Now, Adams is a nice player, but he plays strong safety, the safety position that typically plays closer to the line of scrimmage and is more involved in run support. In the modern NFL, with passing becoming more and more the foundation of everything these teams do, strong safety has become less valued.
That didn’t stop the Seahawks from breaking the bank in 2021 and resetting the safety market for Adams. Even worse, since signing his huge contract, Adams has been a bit of a disappointment, with Seattle finishing among the worst defenses in football in 2021. NFL teams might not be interested in making a gigantic investment in a safety after seeing how the last huge investment went.
At the same time, Bates plays free safety, not strong safety, meaning his responsibilities are more focused on the passing game, a far more valuable skill set today. With over $48 million in cap space in 2022, the Bengals have plenty of room to sign Bates to a market-setting deal. They will likely be parting ways with cornerback Trae Waynes as well, giving themselves even more financial flexibility to get Bates’ deal done.
Still, the Franchise Tag might be the best option for both parties. The tag would allow the Bengals to have another year to evaluate Bates and make sure he’s a long-term asset. Bates would get a significant raise from his 2021 salary (the tag for safeties is projected to be about $12.9 million) and would give him the opportunity to reassert his status as one of the premier safeties in the NFL.
If the Bengals opt not to retain Bates, there are some players who could make a big impact for the Bengals in 2022 and beyond. Tyrann Mathieu is a nine-year NFL vet who most recently played for the Kansas City Chiefs. Mathieu is a three-time All-Pro with a knack for making big plays. He could be an upgrade over Bates, but he comes with some previous injury concerns and turns 30 in May. Bates is the younger, safer option.
Also in free agency are Marcus Williams of the New Orleans Saints and Marcus Maye of the New York Jets. Both players were franchise tagged the previous offseason, so if their teams are unable to come to long-term agreements, both might be hitting the open market. Williams has been a solid player for the Saints during his tenure, but because he has already played under the tag, might be even more expensive than Bates. Spotrac projects Williams’ market value to be around $15 million per year, an even higher average annual salary than Bates. And Bates is the better player!
Maye also played under the tag in 2021 but he comes with a different set of baggage. In February of 2021, Maye was arrested on suspicion of DUI and leaving the scene of an accident. Earlier that year, Maye’s agent Erik Burkhardt criticized the Jets’ front office openly, claiming the team was refusing to, “take care of their best player.” Maye might be talented, but the Bengals have come a long way since the mid-2000s. There’s just no need to bring in a player who might be a distraction when a player like Bates is already in the building.
Even though the Franchise Tag might not be ideal, it could make the most sense for both Bates and the Bengals. But whether or not Bates comes back under the tag or on a long-term deal isn’t important. He just needs to be back. The Bengals don’t make the Super Bowl without his contributions after all. It was Bates who intercepted Ryan Tannehill’s first pass of the day in the Divisional Round versus the Titans. It was Bates who redirected Patrick Mahomes’ pass to Tyreek Hill towards Von Bell in overtime of the AFC Championship Game. And it was Bates who intercepted Matthew Stafford in the Super Bowl and helped hold a potent Rams’ offense to just 23 points on the day.
“I think everyone knows we want Jessie to be a part of this,” said Zac Taylor when speaking to the media about bringing Bates back. The Bengals know how valuable Bates is. Mike Hilton knows. Logan Wilson knows. The entire city of Cincinnati knows for crying-out-loud! Bring Bates Back: it’s that simple.