Moving on from Jessie Bates III is a massive mistake, but the Bengals are mitigating the damage

The Cincinnati Bengals don't look interested in re-signing All-Pro safety Jessie Bates III. The question is, how big of a mistake is that?

Unless something crazy happens in the contract discussions between Jessie Bates III and the Cincinnati Bengals, Bates will hit the open market in the offseason. Details emerged after the franchise tag window that the Bengals only offered him just $4 million more in guaranteed money over the life of a five-year deal than he’d receive by signing the tag.

Even by low-ball “we don’t really want to extend you, but we have to at least offer something” standards, that’s incredibly low. For a player of Bates’ caliber, it’s downright disrespectful. However, we shouldn’t be so surprised by this outcome. The legend of tightness regarding Paul Brown’s purse strings has spread over the course of his ownership.

Safety play can feel mundane to the untrained eye. And at times, even for the trained eye, it can cause drowsiness. The value in a safety like Bates isn’t the mundane play-to-play consistency. His value is in his ability to create on the back end. He will be great in that role somewhere else, too. And the Bengals will hope to get Daxton Hill up to speed in time for 2023.

Jessie Bates III deserves better and will be compensated appropriately in free agency

An excellent way to think about Bates is the way we think about pass rushers like Robert Quinn, Brian Burns, and Haason Reddick. We’ll use this analogy because the pass rush is more obvious to understand than the complexity of back-end play.

Those three are pass-rushing specialists. They major in getting to the quarterback and creating splash plays. While the very tip top of the positional hierarchy boasts all-around freaks of nature, Quinn, Burns, and Reddick all have weaknesses. Bates is not dissimilar.

The problem is Bates’ flaws don’t matter the same way at his position.

He’s not the most physically imposing defender. He’ll come up and smack an unknowing receiver or put his shoulder down on a back trying to make a cut, but Bates isn’t physical enough to consistently play around the box, even though he is sometimes asked to for Cincinnati. As Wyatt Teller showed, he can’t hold up in a run lane against a 320-pounder.

But to reiterate, that is not why an organization pays a player like Bates.

There are other minor gripes with Bates’ game. While he’s surprisingly good against even the elite tight ends like Darren Waller and Travis Kelce (see both playoff games), his ability to play with his back to the ball is average. While Bates possesses the foot quickness and burst to recover, he lacks the patience and technique of a true cornerback.

But again, that is not why an organization pays a player like Bates.

Nobody free safety’s like Bates

Dating back to his time at Wake Forest, Bates had that innate playmaking ability that only comes occasionally in a free safety. He possesses that mental trigger and arrogance in his decision-making that allows him to consistently make plays that nobody else in the league today can produce.

He’s the best at playing with his eyes to the line of scrimmage. And his big plays seem to come at monumental moments.

The score in the above video is 26-19 Bengals with about 30 seconds left in regulation. Cincinnati had run a lot of single-high coverages throughout the game, with the cornerbacks aligned with outside leverage. Zay Jones scored a touchdown earlier in the game on a similar concept, except the No. 2 receiver crossed Bates’ face on the TD instead of sitting outside to influence the linebacker on the above play.

Derek Carr initially tries to look off Bates to the left, but the safety sits on the hash. As Carr hits the apex of his drops and begins his sequencing, Bates is already full speed gunning toward Jones, who was being blanketed but was boxing out his defender.

Now Bates is still a defensive back, so he didn’t complete the catch. But this was an example of the intelligence and instinct he brings to the position.

This is another example of an elite coverage player making a play in a crucial moment. It’s 3rd-and-10 on the first overtime drive for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Kansas City is in a 4×1 formation to beat the shifted coverage to the weak side with Kelce and Tyreek Hill on multi-level crossers.

The armchair QB is probably screaming to throw it to Kelce on a frozen rope for the first down. Still, the look he gets in the secondary made Hill, who is most likely his primary read in this top-down, pseudo-levels concept, appear open.

He was. He was at full speed two yards from Vonn Bell, who was still spinning his wheels trying to turn and chase the cheetah.

If Bates hesitates at all, he never makes it to the catch point. And as Mahomes’ decision to make the throw suggests, very few defenders have the range to delete that space Hill had. Bates took a proper angle over the top and then flattened out and contest at the top, which gifted Bell with an interception that eventually led to the game-winning field goal.

To be a playmaker in the secondary, you need to be a little arrogant. We saw that with Trevon Diggs in his 11-interception season. There’s a risk-reward factor one must always deal with. But the above INT is what happens when arrogance in one’s preparation meets opportunity and athleticism.

If A.J. Brown drives to the post, everyone is talking about how Bates “busted” on his coverage responsibilities. But this is a concept the Bengals must have seen often in their preparation for Tennessee.

The play-action fake to Derrick Henry brings everyone and their mothers to the line of scrimmage, leaving a potential throwing window the size of the Indian Ocean for Ryan Tannehill and Brown to work with. The only problem is that Bates knew that the No. 2 receiver running the wheel was meant to influence both Bell and Chidobe Awuzie and that Brown wasn’t also going vertical.

As Tannehill begins his throwing sequence, Bates is already at full chap, ready to jump the route.

Those are the plays that’ll make Bates over $16 million per season on the open market. Any team willing and able to keep him on the back end for most of his snaps will benefit greatly from his presence.

And the Bengals will be worse off without him…Or will they?

Can Daxton Hill replace Bates?

If we want to base our opinion of the topic on betting on athletic hopes and dreams, the answer is a resounding “YES!” Daxton Hill is a more explosive athlete than Bates could ever dream of being.

Take the above play, for instance. If everything else is equal, the reaction time, angle, and traction, Hill might still be running in the opposite direction with the ball in his hands. Hill ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash and his three-cone time was 6.57, ranking in the 99th percentile for free safeties. And he may have even better game speed.

Seriously, on his college tape at Michigan, Hill teleports to places. Additionally, while it will undoubtedly take time, he provides more versatility overall than Bates. At Michigan, Hill spent most of his time in the slot, where his calling card from draftniks everywhere became his downhill physicality instead of his freakish athletic traits.

He’s so versatile, many had Hill graded as a cornerback because of his abilities in man coverage and the lack of traditional deep snaps.

But like Miami Dolphins’ safety Jevon Holland, usage in college is only part of the story. He could enter the NFL as one of the best free safeties in the game. In the two years of studying Hill, it was evident that he could hang there on the back end. But he wasn’t Bates-level good, or anywhere close to it.

Having an Intel Core i5-12400 with an NVIDIA 2080 will get a safety somewhere quicker than having a Ryzen 5 3600 paired with an NVIDIA 3090. For all the non-computer nerds out there, that means having an instantaneous processor with decent athleticism will give you more range than having a mid-tier mind with the best athleticism in the game, at least at safety.

Hill has the potential to be a special player, but it’s unlikely he ever becomes what Bates is as a proper free safety. Bates has had that trigger since his college days. It’s natural. And while it’s unfortunate that Cincinnati isn’t interested in his long-term return at his worth, at least they are trying to mitigate a potential disaster by swinging for not just the fences but a shot to land outside the stadium.

So, are the Bengals making the right decision?

With cheap elite labor at quarterback and their top two receivers with plenty of time before their cap hit would affect the team, it makes not paying Bates an iffy decision at best and a cowardly decision at worst.

It’s fascinating to see the juxtaposition between the Bengals organization and the Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers slammed the accelerator through perfectly unrusted floorboards to try and maximize their potential before paying Justin Herbert an eventual king’s ransom. There’s no guarantee it will work, but that is what going all out on a quarterback’s rookie deal looks like.

And it’s not as if Cincinnati hasn’t made improvements to their lineup, even after surprisingly reaching the Super Bowl last season. But when defending the pass is so crucial for a defense, and your team was 10th-best in dropback EPA per play with Awuzie and Eli Apple at cornerback, maybe you should value the unseen contribution your elite free safety made to that success.

Even as a massive believer in Hill, actively moving on from Bates is a ridiculous mistake for a team with the money and currently in a Super Bowl window.

Dalton Miller is the Lead NFL Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can read more of his work here and follow him @daltonbmiller on Twitter and Twitch.

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