Jessie Bates enters a Bengals’ secondary with two established starters. What strengths and weaknesses does Bates bring to the table, and can he contribute?
The Bengals took Jessie Bates III, a safety from Wake Forest, with the 22nd pick of the second round of the draft. The Bengals had the 46th pick but traded back with the Kansas City Chiefs. With a need at safety, the Bengals likely had Bates, Justin Reid, and Ronnie Harrison on their radar in the second round. They were able to come away with the prospect with the highest upside in Bates.
At Wake Forest, Bates had less playing time than most NFL prospects. He was only a two-year starter but still made Second Team All-ACC this season. Bates has an ideal frame for a safety, though, and pairs that with fantastic measurables. Bates comes in at 6’1”, 200 pounds – a little light, but he can fill out his frame in an NFL weight training program. He’s extremely explosive, too. At the combine, Bates ran a 4.50 40-yard dash and a ridiculous 6.76 3-cone and recorded a 35.5” vertical.
Even with limited playing time, Bates still displayed excellent field awareness. His ability to sit back in coverage and read plays is likely his biggest asset as a prospect. Bates displays the ability to read an offense and determine where best to position himself. Once he sees the quarterback prepare to deliver the ball, Bates is extremely quick to get to his spot to break up the play. Bates has very natural ball skills that show up repeatedly in his film.
What is really impressive for a relatively inexperienced player like Bates is the depth of his ability to read an offense. Opposing QBs can rarely trick Bates – he reacts very quickly to false movement like play-action. He’s able to sit back in coverage and deny the receiver any advantage from the deception. Even if Bates does freeze for a brief second, he has the speed to recover and get himself back in the proper position.
Bates can do a lot for a defense besides just sit back in coverage, though. Bates displays the ability to play on the defensive. He has versatility, both as a slot corner and as a box defender in obvious run situations. In the slot, Bates has the length to disrupt receivers off the line and the quickness to stick with them through their cuts. In the box, he can match running backs’ speed on the edge and tackle them in the open field before they get into positive territory. Though Bates is not a flawless tackler, he is an asset in the run game.
Sadly, Bates does not come without flaws. His weight needs to increase and his technique needs to improve. However, these are both things he can pick up relatively easily in an NFL environment. Something Bates really needs to work on is his angle of attack. Oftentimes, Bates takes overly aggressive angles that are too sharp and lead to missed open field tackles. Though his speed negated this issue somewhat in college, NFL players are quick enough to elude Bates if he takes the wrong angle. As a free safety, this is something he has to improve upon before becoming a starter. He can certainly pick up the skill, but it is something to monitor.
Bates may also be a weapon on special teams. He returned kicks and punts at Wake Forest and may be able to fill that role for the Bengals. Current kick and punt returner Alex Erickson is adequate but doesn’t really move the needle for the Bengals’ special teams unit. The Bengals could use someone more dynamic returning the ball, and Bates could be that guy. It may be his most immediate way to help impact the Bengals this season.
Jessie Bates was an outstanding pick by the Bengals at pick 54. He should contribute in certain packages his first couple seasons and may eventually become the starting free safety. If Bates can remedy a couple of his flaws, he could assuredly be a quality starting safety in the NFL. This would allow George Iloka or Shawn Williams to play their natural position of strong safety. While Bates won’t be an immediate starter, his influence will be present in year one. From there, he should only continue to grow.