‘Dark day’ for Bengals: Cincinnati losing both starting safeties in free agency

That “dark day” has come for Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.

Both free safety Jessie Bates and strong safety Vonn Bell have come to terms with other teams, and the Bengals now have to replace the production lost from one of the best safety tandems in the league. Anarumo had been asked at the NFL Combine how difficult it would be to have replace both his starting safeties at the same time, and he said he did not want to think about that “dark day.”

“It would be huge,” Anarumo said two weeks ago. “You’d lose leadership too. You know, Vonn and Jessie, they do a lot of things that people don’t see. They organize meetings on their own. So, yeah, I’d rather not think about that dark day.”

The legal tampering period opened Monday, allowing teams to negotiate with pending free agents from other clubs, although they have to wait to sign the contracts after free agency officially opens 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Bates will be signing with the Atlanta Falcons, who are giving him a four-year, $64.02 million deal that includes $23 million in Year 1 and $36 million the first two years of the deal, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. He had been unable to reach a long-term agreement with the Bengals during negotiations the past two years, but the Falcons are now making him the fourth highest-paid safety in NFL history.

Bell was a bit of a surprise departure after it seemed the Bengals wouldn’t want to have to replace both guys, and Bates was almost certain to be gone. They drafted Dax Hill last year seemingly as insurance and as someone to develop into his replacement, but Bell was able to secure a three-year, $22.5 million deal, including a $5.835 million signing bonus and $16 million over the first years with his $6 million base for 2024 fully guaranteed, according to The Monday Morning Quarterback’s Albert Breer.

The Bengals safety tandem were among the most reliable in the NFL the past three seasons. Bell played 3,541 snaps during the 2020 through 2022 seasons, which was second most in the league during that period, and Bates played 3,474 snaps for third most.

On Monday, the Bengals re-signed veteran safety Michael J. Thomas, but he has played limited snaps on defense in his 24 games with Cincinnati, where he’s mainly served a role on special teams and as a captain.

Thomas isn’t a replacement for Bell or Bates, but one big consolation for the defense is the return of linebacker Germaine Pratt, who is re-signing to a three-year, $21 million deal. Pratt may have been able to get a bigger contract elsewhere but will be staying with the team that drafted him in the third round in 2019, which was Zac Taylor’s first year as coach.

“He’s a guy that wants to be out there every snap,” Anarumo said of Pratt at the NFL Combine two weeks ago. “He is a guy that’s as competitive as they come but also got a little bit of a bad rap on the end of the Kansas City game (on criticism of Joseph Ossai). But (he) came back the next day and stood in front of everybody and said, ‘Hey, I wasn’t a good teammate.’ To me, that’s who and what we’re all about. (Pratt felt) ‘I had a moment but let me let everybody know that’s not who I am. I’m a great teammate, and so on.’ I love Germaine. I hope he’s back, too. He’s one of our leaders and he’s a heckuva a football player.”

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