Improving secondary a focus for Bengals

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Cincinnati Bengals have some rebuilding to do on defense, but how they go about that at the safety position remains one of the biggest questions of this offseason.

Cincinnati failed in the effort to replace one of the best safety tandems in the league last year when Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell both departed in free agency. Free agent pickup Nick Scott and 2022 first-round draft pick Dax Hill struggled stepping into those roles, and the rest of the defense seemed to face setbacks because of it.

Scott, who was replaced by rookie Jordan Battle after 10 games, is headed back to free agency, and the Bengals now need to decide if Hill and Battle can make a big enough jump in Year 2 as starters to be effective in 2024. The Bengals need to add there, regardless, and several veteran options are surfacing as the free agent market opens next week.

“We like both of those young players,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said. “They’re both pretty versatile, which is a positive when you’re playing in the backfield. Dax is really versatile. Finding the best role for him to maximize his skill set would be something we’re working on this offseason. And how best to utilize him to show off his range and his size and his speed and his toughness and all the things that he has. Same thing with Jordan. What’s the best role for him and how does he fit within the defense, and who’s the communicator? All those things are things we go through in the offseason and that coach Lou (Anarumo) will try to fit together the best that we can. But both those players are young, talented and shown that they belong in this league.”

The Bengals have been speaking about Hill’s versatility since they drafted him in 2022, but that seemed to set him back a bit as a rookie because he never was able to hone in on one role.

Initially, he was at free safety while Bates did not participate in offseason workouts or training camp, then he was preparing for roles in different packages and at one point, he was thrown in at cornerback when Chidobe Awuzie went down and Eli Apple was not active.

Last year, the Bengals knew there would be an adjustment to his first year starting at free safety and learning to work with a new strong safety, but the same mental mistakes were happening by the end of the year that were expected to have been corrected from the beginning of the season.

Anarumo, the team’s defensive coordinator, said Hill’s versatility is helpful in that it gives him options in terms of how to use him, but Hill has to be really good at one thing, and the Bengals need to figure out what that is.

“He’s still a young player in a lot of regards,” Anarumo said. “It was only his second year. Played a handful of snaps his first year. So I think his development and his upside is huge. Nobody is down on the guy at all. We just have to make sure that he’s honed in and making sure that he’s being able to do the things we’re asking him to do. Wherever that may be.”

The Bengals do have a hole at cornerback with Awuzie heading into free agency, and while DJ Turner looked solid early in the season, he hit the proverbial “rookie wall” by the end of the year. Tobin said the organization is still high on him and his potential to “really level up and take the next step in Year 2,” but Hill also could find a role as an outside corner. Cam Taylor-Britt is locked in at one of those spots, and there is always a need for more depth.

Anarumo took a clear stance on the nickel corner role still being Mike Hilton’s and put an end to any discussion that he could slide over to safety. But the Bengals need to find the best spot for Hill.

“I wouldn’t go into all the offseason plans, but Dax can play corner, Dax can play nickel, Dax can play free safety and Dax can play strong safety,” Tobin said. “Finding the best fit will be up to our defensive coaching staff and Zac (Taylor) to determine, ‘Where can this guy help us the most win football games?’ He can do an awful lot and we’re happy to have him.”

Anarumo had always shied away from starting rookies on defense but he had several first-year players (and first-year starters like Hill) on the field in 2023. Battle showed improvement over the second half of the season, and that was why his role continued to increase until he eventually replaced Scott.

Taylor expects even more out of him in 2024.

“I think that his ceiling is much higher than even what we saw,” Taylor said. “I think now he’s going to go into year two and have a chance to be a lot more comfortable, be a lot more vocal. Those are the traits that we see from Jordan, St Thomas Aquinas (high school) leader, Alabama leader, and now at the Cincinnati Bengals, we expect him to be a leader. And so that’s that’ll be part of his evolvement as he continues to play. But we have really high expectations for Jordan.”

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