Jessie Bates III and the Bengals have been a seamless match for the last four years, but now it's unclear when, or if, the two sides will team up again. Friday's deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign long-term contracts came and went without a new deal for the veteran safety. Now, with Bates in 2022, it's fair to wonder: is it simply a matter of time until he suits up elsewhere?
Both Bates and the Bengals have publicly expressed their desire to stick together, but money talks -- or, in this case, doesn't talk -- and the reality is that the All-Pro defensive back now has three options before him: 1.) sign and play under the tag; 2.) sit out into the season; or 3.) request a trade.
The first option is the simplest, allowing Bates to re-test free agency in 2023, but involves injury risk without any long-term security. A prolonged holdout would allow Bates to avoid in-game injury but likely just delay an inevitable split from the franchise, and he'd also be required to return for at least six games to avoid losing an accrued season toward 2023 free agency. A trade, meanwhile, would surely bring the most resistance from the Bengals, who could technically keep Bates until 2024 with two consecutive tags, but would allow both sides to "gain" from their failure to reach a long-term pact
If Bates is, in fact, resolute about sitting out rather than playing under the tag, and the Bengals entertain interest in the star safety, here are eight teams that could be suitors:
They're clearly invested in upgrading Robert Saleh's lineup, specifically on defense. And pairing Bates with new starter Jordan Whitehead would give them a dynamic duo on the back end. Lamarcus Joyner, now 31 and coming off a serious injury, is better served coming off the bench. But is general manager Joe Douglas really going to break the bank for Bates when he wouldn't do it for Jamal Adams or Marcus Maye, and after already giving Whitehead decent money (up to $14.5 million)?
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It's as simple as this: Ron Rivera is a defensive guy, and the weakest link on his otherwise feisty defense is the secondary, specifically safety. Washington has financial flexibility going into 2022, and depending on Carson Wentz's performance at quarterback, they could save tens of millions by resetting that spot in 2023. Bates would represent a monumental upgrade over current starters Bobby McCain and Kamren Curl, giving Rivera a true centerfielder.
Jimmie Ward has quietly but steadily risen to be one of San Francisco's top players on the back end of a stingy "D," but Jaquiski Tartt and linebacker hybrid Marcell Harris, who combined to start 21 games in 2021, are both gone. Their successor, Talanoa Hufanga, a 2021 fifth-rounder, saw limited action as a rookie. The 49ers figure to rely even more on their defense to make another title push now that Trey Lance is taking over at QB, but they also already spent big at corner for Charvarius Ward.
Even though they traded for Matt Ryan, it's pretty clear the Colts are built to win with their defense in 2022. And the one position that doesn't have a bona fide stud is safety, after the D-line (DeForest Buckner), linebackers (Darius Leonard) and corners (Stephon Gilmore or Kenny Moore). Rodney McLeod is solid, if better suited as the No. 3, and he's a rental anyway. Justin Blackmon, meanwhile, is promising but coming off a torn Achilles. As a bonus, Bates was born and raised in Indiana.
When can Bill Belichick ever be counted out when it comes to a big name on the block? Both Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger have done good things at the position for their solid defense, but mainstay Devin McCourty will be 35 this year, and top play-maker J.C. Jackson is gone after bolting for the Chargers in free agency. Bates would help offset the loss of a difference-maker and could conceivably play multiple roles for Belichick, who's still riding an old-school defensive approach.
New GM Dave Ziegler has already proven he's willing to go big or go home, so why not keep going? His safety room isn't barren, with 2021 second-rounder Trevon Moehrig starting all 17 games as a rookie, but the hard-hitting Johnathan Abram may or may not be in their long-term plans after he had his fifth-year option declined. In the high-flying AFC West, proven secondary pieces are invaluable, and they have plenty of cash ($21.6M in remaining 2022 cap space) to pay Bates up front.
Dallas already has two of the NFL's top defensive play-makers in Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs. Imagine if they use some of the $22.5M in remaining 2022 cap space to make Bates part of the equation. Jayron Kearse was a force in his 2021 breakout, but he's logged just one full season as a starter in the NFL. Malik Hooker is just fine, too, but he's yet to play a full season and isn't breaking the bank after re-signing. Jerry Jones loves a good splash, and this one would help reinforce their defense's title aspirations both in the short and long term.
If there's one team that's made a big move at pretty much every position of need this offseason, it's the Eagles, who addressed holes at receiver (A.J. Brown), defensive tackle (Jordan Davis), pass rusher (Haason Reddick), linebacker (Kyzir White) and cornerback (James Bradberry). The last one left is safety, where Jaquiski Tartt has come aboard as camp competition but Anthony Harris and Marcus Epps are serving as placeholder starters. Trade-happy GM Howie Roseman has admittedly struggled to identify long-term answers at safety via the draft, and he practices and preaches the importance of patient roster-building. So Bates, who played on a Bengals team that employed current Eagles assistant head coach Jemal Singleton, represents the ideal solution for a quiet NFC East contender.