The Cincinnati Bengals’ need at safety is bigger than you may realize.
Not only do they have Jessie Bates III potentially playing on the franchise tag this season, but Vonn Bell is entering the final year of his contract. If they are able to work out a long-term deal with Bates, it will cost them a pretty penny.
That could spell the end of Bell’s time in Cincinnati, because how much money would they be willing to spend at the safety position?
The Bengals value versatility in their defenders. If they can find a player with range and coverage skills that are comparable to Bates and the linebacker mentality of Bell, they would set themselves up nicely for the future, no matter which veteran returns in 2023.
Two safeties fit the bill and should be on the Bengals’ radar at 31: Michigan’s Daxton Hill and Baylor’s Jalen Pitre. Although both spent more time in the slot than in a deep field zone, they have what it takes to do it all.
One area where both of the Bengals’ safeties have struggled is in man coverage. Both Hill and Pitre have flashed in this area. In fact, many people think that Hill could be an outside cornerback in the NFL. Both have shown that they can matchup well with receivers in the slot, particularly when pushed vertically on seams and wheels.
Take a look at each player defending the wheel.
Hill with a huge play pic.twitter.com/rzDeVZhzCU— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 13, 2022
Hill is #30 in white, the second player from the bottom of the screen.
In this clip, Nebraska runs a quick switch, with the outside receiver releasing inside and hitching up at the first-down marker and the slot receiver, covered by Hill, releasing outside to run a wheel down the sideline. This is route-combination is designed to create a pick, but Hill simply plays loose to avoid the traffic and takes an angle to cut off the route. The ball goes in his direction, and he knocks it down.
This was an impressive rep, made even more impressive by the fact that it was a game-winner. It was 4th and 10 and Nebraska was down by three with one minute left on the clock. Hill made the definitive play in the game’s biggest moment.
Pitre vs Wheel pic.twitter.com/xuSItdBDvf— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 13, 2022
Pitre is #8 in green, the second player from the top of the screen.
There isn’t nearly as much drama in this play. The wheel-route is less rounded and has a true, out-route look at the beginning, but Pitre is patient. He doesn’t jump the out, he waits for the route to develop and takes the right angle to cut it off.
Both Pitre and Hill show some excellent man-coverage skills and would provide an upgrade to the Bengals’ safety position in this area. Pitre, at 5’ 11:, and Hill, just over six feet, may lack the size to shut down tight ends, but generally matchup well with slot receivers. Hill, however, had his ups and downs when matched up against Penn State’s Jahan Dotson, a projected first-round pick.
Next, let’s take a look at how each prospect reads the quarterback and reacts by breaking on the receiver.
Pitre on Dig pic.twitter.com/56GFEXDAWT— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 13, 2022
Pitre is #8 in green, on the 45 yard-line, halfway between the top hash and the numbers.
The inside release of the receiver must be a tell for this offense, because once he sees it, he comes out of his backpedal. He anticipates the dig route and takes an angle to cut it off before it even happens. He’s able to get under the route and make a play on the ball.
It is likely that Pitre knew from the game plan or film study that if the single-receiver was going to run vertically, he released outside. That is why he knew a crossing route was coming and was able to jump the dig route. This is a testament to Pitre’s preparation.
Pitre Break pic.twitter.com/vtx4OyDLMR— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 13, 2022
Pitre is #8 in green, the second defender from the bottom of the screen.
This clip gives you an excellent picture of Pitre’s ability to read the quarterback and break on the ball with great speed. The receiver catches the hitch, but is immediately tackled by Pitre for a minimal gain.
Pitre’s acceleration and tackling ability was on full display on this play.
Hill breaks pic.twitter.com/9oO0KcXb8E— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 13, 2022
Hill is #30 in blue, the second player from the bottom of the screen.
Hill also does a great job of reading the quarterback and breaking on the ball. If you slow down this clip, you can see Hill start to break on the under-route as the quarterback is cocking his arm back. He gets there just as the ball does, and the ensuing collision results in an incomplete pass.
Hill with the pick pic.twitter.com/lM7MRLhUOK— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 13, 2022
Hill is #30 in white on the right side of the screen.
This clip showcases not only Hill’s ability to accelerate, but his tremendous ball skills.
The quarterback thinks he has his tight end over the middle for a big gain, but Hill comes out of nowhere and breaks underneath the pass. He leaps and deflects the pass, but despite falling to the ground, he remains focused on the ball. The ball pops up in the air and falls back down into Hill’s hands.
This was a tremendous play and just the type of thing the Bengals’ defense needs to do more.
Pitre and Hill are excellent processers who understand how to read and react to what the offense is giving them. Both have great acceleration and make smooth transitions, allowing them to get where they need to be to make the play.
Of course, the safeties also play a large role in containing the run. Let’s take a look at how Hill and Pitre contribute to the run defense.
Hill disengage and tackle pic.twitter.com/qyyofq3H4J— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 13, 2022
Hill is #30 in blue, the second player from the bottom of the screen.
The slot receiver tries to stalk block him head up, but Hill gets to the outside, not only because it appears that is where the running back wants to go at the time, but because that is his job. Hill needs to keep the run contained and constrict the running lane by pushing the blocker inside. If he gives up contain, there is no one else outside him to make the play. Forcing the back to cut inside puts him in the path of the pursuing linebacker and free safety.
Once the cutback takes place, Hill gets off the block and on the ball-carrier’s hip, making the tackle along with his teammates.
This was a fantastic job by Hill of understanding his run fit, disengaging from the block at the appropriate time, and making the tackle.
Pitre on edge pic.twitter.com/wGFzJtp24X— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) April 13, 2022
Pitre is #8 in white, the end man on the line of scrimmage at the bottom of the screen.
On this play, they try to kick him out, but Pitre holds his ground and is able to restrict the running lane and get involved in the tackle.
Both players have great run fits and are stronger players in the box than their size would lead you to believe. The edge in this category goes to Hall because Pitre sometimes struggles to disengage from blocks.
Hill and Pitre can be deployed in a wide variety of ways within the defensive backfield. Hall’s physical tools stand out, but Pitre has a lot of the intangibles that the Bengals look for. Either would be a good fit for the Bengals, as they look for a versatile player who can play a key role as a rookie and eventually step in as one of their starting safeties.