Jessie Bates III, just off a sudden promotion as the Bengals representative to the NFL Players Association, continues to see it all in his brief but busy career. After living through one virtual offseason in 2020, he heads into his fourth year on a defense with six new Opening Day starters.
That's just one of the reasons Bates and a majority of his fellow players have opted to participate in the three weeks of voluntary practices in helmets and shorts that begin next Tuesday in advance of the mid-June mandatory minicamp.
In an effort to reestablish the normalcy and chemistry that the pandemic stripped away last year, a consensus emerged via phone calls and Zooms that a young team with so many new faces (10 new starters including the kicker) needed to start being on the field together.
"A lot of teams are not even practicing in the offseason," says Mike Hilton, the new Bengals slot corner and former Steeler. "But knowing where we're trying to get, how we're just trying to turn this team around, I feel like that will give us a leg up on some guys."
Bates, better known as Pro Football Focus' highest rated safety of 2020, has also been the point man of the offseason. He's quietly been working the phones as the conduit between his teammates and head coach Zac Taylor against the backdrop of some teams saying they'll sit out the voluntaries.
"Getting everybody's opinion from our team was good," Bates says. "There wasn't much disagreement or anything like that. I think it was just smart for us to come in for three weeks before minicamp. For us, we can't just go in off virtual meetings and have a productive minicamp. Just getting around each other and being able to talk to people in person, I feel like that plays a huge part in communication for a defense. I'm excited."
Bates became NFLPA rep when the Bengals released Geno Atkins last month and was immediately met with a deluge of statements from other teams that said they were checking out of the voluntary workouts.
"To me, as a leader, there was no point releasing a statement," Bates says. "We didn't have a lot of information to make those decisions."
Bates turned to his improvised board of locker room leaders. There were many, including the new vets, guys like Hilton, "guys who are going to be here three, four years."
Also among "The Board," were Bates' fellow safety Vonn Bell, fellow 2018 draft pick Sam Hubbard, nose tackle D.J. Reader, wide receiver Tyler Boyd (who has the most Bengals games played on offense) and quarterback Joe Burrow, still rehabbing but chomping, as they say, at the bit. No doubt he remembers being unable to meet-and-greet his receivers last year until the last week in July.
"Joe was like, 'Hey man, I want to throw,'" says Bates, who also reached out to vets around the league for advice, such as workout partner Logan Ryan.
"We need to get a head start somehow just to get the standard back to where we want it to be. We really don't have a lot of old guys right now. The older guys are me, Sam, Vonn's only 26 … we're a whole new team almost."
When Taylor took the job in 2019, he vowed to be a transparent communicator and that's what Bates says he got as they worked through the concerns of both players and coaches.
"He was very understanding," Bates says. "Zac is young. He knows what's going on in the locker room. I was very happy with him and his understanding of different people's perspectives. Just having that open conversation with him. I think it would be lot different other places where somethings could have gone wrong."
Hubbard, the homegrown left edge, is one of those guys who felt last season's virtual meetings didn't do much for him. Working on his third defensive line coach in his four seasons, he wants to meet Marion Hobby on the field.
"I didn't feel comfortable without those reps and time around each other," Hubbard says. "We've got some new coaches and new techniques. That's the consensus of the team and we're happy about it. That was the consensus from the leaders and everyone on the team. We wanted to find a way to get together."
Hilton, one of three new starting cornerbacks, embraces the chance to learn the scheme and his mates in person on the field.
"There are different types of learners," Hilton says. "Some people have to actually be on the field and get those reps and get that muscle memory going and some are actually better in the classroom. You've got different guys, but personally I'd rather be on the field so I can get movement in action. It won't do anything but help us, in my eyes.
"Especially for us new guys. It's an opportunity just to be around the team and the coaches and really learn the system and organization as a whole. It's definitely much needed."
Bates said the players wanted to acknowledge the NFLPA's concerns while also meeting the needs of a team stocked with new as well as young players needing reps.
"The NFLPA is doing its best to protect us and do what's right by the players," Hubbard says. "At the same time we've got a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys and we want to get out there and start building some chemistry and learning the defense together. Talking to the coaching staff, it's making it more about install and technique and making the time benefit us."
Bates and the vets believe being around each other is better than just being around.
"What I'm excited about is getting to know the new guys and getting to see what their strengths are," Bates says. "The way I look at it, you try to impress everybody all over again. And we've got a whole new team. It will be really fun to do that."