As the July 15 deadline for signing franchise-tagged players to long-term deals approaches, one tagged player and his current team aren’t approaching a long-term deal.
Via Mike Garafolo of NFL Media, “there isn’t a lot of optimism” that the Bengals and safety Jessie Bates will hammer out a multi-year package.
The situation presents three significant obstacles, as we see it. First, the franchise tag at the safety position doesn’t come close to reflecting the current market. The Bengals can keep Bates for 2022 at a guaranteed salary of $12.9 million. Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick set the new bar earlier this year with a new-money average of $18.4 million.
Second, the Bengals don’t guarantee money beyond the first year of veteran contracts, for players other than quarterbacks. (Only the Bengals and Packers operate this way.) With Bates holding $12.9 million guaranteed in hand for 2022 and the ability to make a 20-percent raise ($15.48 million) in 2023, he should instantly refuse any offer that doesn’t fully guarantee the sum of the next two seasons ($28.38 million) at signing.
Third, the Bengals selected safety Daxton Hill at the bottom of round one in April. They have Bates’s replacement ready to go, with a total four-year commitment of $11.9 million, a million less than Bates’s salary for just one year.
And so, unless the Bengals make a dramatic and uncharacteristic move in the next six days, Bates will have to choose whether to take the $12.9 million and spend another year with the Bengals, or to sit. He can skip all of training camp and the preseason without losing any pay, unless the Bengals rescind the tag and make him a free agent. He also could hold out into the regular season, giving up $716,667 per week before eventually reporting in order to get credit for the contract year.
However it plays out, the Bengals have on multiple occasions during the era of free agency applied the tag, kept the player under the tag for one year, and then let him leave. The drafting of Hill becomes the most obvious clue that they’re willing to watch Bates walk.
Whether they should is a different question. Whether their reluctance to give him a deal with guarantees beyond 2022 meshes with their newly-discovered window of opportunity to contend at a high level remains to be seen. However, good teams often have to make tough business decisions — and the Bengals have a history of making business decisions that result in saving money. Maybe they’re already realizing that they can’t keep everyone. Maybe their position with Bates isn’t a sign of things to come.
Regardless, they seem to be prepared to keep Bates for one more year and then pivot to Hill. Maybe the explanation is that they know they need to hold cash and cap space in reserve for quarterback Joe Burrow next year, and then receiver Ja’Marr Chase the year after that.