Bengals breakdown: Secondary has more depth to go with drama

Cincinnati Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III (30) celebrates his interception against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Combined ShapeCaption
Cincinnati Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III (30) celebrates his interception against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Much of the discussion around the Cincinnati Bengals’ secondary this offseason centered around Jessie Bates and his contract situation. No long-term deal was reached before the July 15 deadline to get one done, and now it’s unclear if and when Bates will show up for training camp.

The Bengals seem to have prepared for this possibility with three of their draft picks being defensive backs this spring, but assuming Bates signs the franchise tag and plays, the secondary should be even better in 2022.

Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie was an underrated pickup last year with William Jackson’s departure, and Bates and Vonn Bell make up one of the best safety tandems in the league. Bates didn’t have his best year in 2021 while admittedly letting other things get to him, but turned it up in the playoffs and is still the same player PFF ranked as the top free safety in the league in 2020.

Mike Hilton is solid in the slot, and the addition of top two draft picks Dax Hill and Cam Taylor-Britt brings some much-needed depth, if nothing else, to the secondary. Hill is the backup plan for Bates, and Taylor-Britt will compete with Eli Apple for the other starting outside corner spot opposite Awuzie.

Let’s take a look at the past performances of the Bengals’ current defensive backs, and how they are expected to stack up in 2022 with help from some analysis and data from Pro Football Focus.

DEFENSIVE BACKS ON THE ROSTER

Projected starters: FS Jessie Bates, SS Vonn Bell, CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Mike Hilton, CB Eli Apple

Reserves: CB Cam Taylor-Britt, CB Tre Flowers, S Dax Hill, S Tycen Anderson, S Mike Thomas, CB Jalen Davis

Others in the mix: Brandon Wilson, John Brannon, Abu Daramy-Swaray, Allen George, Trayvon Henderson, Delonte Hood, Bookie Radley-Hiles

BATES BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 88 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 4 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery in 15 games

PFF grades for 2021: Bates ranked 37th of 92 safeties in defense grade (67.8), 29th of 93 safeties in coverage grade (70.0), and 58th of 88 safeties in run defense grade (59.6). He had a pass rush grade of 62.7.

PFF ranking for 2022: PFF ranks Bates as the fourth-best coverage free safety.

BELL BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 97 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 8 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery in 16 games

PFF grades for 2021: Bell ranked 21st of 92 safeties in defense grade (72.1), 15th of 93 safeties in coverage grade (75.6), 15th of 26 safeties in pass rush grade (63.9) and 33rd of 88 safeties in run defense grade (68.6).

PFF ranking for 2022: PFF ranks Bell fifth among the box strong safeties this year.

HILTON BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 66 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions (1 return for TD), 5 passes defended, 1 forced fumble in 17 games

PFF grades for 2021: Hilton ranked 27th of 116 cornerbacks in defense grade (70.2), but he was fifth in slot coverage grade (84.4), he was ninth of 20 cornerbacks in pass rush grade (65.9), 28th of 115 cornerbacks in coverage grade (70.0) and 45th of 110 cornerbacks in run defense grade (65.7).

PFF rankings for 2022: PFF projects Hilton as the second best slot corner in the league this year, out of 10 players listed. Colts’ cornerback Kenny Moore II tops the list.

AWUZIE BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 64 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 14 passes defended in 14 games

PFF grades for 2021: Awuzie ranked 14th of 116 cornerbacks in defense grade (75.5), 18th of 115 cornerbacks in coverage grade (74.5) and 28th of 110 cornerbacks in run defense grade (70.5). He had a pass rush grade of 68.8 but wasn’t involved enough to be ranked.

PFF ranking for 2022: PFF placed Awuzie among the “Tier 4: Good players with boom-or-bust tendencies,” and ranked him 18th of 32 cornerbacks.

APPLE BY THE NUMBERS

2021 stats: 49 tackles, 2 interceptions, 10 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery in 16 games

PFF grades for 2021: Apple ranked 71st of 116 cornerbacks in defense grade (60.5), 73rd of 115 cornerbacks in coverage grade (60.4) and 60th of 110 cornerbacks in run defense grade (58.6). He had a pass rush grade of 60.0 but wasn’t involved enough to be ranked.

PFF ranking for 2022: Apple was not among the top 32 cornerbacks ranked by PFF.

FURTHER ANALYSIS

The Bengals return all five of their regular starters from last year, but also addressed the big question marks through the draft and now will see how that all plays out as training camp gets underway. The competition between Taylor-Britt and Apple should be interesting to watch, and regardless of what happens with Bates, Dax Hill will be getting plenty of opportunities to pave the way for a possible regular starting job in 2023.

Cincinnati’s newfound depth is why PFF projects the Bengals’ secondary as the 10th best in the league, assuming the five starters are back in their same roles this year.

“The Bengals have built their secondary exactly how we would at PFF: by giving themselves a ton of flexible options,” PFF analyst Michael Renner wrote. “The (projected) starters … don’t even factor in the team’s first- and second-rounders from this past draft. Adding two more versatile pieces in Daxton Hill and Cam Taylor-Britt makes this one of the deepest secondaries in the NFL.”

This is the last in a series of pieces breaking down each position group for the Bengals before training camp begins Wednesday.

About the Author