You’ve heard about Derwin James, Darius Leonard, Denzel Ward and Fred Warner as the top Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates, and rightfully so. All four are having excellent first-year campaigns and deserve plenty of praise for their play five games into the 2018 season.
But any discussion around DROY honors that does not involve Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates is not a conversation worth having. A second round pick out of Wake Forest, Bates has quietly been one of the better safeties in the NFL this season, largely due to the same traits he was coveted for out of college: ball skills, range and mental processing as a deep cover man.
In an era of versatile safeties that range from pseudo-linebackers to slot corners, Bates is a true, “old-school” free safety with the ability to cover a ton of ground on the back end and make plays on the football when he arrives at the catch point. Watching through his tape, I was stunned at both the ground he covered and his ability to consistently be in position to eliminate throws in his direction.
I pulled out a couple plays on the ball that Bates has made this season that really highlight his best traits. These are not anomalies, just the best examples of how his skill set has made for a quick transition into an impact player in the NFL.
Bengals are playing Cover 2 with a late lead, and Bates gets depth in his zone exactly like he should. A post is a good pattern to run against MOF open looks in the secondary, especially when the middle linebacker stops getting vertical to take away the crosser underneath.
Bates gets all the depth he needs to take away a vertical route on the outside, then fluidly opens to the field and breaks on the football at a perfect angle. I love the athleticism to not cheat his assignment and still have the ability to close on the throwing window. There’s no gamble here. This is a playmaker being a playmaker without sacrificing his responsibilities.
Two other things I love about this play. Bates’ eyes are always on the ball once he breaks. He naturally feels the receiver, doesn’t make unnecessary contact, and still positions himself beautifully for the pick. The other thing I like? He looks like a freaking wide receiver going up for a high throw and plucking it out of the air like this. That’s a remarkable leaping grab for a defensive back.
Let’s rewind a second, to his first interception of the season against Baltimore. This play is nuts.
The Ravens are trying to hit a play-action vertical shot out of 21 personnel against a single-high look. The idea is to high-low the single-high safety (Bates) and force him to make a decision. Stay vertical and help the corner, and Flacco can take the ball underneath to the crosser. Jump the crossing pattern, and Flacco will take the 1-on-1 down the field with the corner giving up inside leverage.
Instead, Bates plays the playa. Flacco wants to take the vertical shot, but Bates stays deep enough to discourage the quarterback, who comes back underneath to the crosser. Yes, Flacco hesitates a millisecond and overthrows the ball, but look at the freaking ground Bates covers to time this break on the ball perfectly.
Flacco never, ever thought he would be able to make that play. He thought the pass would be incomplete or his guy would catch up to it. Either way, it’s only first down. Live to fight another day. Bates had other ideas. This is a big-time play, folks. Jaw-dropping type of stuff for a rookie.
It wasn’t the only time Bates almost foiled Flacco either. Later in the game, with the Bengals in another two-high safety look, Bates almost had the interception of the year.
Cincy running Tampa 2, with Hardy Nickerson Jr. carrying the seam threat down the middle of the field. Bates is in his deep zone, but has the awareness in his second NFL game to identify the threat of Brown’s speed and arrive in time to save Nickerson.
Yes, the ball goes through Bates’ hands and is somehow caught, but his process is elite. Not only the awareness to know where the biggest threat on the field is, but the presence of mind to time his break on the ball perfectly as well. Watch the angle Bates takes, first to where the ball should be thrown, then adjusting on the fly to where it is going (underthrown). Eyes on the prize, the whole way.
Here’s the high shot:
My big concern with Bates coming out of college was his tackling. He missed way too many stops, and was too much of an ankle-nipper. That issue has carried over a little at Cincinnati, but the Bengals are playing him exactly where he should be, far away from the line of scrimmage as a ball-hawking deep safety.
That isn’t to say Bates lacks physicality or aggression in run support; he doesn’t at all. He just isn’t the biggest guy, and because of that he can struggle to get runners on the ground consistently. For the most part, he’s been reliable and consistent at finishing this season, whether in run support or in the open field.
Bates’ draft buzz was diminished some because of his lack of versatility, but that was a mistake. What he does well is highly valuable and should be more coveted by NFL teams. Bates will do the most important things a safety can do for their team, prevent big plays and take the football away, and he’ll do it at a high level. Five games into his career, his mark is already being made. Cincinnati swiped a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in Round 2, and it’s time everyone added him to the conversation he deserves to be apart of.