Jessie Bates was outstanding in relative anonymity for the first three years of his NFL career, during which the Bengals went a combined 12-35. But in 2021, with Cincinnati heading into the playoffs as AFC North champions, Bates put up the worst season of his pro tenure. How will this year’s performance affect Bates’ stock when free agency opens in March, and where are his landing spots if he doesn’t re-sign with the Bengals?
Jessie Bates’ free agent profile
Unfortunately, Bates is posting the worst season of his career just as he approaches free agency. After solidifying Cincinnati’s defensive backfield for three years, the former second-round pick isn’t playing up to his standards in 2021. Bates allowed 6.9 yards per target and a 70.7 passer rating last season and earned a second-team All-Pro nod. This year, he’s giving up 12 yards per target and a 122.0 passer rating, while he’s struggled against the run, as well.
As of the start of the regular season, Bates hadn’t made any significant progress on a Bengals extension. In November, Bates admitted to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com that the lack of a new contract may have affected his play:
“[I got] so caught on to proving the wrong people right and the main thing I should be focusing on is proving the right people right as far as my coaches, my teammates, my family and not worry about all of the other stuff. I know that’s going to work out, I know what type of player I am, that stuff’s going to work out regardless.”
The Bengals could use the franchise tag (roughly $13.5 million) or the transition tag ($11.3 million) on Bates this offseason. With more than $55 million in projected cap space, they have the financial wherewithal to absorb either of those tenders.
Bates has been a stalwart in Cincinnati and was at times the only reliable player on the defensive side of the ball in the Queen City. While he hasn’t played well this season, his previous track record proves he’s one of the better safeties in the NFL. It would be a surprise if Bates isn’t back with the Bengals in 2022 — either via an extension or the franchise/transition tag.
Bates’ landing spots
If the Bengals fail to retain Bates, where might he go? Here are several potential destinations.
Could Bates become a leader for the Detroit Lions during their rebuild?
Despite having $33 million in projected cap space, the Lions probably aren’t going to go out and add a bunch of free-agent talent. For one, they’d likely have trouble getting veterans to come to Detroit, given the current state of their franchise. Plus, it doesn’t make sense to bring in expensive players when they probably won’t seriously compete for at least a few more seasons. But Bates is not your typical free agent.
Among the hundreds of NFL players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency, Bates (who won’t turn 25 years old until the end of February) is the 10th-youngest. Of those 10, only three — Bears G James Daniels, Steelers S Terrell Edmunds, and Steelers OT Chukwuma Okorafor — had a higher 2021 snap rate than Bates’ 85%. He was selected in the same draft class as Lions safety Tracy Walker, but he’s two years younger than Detroit’s pending free agent.
Bates still has youth on his side, and he’s taken an active leadership role with the Bengals this season. That sounds like the type of player that Dan Campbell and Co. should feel comfortable targeting in free agency.
The Baltimore Ravens’ pass defense cratered in 2021
Baltimore’s secondary couldn’t have played much worse this season. They allowed the most passing yards and the third-most most passing touchdowns in the NFL. Only the New York Jets lost more expected points in the passing game. Sure, a lot of the Ravens’ struggles can be chalked up to injury issues, but the club could use reinforcements on the back end.
The Ravens have spent big on a safety in the recent past. In 2018, they signed Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million deal with the hope that he’d play center field. Thomas didn’t even make it to Year 2 thanks to off-field/personality issues, but Baltimore has shown a willingness to invest in the position. Bates’ presence would allow incumbent Chuck Clark to stay closer to the action, and together, they’d form one of the better safety tandems in the league.
The Indianapolis Colts have money to spend
Historically, the Colts have been averse to entering the free-agent market with any sort of authority. A mega-extension for DeForest Buckner after sacrificing a first-round pick to acquire him? Sure. One-year deals for veterans like Philip Rivers, Eric Fisher, and Xavier Rhodes? Why not? But a serious expenditure on a free agent in his prime? Not so much.
But general manager Chris Ballard could take a different approach this offseason. While he and head coach Frank Reich have posted two playoff appearances together in Indianapolis, they’ve never actually won the AFC South. And their playoff-eliminating loss to the Jaguars in Week 18 was the type of defeat that — in some NFL cities — can make your seat hot very quickly.
Ballard and Reich have done a wonderful job in Indianapolis, especially considering what they’ve dealt with at quarterback. I don’t think their seats are hot or even lukewarm. But given that the Colts are once again in the top 10 of projected cap space ($42 million), it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they went out and spent some money this offseason.
Andrew Sendejo and George Odum will be free agents in March. Julian Blackmon will be back next year after missing most of 2021 with a torn Achilles. But it’s unclear how healthy he’ll be at the start of next season, and coverage is not his strength. Bates would provide a stable presence in Indy’s secondary for years to come.
The New England Patriots may have a vacancy at safety
While the Colts may not dip their toe in the free-agent waters very often, you can’t say the same for the Patriots. Even before their 2021 spending spree, New England was known for targeted signings, especially in the secondary. Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore were two of their most notable additions in recent years, but the Patriots could be staring at an opening at safety this offseason.
Devin McCourty is scheduled to hit the open market in March. While it seems incredibly unlikely that he’ll sign with another team, there is a real chance that he’ll retire. McCourty has flirted with hanging up his cleats in each of the last three offseasons. At 34 years old and on an expiring contract, could he call it quits?
McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, and Jalen Mills (who also plays CB) have each played at least two-thirds of New England’s defensive snaps this year. For a team that loves to deploy multiple-safety looks, the loss of McCourty and his 95% snap share would sting. Bates would lock down the back end for the Patriots and allow Phillips and Dugger to work in the box.