For years Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates was the litmus test for football nerdom. He was the most common answer to “who is the most underrated player in the NFL” — a sign you were paying attention close enough to both safety play and the Bengals.

Bates, though, deserved that type of praise. As the Bengals preparing to play in the Super Bowl, Bates has been a star on a defense made up of otherwise average to pretty good defenders. Before this season, he was the bright star on a defense that didn’t have much talent around him. Regardless of the surroundings in Cincinnati, Bates has been a constant. 2021 was the first season in which he did not play 99% of the team’s defensive snaps — he only got up to 95%.

With the biggest showcase upcoming and following Bates’s impressive playoff run, it’s going to be hard for the safety to be underrated much longer.

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In a modern NFL that has swung to a two-high world on defense, the Bengals have remained at their best with single-high coverages and Bates is a huge reason for that. Along with Von Bell, the Bengals still disguise their pre-snap looks, showing a two-high shell on 47% of their snaps (19th) and single-high on 45% (14th), per Sports Info Solutions.

After the snap, Cincinnati has played in single-high coverage 49% of the time, which ranks 11th — as does their success rate allowed with one deep safety (45%).

In the playoffs, the Bengals have leaned more into the single-high look. They’ve lined up in a single-high shell on 52% of their defensive snaps and stayed around the same for single-high coverage (48%). Compare that to the Rams, who have shown a two-high shell 70% of the time in the playoffs.

When in single-high coverages during the playoffs, the Bengals have yet to allow a touchdown and have four interceptions. Bates has the range to make those single-high coverages work on the back end. Take what he was able to do on the overtime interception of Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game.

The Bengals presented a two-high pre-snap look with Bates as the deep safety over the trips side of a 3×1 set. At the snap, Bell rotated down and Bates remained the deep safety as he stayed on the hash to his side. Tyreek Hill was the No. 2 receiver on the trips side and he ran a deep cross on the play. Cincinnati’s zone coverage forced the slot corner to pass Hill to the safeties. The transition was so smooth as Bates came in over the top, caught up with Hill, and deflected the ball into Bell’s hands for the interception.

 

 

It’s not just the sideline-to-sideline range that has made Bates so good in coverage. He’s excelled at reading the quarterback and through the playoffs, he’s been more aggressive at trusting those instincts to break on the ball.

The Tennessee Titans have a passing offense that is heavily reliant on hitting in-breaking routes off play-action. On the first play of Cincinnati’s Divisional Round game against Tennessee, Bates was the single-high safety. At the snap, he read the play-action, watched the eyes of Ryan Tannehill, and broke in front of A.J. Brown for an interception.

 

 

For most of the season, Bates has stayed as the deep safety while the pre-snap alignment and any coverage tipoff was based on wherever Von Bell lined up and shifted post-snap. Late in the season and into the playoffs, the Bengals started throwing a changeup a little more often by dropping Bates down at the snap and having him play the Robber in Cover 1 for high-impact plays. 

Against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 14, Cincinnati came out in a three-safety look. Bell stuck with George Kittle through pre-snap motion in the box, while Ricardo Allen started in the box and backpedaled to a deep alignment before the snap, and Bates was set up deep. At the snap, Allen continued back and Bates ran up into the box. That allowed Bates to read Jimmy Garoppolo and come across the field to jump in front of a pass intended for Brandon Aiyuk. Bates couldn’t hold on to the would-be interception, but it highlighted his awareness and agility in the middle of the field.

 

In the Wild Card game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Bates had three passes defensed, including one in the end zone of a second down on the Raiders’ final drive of the game. The other two came with Bates coming down in the box — one coming down then trailing Hunter Renfrow to knock the ball out from behind and the other driving and undercutting a crosser against Fabian Moreau.

Bates now has more passes defensed in the playoffs (five) than he did in the regular season (four). That highlights how well he’s risen to the occasion in the postseason but also reflects on a slow start to the season. Making plays on the ball is not much of a long-term concern for Bates, who had 15 passes defensed during the 2020 season. Part of that lack of production, to Bates’s own admission, came from pressing hard early in the 2021 season due to a lack of contract extension.

That adds another layer to the value of Bates’s performance. Not only is he getting a spotlight on a big stage, he’s about to get paid. As a second-round pick from 2018, Bates is on the final year of his rookie contract, counting for just $2.8 million on the cap in 2021. 32 safeties had a higher cap hit than Bates this season.

The Bengals could use the franchise tag on their 25-year-old homegrown star, which should cost somewhere in the range of $15.6 million. Cincinnati hasn’t been shy to use the tag before — they put it on A.J. Green for the 2020 season — but did not use it last offseason when Carl Lawson and William Jackson were free agents. The Bengals instead went a different, and slightly less expensive route, to replace those two defenders. It would be difficult to find a replacement for Bates without spending at or near the top of the market at the position.

This also comes as the safety position might be at its most valuable. There were offseasons fairly recently when the safety market was largely ignored, but the positional value has started to swing the other way — at least for the best players at the position.

Within the past year and a half, we’ve seen big deals handed out to Budda Baker (four years/$59 million), Justin Simmons (four years/$61 million), John Johnson (three years/$33.5 million), and Jamal Adams (four years/$70 million). Bates will be younger than all of those players outside of Baker when he hits free agency. 

Bates will be part of a potential free agent group that brings some high-level safety play including Tyrann Mathieu, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Williams, and Marcus Maye, but Bates is again that youngest with all but Williams at least in their late-20’s.

There is a bright future for Bates but the present leads him to the biggest game of his career. Bates has long been an under-the-radar superstar but a Super Bowl spotlight should finally get the attention on one of the top young defensive playmakers in the league.

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