KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Jessie Bates came off the field for what might have been the last time with the Cincinnati Bengals, he couldn’t help but think about how far the team has come since he was drafted almost five years ago.
Bates played this season on a franchise tag but with quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins both able to negotiate contract extensions ahead of the final season on their rookie deals, it seems unlikely the Bengals will be able to afford to keep Bates.
The free safety was unable to negotiate a long-term deal last offseason and is one of several players, especially on defense, on expiring contracts. The finality of it all started to hit Bates after the Bengals came up short of a return to the Super Bowl with a 23-20 loss at Kansas City on Sunday in the AFC Championship at Arrowhead Stadium.
“It’s obviously emotional,” Bates said. “I’ve been able to build really close bonds in the locker room, in the training room, everywhere in Cincinnati, with some reporters, everybody. Any time something like that comes to an end, it hits a little different.”
“I’m super grateful,” Bates added. “It’s all I could think about running off the field is still where we were when I first got here and where it ended. It just says a lot about how if you love one another all the time — and you hear that, we’ve been talking about that all year round — good things happen. … If this is the end, I’m super grateful for the process, super grateful for everything that I’ve learned here in Cincinnati my five years so we’ll see what happens.”
Cincinnati drafted Bates in the second round out of Wake Forest in 2018 as the Bengals were trying to get back on track following missed postseasons the previous two years. They went 6-10 that season, and the organization parted ways with then-coach Marvin Lewis to move on to a younger coach who would have new ideas.
Bates was a Day 1 starter and played all 16 games his first three years, but the rebuild under Zac Taylor took going through two even tougher seasons than 2018. The Bengals won six games combined in 2019 and 2020 before turning a corner last season and making a surprise run to the Super Bowl while earning the franchise’s first playoff victories in 31 years.
Although Bates wasn’t happy he couldn’t secure a long-term deal this offseason, he understood the business side of the game and ended up with a career-high four interceptions in 2022 while helping Cincinnati to a second straight AFC North title and AFC Championship appearance.
Bates, like others, wanted to complete that “unfinished business” from last year’s three-point loss to the Rams in Super Bowl LVI. The Bengals lost Sunday on Harrison Butker’s game-winning field goal with three seconds left.
“Losing period hurts,” Bates said. “You know, certain situations, some people won’t be here. Some people will be here, but like I said, I haven’t really been able to reflect and think about what’s going on, to be honest with you.”
Bates was pleased with how the defense played Sunday, especially while limiting the Chiefs to a pair of field goals on their first two drives when they had chances to go up 14-0. However, he acknowledged his mistake getting caught watching as Patrick Mahomes connected with Travis Kelce on a 16-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter for a 13-3 lead.
Although it was a disappointing finish, Bates said he appreciated the opportunity to build something from the ground up these past few years.
“It’s meant a lot,” Bates said. “I was here when it was all the way down to the dirt. Nobody believed in us, and being able to be a part of something special like that, I can’t ask for anything better. I gave it my all, my teammates gave me their all. It’s just the love I have for these men in this locker room that makes it so hard.”
Bates said he would love to stay in Cincinnati, but even he didn’t seem optimistic about that happening. The Bengals drafted Dax Hill in the first round last April as the likely successor at free safety.
“I’ve created really close bonds within this whole organization,” Bates said. “I’ve been drafted here. I became a man here. I would love to be here, but that’s out of my control, and whatever happens, at the end of the day, I can say I love my brothers like no other, I played my heart out like no other. That’s all you can really control at the end of the day. I’ll be able to look back on this and learn from it and have those connections forever.”
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