Officially Untagged, Bengals S Jessie Bates III ‘Would Love To Play With’ Deshaun Watson In Cleveland

The Baltimore Ravens ended up being the only team in the AFC North to use the franchise tag this year. Not a shock on any front, but that does mean that for the Cincinnati Bengals, safety Jessie Bates III is now officially due to hit the open market.

Could he stay inside the division? He wouldn’t be the first to do it in the AFC North, nor even the first in recent years to move from the Bengals to the Cleveland Browns. According to Mary Kay Cabot of, Bates “would love to play with” Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Yet Cleveland is currently over the cap, even if they have several large contracts—most notably Watson’s—that they can restructure to create a great deal of space. The team is planning to release starting safety John Johnson III, who is due nearly $10 million in 2023.

Yet while they are creating an opening in the starting lineup, the fact that they’re turning to releasing a starter to clear cap space is not a great sign indicating their being in the market for Bates. The former All-Pro is likely to fetch even more than that, perhaps in the $14-15 million per year range.

Bates played under the franchise tag in 2022, which carried a value of $12,911,000. He is coming off a season in which he posted a career-high four interceptions as well, along with eight passes defensed and a forced fumble.

It is worth noting that Cabot writes “it wouldn’t be surprising” if the Browns pursued Bates, however. She also reports that the team did not attempt to restructure Johnson’s contract, which still has four more seasons on it, making it much easier to restructure.

The Browns originally signed Johnson as a prized free agent in 2021. He recorded three interceptions in his first season in Cleveland but managed only one a year ago. He did register over 100 tackles in 2022 along with four tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

One way or another, they have to get cap compliant by the start of the new league year, and they’re currently over the cap. They can do that simply be restructuring Watson’s contract, which is fully guaranteed anyway, so frankly they might as well.

There has been a fair bit of intradivisional movement lately in the AFC North. Larry Ogunjobi would be the most notable example; after playing out his rookie contract, he signed a one-year deal with the Bengals before doing the same in 2022 with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Former Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton signed with the Bengals in free agency in 2021 as well. Another former Steeler, tackle Alejandro Villanueva, signed with the Ravens in 2021, although he retired after one season there.

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