The Cincinnati Bengals and star safety Jessie Bates III are at an impasse. Four months after placing the franchise tag on the playoff hero, the Bengals have yet to get a signature on the contract. As training camp approaches, Bates, 25, isn’t expected to arrive anytime soon, and he can sit out without punishment until the season begins. Even then, he can take his time to make a point, while losing value from the tag.
And therein lies the problem for Bates and the Bengals. While the franchise holds most of the cards right now, Bates is likely trying to force their hand into a trade. Cincinnati, who has a long history of proving their point by not flinching in these types of situations, could eventually relent and try to trade Bates. But a deal of that magnitude could prove to be difficult to pull off.
Kaye’s Take: Why a Jessie Bates III trade is harder to pull off than it seems
This week, the franchise-tag contract extension deadline passed, meaning that Bates can only play on a one-year deal this season. While the Bengals or a team acquiring him can rework his franchise tag — worth $12.9 million — into a different one-year deal, he can’t receive a multi-year contract until the conclusion of the 2022 season.
The mechanism of the contract extension deadline is used to force a long-term deal or resolution of the situation ahead of training camp. Well, Bates hasn’t signed, so there’s no resolution as of now. And Bates’ value is in an awkward spot on the trade market as a result.
Bates is a top-tier safety and is worth top-tier compensation. But, with a one-year deal stuck in stone, his trade outlook isn’t really easy to figure out.
Typically, teams want to sign a player to an extension when they trade a premium asset for them. Due to the passed deadline, that function isn’t attainable with Bates. So, a team is essentially trading an asset for a player who could be one and done. Sure, the acquiring team could use the franchise tag as protection next year, but that’s not an ideal situation — from a cap or relationship perspective.
How does Bates’ situation compare to Jadeveon Clowney’s in 2019?
Bates is coming off an impressive playoff run with the Bengals, as he was arguably a top-three player for Cincinnati during their run to the Super Bowl. He has also been a stellar performer in the regular season, posting 10 career interceptions and 35 pass breakups over four seasons. So, the Bengals shouldn’t take just anything for Bates in a trade.
Bates’ situation is comparable to Jadeveon Clowney’s deal in 2019. The Houston Texans placed the tag on Clowney in March, and he held out until late August — right before the start of the season. Clowney was then traded to the Seattle Seahawks for two players and a third-round pick.
Since the contract extension deadline passed, Clowney had to play on a one-year deal. As part of the trade, the Seahawks agreed not to franchise tag him the following offseason. That decision proved to be unfortunate for the Seahawks, who were left in the lurch by Clowney. He signed with the Tennessee Titans in September 2020, which actually prevented Seattle from receiving a compensatory pick for his departure.
Clowney was considered a top-tier pass rusher, which is a position that — for the most part — has more value in league circles than safety. Clowney only fetched a third-round pick and a pair of defensive role players, so it’s not like the Bengals can expect heavy compensation for Bates. For a franchise that is known for standing firm, does it really make sense to just give into Bates’ “holdout” from the tag for minimal gains?
From the opposite side, the acquiring team also needs to be aware that trading a notable asset for Bates, and then potentially placing the tag on him next year, will give the safety immense leverage.
Teams don’t give up premium assets for one-year rentals, especially when the player is ascending in his mid-20s. Bates and his agent know that. If Bates wanted a market-setting deal this offseason, he’s likely to only increase his demands next year, because a general manager acquiring him would look pretty foolish if he let this situation play out the same way under his watch.
Bates would hold more leverage on a new team
Bates doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage in Cincinnati. He can sign the tag, or he can keep his pen capped. Those are really his only two options. He can hope the Bengals say “enough” and trade him, but that’s out of his control, as is the Bengals’ desire to rework a one-year deal to his liking.
If the Bengals were to trade Bates, he’d get a lot of leverage back, not for this year but the next. He could also force the acquiring team to rework his one-year deal, potentially avoiding the tag altogether in future years.
Whether the one-year deal gets reworked or not, an acquiring team would probably prefer to offer a conditional package to the Bengals based on Bates’ future endeavors. A common suggestion is to have a conditional pick be linked to Bates’ future contract. For instance, trading a conditional third-round pick that could become a second-rounder if Bates signs a contract extension by April.
The issue with that sort of deal is that the Bengals could watch Bates hit the free agent market if he doesn’t like his next team’s offers. He could also get tagged and hold out on signing a new deal through the summer, essentially preventing the Bengals from the better compensation. Why would the Bengals agree to such a deal?
Cincinnati likely only willing to trade Bates for heavy return
In theory, the conditional pick could be earmarked for 2024 to avoid such time-related pitfalls. But why would Cincinnati wait that long for a return on a top-tier talent that they already have control over? A more appealing option would be to rework Bates’ one-year deal, let him hit free agency in 2023, and then receive a comp pick in 2024, even if it’s a little less valuable.
So, an acquiring team needs to find a way — through player or draft compensation — to appease the Bengals, without setting the squad up to have egg on its face next year. That sort of negotiation could be mind-numbingly unfruitful. Sure, Bates is a top-tier talent, but he plays a position that is lower on the value scale than EDGE or cornerback. He’s also locked into a short-term contract that could eventually spurn whoever is acquiring him.
A trade for Bates isn’t impossible, but the historically stubborn Bengals aren’t likely to relent for anything less than a strong return for him. And based on Bates’ contract situation, that package might be harder to come by than most project.