Jessie Bates III, the Bengals' Pro Bowl safety candidate, knows he has an even more important role these days.
He sensed it when quarterback Joe Burrow left the field in Washington Sunday afternoon, zapping all that natural leadership and energy into rehab. Then he knew his instincts were right again when he got the text from head coach Zac Taylor after the bus got back to Paul Brown Stadium Sunday night.
Actually, Bates was already on the highway driving home when he got a text from wide receiver Tyler Boyd asking if he'd seen the text from Taylor looking to meet with them briefly. Bates turned around and the three met outside the PBS security office.
On paper they're not captains, Taylor told them. But he looks at them as leaders.
"We're older, but we're also young guys and for him to come to us as men and say it is what it is, that meant a lot," Bates said this week as the Giants loomed at PBS this Sunday in a 1 p.m. game.
"I'm not going to take that for granted. I'm going to be behind Zac all the way, so I have to make sure I step up the juice and control what I can control and bring these guys with me."
Bates and Boyd are natural for Taylor go-tos. They're second-round picks born and bred here. It looks like Boyd is going to catch 1,000 yards for the third straight year despite playing a slice of all those seasons with a back-up quarterback. Bates, along with strong safety Vonn Bell, the Saints free agent that has been worth every penny, is part of an emerging elite tandem in the middle of the field.
Bates, Pro Football Focus' No. 1 safety, leads the web site's coverage grades for the position. Bell is PFF's No. 1 safety when it comes to percentage of run tackles resulting in a loss for the offense.
"We're starting to mesh together. We're starting to get that chemistry together. We hold each other to a high standard," Bates said of his bond with Bell. "I tell Vonn this all the time. When we're playing good on defense, it kind of starts with me and Vonn. When Vonn and I are playing well and fast, we are the influencers on our defense. He knows that, I know that, we just have to continue to bring guys with us."
Bates and Bell are already there. The charismatic Bell already came into The Paul as a full-fledged locker room leader with the proverbial skins on the wall. A fifth-year player who brought five post-season starts from New Orleans, Bell is also an Ohio legend as a national champion Buckeye, the kind of guy that makes sure things don't go south as you battle to get to the north.
"If you've got a lot of Vonn Bells in the locker room," Bates said, "you're going to be all right."
They like to kid each other. Bell famously gives his secondary mates ungodly early wake-up calls to get them in the weight room. Bates prefers working out in the afternoon. But they're on the same time table when it comes to rallying teammates.
"I feel like Coach Taylor has asked me and Tyler to kind of step up and help make that happen," Bates said, "because we are two guys that are going to be here and two guys they want to build off from the offense and the defense."
On Monday in a Media Zoom, Bates signaled he'll keep getting more and more vocal when he let the world know there's a lot on the line in what's left of unforgiving 2020.
"This is where the leaders of this team will lead. The guys that are going to be here for a while will step up and make sure that guys don't check out," Bates said. "Because it's going to be easy to check out. These next six weeks it's going to be easy. It's going to be cold outside. Nobody wants to do that hard part during the week. And it's up to the leaders -- myself and other guys on the team that consider themselves as leaders -- to step up. The guys who do that, they'll stay around for sure."
Bates is two months younger than Burrow even though he has played two more NFL seasons. The kid who calculated declaring for the draft early right down to the four-year projection for the various safety classes takes studious notes and he's been watching leaders ever since he got here in 2018.
"Vonn has had success early in his career. He's been with a successful organization. He knows what it looks like," Bates said. "He knows when things don't look right. When things aren't going well on our side, that's not how it should be. And he's been able to grow that trust and being able to talk to the coaches and trying to bring that winning culture around us. Same dude every day. He works his butt off. He's my guy. He's going to be my guy for a long time."
Bates has also watched guys that have been here and led with different styles. There is veteran safety Shawn Williams, raised in the blunt-talking no-holds-barred Mike Zimmer-Paul Guenther-Adam Jones secondary who has kept the same approach despite changing roles. There is the Pro Bowl respect-the-game-and-team majesty of A.J. Green and the lunch-pail grinding of Giovani Bernard.
"Shawn continues to lead and show young guys how it is to be a professional," Bates said. "Guys on the offensive side. A.J. Green. Gio. Guys that have been in the league and had success on the field, off the field. Those are the type of dudes I want to be like.
"Shawn leads in a different way than Gio. Shawn comes off more as an aggressive leader, a little more vocal. Gio shows you by example and people respect him because he's the same dude every day. He doesn't complain whether he's the second-string running back or he's playing PP (personal protector) on special teams. He just always seems to say the right things and lead people the right way."
Burrow hasn't escaped his studies, either.
"He's just always given me really good vibes," Bates said. "He's always been one to kind of take the blame for stuff. Anytime you see somebody do that, I appreciate that and that's a gamer to me when you take stuff on your own."
Bates is going to end up as some kind of composite of these guys. He figures he'll grow as the team grows. With Williams not on the field as much this season, he says he has opened up "a lot more," and isn't the quiet guy of his first two seasons. Bates thinks that's why Taylor pulled him aside Sunday night.
He's glad he did.
"We may not win the Super Bowl this year or anything like that, but you still have to build the momentum," Bates said. "It will be very interesting and I'm excited for it."