When the Bengals selected Jessie Bates in Round 2 of the 2018 NFL Draft, the team knew it was getting a smart, talented safety who could come in and elevate the defense starting on Day 1 of his rookie year.
Why? Because Bates has the playmaking ability the Bengals lacked in 2017 and the football IQ needed to not only make it in the NFL, but elevate his teammates when on-the-field.
That football IQ is a big reason why Bates felt comfortable declaring for the draft following his redshirt sophomore season at Wake Forest, a year in which he had 77 tackles (6 for loss), 1 interception, 6 batted passes and 1 forced fumble. His 2016 season was maybe even more impressive as he racked up 100 tackles (3.5 for loss), 5 interceptions (2 of which went for touchdowns), 4 batted passes and 1 forced fumble.
“I felt I had the best football IQ out of not only the safeties but the whole draft,” Bates said in an exclusive interview with Cincy Jungle. “It’s something I’m very comfortable with and confident in as I get into different systems. I think my football IQ has helped me a lot with the success I’ve had so far.”
Bates made an immediate impact at Wake Forest and was runner up as Rookie of the Year in the ACC in 2016. His talents extend to special teams, too, where he recorded 27 punt returns for 234 yards (8.7 yard per return average) and 1 touchdown. That touchdown — a 59-yard return — was timely as it came in Wake Forest’s bowl game against Texas A&M, Bates’ final collegiate game. Wake Forest won the game and Bates had 6 tackles in addition to the special teams touchdown, capping off an impressive college career.
Interestingly for the Fort Wayne, Indiana native, the Bengals’ first game of the 2018 regular season will come against the Indianapolis Colts. The trip from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis is about two hours, which will be an easy ride for Bates’ family and friends. That game will also be preceded by a preseason finale against the Colts in Cincinnati.
“First thing all my friends and family talked about after I was drafted was my first official game being at Indianapolis,” Bates said. “That’ll be pretty cool for me and my family members and friends.”
While Wake Forest was an eight-hour drive from Bates’ hometown, he’ll now be a short distance from home in Cincinnati — there’s a 35-minute flight, or it’s a three-hour car ride. And he’s expecting his best friend, a big football fan, to be visiting frequently. Who’s his best friend, you ask? His mother, Theresa Ladd!
“She’s my mom, my coach, my best friend. All the above,” Bates said of his relationship with his mother. “She’s just amazing and I feel like if people met her they’d understand why. Our relationship is really close and she gives me purpose. When things get hard, I think of her. She’s my motivation and really important to me and my football career.”
It’ll surely be nice to have that motivation nearby as Bates adjusts to life in the NFL. Though, it sounds like he’s going to fit in with his new teammates just fine.
“I would say I’m most excited to intercept Ben Roethlisberger,” Bates said. “That’s probably most important, I think, that I pick off that guy. The Steelers have always been a powerhouse and now, for us, they are a rival. Rivalry games are the best games to play in and the Steelers have a lot of talent, a lot of guys I’ve watched every Sunday for years. Being able to compete against those guys is something I look forward to.”
Bates is also looking forward to learning from his teammates, including fellow safeties Shawn Williams and George Iloka.
“I think they’re both really good safeties,” Bates said. “They’re way more stockier, big hitters. I’m looking forward to working with them and know they’re going to help me. I’m really interested in building those relationships. I know they’re vets and have been there for a long time. I’m just going to try and learn and make each other better.”
Bates measures in at 6’1”, 200 pounds, compared to Iloka who is 6’4”, 225 and Williams who is not much bigger than the rookie at at 6’, 210.
Ahead of arriving in Cincinnati on Thursday for rookie minicamp, Bates had not yet spoken to many of his new Bengals teammates. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell did reach out to him as the two have a friend in common in Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, who is also from Fort Wayne. Smith actually joined Bates to celebrate after the draft.
“It seems like they’re all very welcoming and everyone is excited to work with each other,” Bates said. “I’m just very excited to learn with one another and build those relationships.”
Bates is realistic about his expectations with the Bengals this year but no matter what, he wants to have an impact.
“I feel like you cant set a goal until you know your role,” Bates said. “Once I get there and see what my role is, then I’ll set goals. But if my role is to be a special teams player, my goal will be to make an impact as a special teams player and play to the best of my ability. Or, if it’s just playing on third down, I’ll try to turn the ball over on third down. Or if it’s all three downs, try to be consistent at what I do and again, turn the ball over. So whatever it is, my goal will be to make an impact, wherever my role is.”
Bates knows the Bengals lacked turnovers last year; the team had only 14 turnovers in 2017, which ranked second to last in the NFL. That’s not going to cut it if Cincinnati wants to return to the playoffs in 2018.
“I think I can bring turnovers, which they lacked lat year, that’s the No. 1 thing,” Bates said of what he hopes to bring to the team. “But also competition to the defensive back room. To push not only myself but my teammates as well. Being able to compete and make the room better. I’m always going to be around the ball. Doing my job and communicating with the whole defense.”
It sounds like the Bengals have a player with a winning attitude in Bates; it’s going to be exciting to see him on-the-field in Bengals stripes for years to come.
“I’m ready to put my head down and not say too much, just get to work,” Bates said. “I want to help get the Bengals back on track and I’m really excited to not only play football but give back to the community and build relationships with the fans, players, coaches and community.”