The Dax Hill Era has begun.
With word breaking Monday that both Bengals safeties had opted to head to the NFC with free-agent deals, Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell have bequeathed the secondary to Hill, the Bengals' first-round pick from last season.
With Bates and Bell leaving glittering legacies in their final Bengals seasons, Hill was left to show flashes. For a guy that took just 131 snaps on defense, he had a nice amount of them because he played wherever defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo asked.
"A lot thrown at me my rookie year. Trying to balance everything on my plate was kind of tough," Hill told the media the day after the season. "That was something I didn't expect. At the same time the amount of pressure that was on me, I didn't really know it was going to be like that. I know what to expect now."
Nearly half of those plays (66) came Dec. 18 against the GOAT, Tom Brady, when Hill replaced slot cornerback Mike Hilton. Hill contributed to the win in Tampa Bay holding receivers to five catches for 32 yards (per Pro Football Focus) to go with eight tackles.
One of his safety snaps came on the last play of the win in New Orleans, when he showed off his range and closed quickly to break up Andy Dalton's last heave. And while Hill played just 20 snaps in the playoffs, one was a third-down red-zone pass in the AFC Divisional where he defended Dawson Knox, the Bills tight end riding a streak of five straight games with a touchdown pass.
"He really progressed as the year went on. He'll have a whole offseason now, training camp again, hopefully lock him into a position and kind of grow from there," Anarumo said two weeks ago at the NFL scouting combine. "We use our safeties: however, I don't just call him a safety. He can do multiple things, and that's the good news. I think he can do any number of the different jobs that we'll ask him to do."
Anarumo wouldn't say how he planned to use Hill, but clearly they're banking on him to contribute as a quality starter like the Bengals' two previous first-rounders in this decade, Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow and Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
Hill also learned from two of the best pros in the Bengals locker room. Vonn Bell was a big culture guy all the way once they plucked him nearly three years to the day in free agency from the Saints, helping head coach Zac Taylor stir new chemistry with his pre-dawn arrivals in the weight room and leading DBs-only meetings on off-days. Since Bell drilled Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to force a fumble in a turning point 2020 Monday night win at Paycor, the Bengals are 29-14 and been to the AFC title game twice.
Bates has been a reliable starter and locker room presence ever since they took him in the second round out of Wake Forest in 2018, leaving the Bengals with three starters from the Marvin Lewis Era with Sam Hubbard, Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd. Bates' 14 interceptions in five seasons are the second most by a Bengals safety in this century behind only Reggie Nelson's 23 in six seasons.
And Bengal-dom will never forget how they teamed up for the overtime interception in the 2021 AFC title game that led to a Super Bowl trip.
"Really just take everything serious, don't take anything lightly," Hill said of what he learned from Bates and Bell. "Always having that chip on your shoulder. Don't take anything for granted, because anything can happen in an NFL season. Just take it one day at time and try to get better from that."
The Bengals weren't caught flat-footed Monday. The drafting of Hill 11 months ago reflected that as they brace for the potential extensions of 2020 contracts to Burrow, wide receiver Tee Higgins and linebacker Logan Wilson in deals that would absorb big chunks in this year's salary cap.
Plus, they figure to be in the market for a veteran safety to team with Hill as well as expect 2024 compensatory picks for Bell and Bates, which could possibly net a third-rounder and fifth-rounder. The re-signing of linebacker Germaine Pratt next to Wilson behind a four-man line each averaging eight-digit salaries keeps the front six or seven intact, pending the look.
And now it's Dax Hill's turn like it was when Bates started the 2018 opener.
"He's an ascending player for us," said head coach Zac Taylor at the combine. "We know what we drafted, we're getting what we drafted. He's going to continue to grow. I thought he did a really good job playing safety, playing dime, playing nickel, playing corner, so he did a really nice job fitting those different roles for us and he's only going to continue to grow as a player moving forward."