The Cincinnati Bengals just enjoyed a 2021 season that found them playing in Super Bowl LVI and contending for a Lombardi Trophy. While Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase were some of the stars on the offensive side of the ball that got them to Los Angeles, Jessie Bates was among those on defense who has helped them turn into a true AFC contender. Now, Bates is slated to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, setting the safety up for a massive payday that quite possibly could put his future in Cincinnati in doubt.
One way that the Bengals could ensure that Bates is in the fold for the 2022 season is by placing the franchise tag on him. The window to place the tag on pending free agents opened up this week and will stay open until March 8 before free agency officially opens up on March 16. If the Bengals were to do that, Bates would look at a projected tag of $13.5 million, but he's looking to avoid that scenario altogether.
"That's a conversation I think that we'll have with my agency and my team," said Bates during an appearance on NFL Now on Wednesday, via NFL.com. "I put a lot of trust in them with this whole process. I'm just trying to stay focused, control what I can. We'll see. Hopefully, I'm not under a franchise tag. That's something that needs to be discussed as NFLPA a little bit. Some of the top guys got hurt under a franchise tag. It's tough; you only get one shot at this. You just got to play your cards right, I guess you could say."
Bates' apprehension of playing under the tag due to fear of injury is justified. This past season, Jets safety Marcus Maye (Achilles) and Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin (ACL) are two examples of players who suffered season-ending injuries during the year they played under the tag and now face an uncertain market. While the fully guaranteed money that comes with the tag is lucrative, the long-term security of a multi-year deal has proven to be a much more sought-after avenue for free agents of Bates' caliber.
The 24-year-old was a second-round pick by the Bengals in 2018 and is just finishing up his rookie contract. Now, Spotrac projects that Bates could see a contract that fetches him an average annual salary of $14.4 million, which would place him inside the top-five at his position.
"I'm not too worried about the ego part of being the highest-paid safety, but I do know value over cost," Bates said. "That is something that not just myself but my agency, my team, that we're going to continue to evaluate over the next couple weeks."
Bates also noted that he looks forward to being a Cincinnati Bengal, but also threw in the caveat that "we'll see what happens." The Bengals are currently projected to have the fourth-most cap space in the NFL this offseason at just under $49 million in available space. That should be enough to ink Bates to a long-term deal or at the very least makes the franchise tag a realistic option for the franchise.