The Cincinnati Bengals might be on the verge of making a costly mistake. Or they could be on the verge of making the right decision.
Ambiguous, I know. But that’s how roster decisions go in the NFL — there’s usually a gamble involved. For the last year, it’s been very apparent that safety Jessie Bates won’t be returning to the Bengals in 2023.
Cincinnati tried to work out a longterm deal with Bates last year, but they were never able to come to an agreement. Bates played on the franchise tag last season and was a key part of the Bengals’ defensive success. The feeling is that Cincy can’t afford to keep Bates longterm because of looming extensions for quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
Bengals general manager Duke Tobin also suggested this week that the team would like to keep wide receiver Tee Higgins longterm.
Cincinnati seemingly drafted Bates’ replacement last spring when they selected Michigan safety Dax Hill in the first round.
No one from the Bengals has said this publicly, but it essentially feels like the franchise is picking Higgins over Bates. And I’m not sure that’s the right decision. If keeping Higgins longterm is a realistic scenario, then keeping Bates (instead of Higgins) is also realistic.
While it might be easier to find a safety than a wide receiver (though that’s debatable), it won’t be easy to find an elite defensive leader like Bates.
His popularity in the locker room is something that can’t be replaced. The former Wake Forest standout is also a pretty good safety.
Bates is the definition of a pro. Even though he hated playing on the franchise tag in 2022, he still did it. And he was one of Cincy’s main leaders throughout the season. Comments from Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo this week showed exactly how important Bates is to Cincinnati’s defense.
Anarumo praised Bates (along with safety Vonn Bell) for the way he organizes meetings on his own. He then said it would be a “dark day” if/when Bates leaves the organization.
The Bengals’ offense receives all the headlines, but the defense is what really makes Cincinnati special. They’re not the ’85 Bears out there, but it’s a solid unit that plays smart, sound football.
Anarumo’s creativity puts Bengals defenders in the best position to succeed. Bates’ presence is a big reason why it all works.
The question boils down to who is more important to Cincy’s success — Higgins or Bates?
That’s obviously a tough question to answer. Maybe it is Higgins and Cincinnati is making the right decision. It just feels like they’re not even considering that they might need to keep Bates over Higgins.
Thanks to Chase, Higgins is a bit of a luxury. He’s a great player, but he’s not irreplaceable.
2023 is Super Bowl or bust for the Bengals
I just don’t see any way that Cincinnati is a better team without Bates on the roster. Hill is a good player, but he doesn’t bring the same intangibles that Bates brings on a weekly basis. Going from Bates to Hill would weaken the roster a bit.
And with the 2023 season shaping up to be a “Super Bowl or bust” year for the Bengals, wouldn’t it be smart to put the best roster possible on the field?
Cincinnati can keep its core together for another season. The Bengals could extend Bates this offseason and let Higgins play out his contract before tagging him next offseason (and then likely trading him).
They could even trade Bates next offseason after signing him to an extension this offseason (they might not get much in return if he gets a big extension, but even a late-round pick would be better than just letting him walk in free agency). Cincy could also choose to place the franchise tag on Bates again (he wouldn’t like it, but he’s a pro’s pro so he’d show up and play) while letting Higgins play out his contract. They could then figure this all out next offseason.
It feels like the Bengals have tunnel vision on Higgins right now. And again, maybe keeping him is the right move. But not even considering keeping Bates could prove to be a big mistake. Cincy needs to consider all options this offseason before letting Bates walk.