The Pittsburgh Steelers used a first-round draft pick on a safety in Terrell Edmunds in spite of the fact that they already had their two starters on the roster in Sean Davis, entering his third season, and ninth-year veteran Morgan Burnett, whom they signed in free agency.
Similarly, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted safety Jessie Bates III in spite of the fact that they already have their two starters in George Iloka and Shawn Williams, neither of whom at least on paper seem to be going anywhere for a while or who are on shaky footing with the team.
Williams isn’t worried about Bates or any other young safety taking his job though. In fact, he’s stepping up and being a leader. He even convened a meeting with the young safeties toward the end of the Bengals’ OTAs to let them know that they need to take advantage of the opportunity to pick the brains of the veterans, including himself.
Bates told the team’s website that he got the sense from Williams’ comments that the veterans who were before him did not make it so easy on him. Among those prior veterans would be Reggie Nelson. After he went to the Raiders in free agency, Williams took over for him in the starting lineup. Terrence Newman was also there.
Bates said that the Bengals have been working him a lot in “the middle of the field”, which is to say, generally as the deep safety. That isn’t a surprise giving his scouting profile, but he also stressed that you need to be able to work in the box as well. In that area of the game, he certainly has an area for improvement.
The rookie said that his biggest priority right now is “just being ready with the system. You can’t go in there with the veterans and play like a rookie. You have to go in there and play like a veteran”.
“There’s a lot being thrown at them”, Williams said. “See how much they’re soaking in. Right now he’s doing pretty well. New formations and different route concepts. Stuff they’re not used to seeing. Right now he’s picking it up real well. Learning and gaining every day”.
It’s not clear if the Bengals envision the use of a three-safety defense the way that the Steelers appear to, especially given their strength at cornerback. With Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson III, and Darqueze Dennard—all former first-round picks—it will be tough for him to get on the field.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that the Bengals list Bates not as a safety but as a defensive back. He is the only player on the entire roster among the defensive backs who is listed in that manner rather than as a cornerback or safety.