The Cincinnati Bengals spent $117 million this offseason to fix their defense — $64 million coming in the secondary. The backline of the defense allowed an abysmal 244 yards per outing, plus 25 touchdowns in coverage. Someone will need to step up and become the unit’s leader before the season gets out of control. On seniority alone, Jessie Bates III should be the front-runner in 2020. 

Entering his third season, Bates has seen an influx of highlight moments and ill-advised plays. His coverage skills are top-notch in doses, but for every break up comes a touchdown. Consistency is a word thrown around often, and it’s the biggest struggle of Bates’s short yet promising career. 

Bates will have the chance to earn more respect this season, and with injuries on the outside, he may need to expand his role in coverage. With a reformed unit, perhaps 2020 is the year things are clicking for the rangy ball-hawking defender. 

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Will 2020 be the year Jessie Bates III breaks out?

Early success sparks optimism

The former Wake Forest star was highly praised for his ability to play in high coverage. During his time with the Deacons, Bates tallied six total interceptions and averaged 33.5 yards per return. That speed alone made him worthy of the 54th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. 

“Our first pick, Jessie Bates, gives us a safety we feel great about, regarding his range and size,” Former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said on draft night. “His size translates well when you watch his tape from Wake Forest with what we will ask him to do within the boundaries of the NFL. This will also fit well with what we ask our safeties to do in our defense.”

Lewis’ thoughts are close to complete two years in. Bates immediately became a factor as the deep man in 2018, finishing the year with over 100 tackles and three interceptions — one of which was returned for a touchdown. His stats remained similar last season, reaching 100 tackles and adding another three picks into his career highlights. 

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Numbers can lie though — a case Bates would learn in man coverage. And according to his 7.19 Relative Athletic Score, his pure strength might have been the downfall in one-on-one sets. 

Last season, he allowed 30 completions on 48 targets for a 62.5% completion percentage. He also allowed four touchdowns — three coming in man coverage. Ultimately, it was a problem that led to the secondary’s struggles on the team’s 11-game losing streak. 

“I think the first part of the season I didn’t play as well, but the second part of the season, after the bye week, I felt like all the coaches kind of challenged me to become the player they want me to become, and I think I had a lot of success,” Bates said earlier this month. 

“The main thing is to continue to tackle well. I’m always that last line of defense, so I feel like I turn the ball over pretty well, and now I just have to continue to work on my tackling.” 

Upgrades at safety optimize his fit

When Bates played out of his centerfield range, struggles emerged. Returning to a more coverage-first role, his production should improve while also perhaps growing. Thanks to one offseason signing in Vonn Bell, Bates might benefit the most on defense. 

During his time in New Orleans, Bell worked his way into a starting role, but originally was the team’s big nickel defender. Playing more in the box against tight ends and run-heavy plays, the former Ohio State defender was vital as a situational blitzer. More physical than agile, Bell’s $18 million contract will be put the test early in a division with quality tight ends and interesting running back tandems. 

Related: Bengals’ Markus Bailey a player to watch in the 2020 season

Add in the run-stopping potential of defensive back Mackensie Alexander, and Bates’ role will be suited for what he does best: playing the deep position. Five of his six career interceptions have come from zone coverage, plus his recovery speed will help cornerbacks who could fall short at the line of scrimmage in man-to-man options. 

New season, new story 

The Bengals secondary is still a mess entering Week 1. Trae Waynes will miss most, if not all, of the season with a shoulder injury. Alexander could be suspended following his arrest in a search for his missing father. Shawn Williams will miss time and could use a better year in coverage after seeing 78.4% of his targets become completions. 

Bates has the most to gain from the turmoil this season. Rangy safeties are valuable in schemes that love deep defenders. With Bell, Williams, and Alexander taking control of the middle ground, Bates should produce well and could add to his career interceptions. 

Viewed as a building block for the franchise, can Bates’ set the base for Cincinnati’s future? If all goes well, offensive coordinators will be circling No.30 on their whiteboards week by week come 2021.