Free safety Jessie Bates III returned with his bountiful bag of postseason heroics to Paycor Stadium and on Wednesday met the press a few hours before the Bengals hosted a joint practice against the defending NFL champion Rams, the team he intercepted in the end zone during Super Bowl LVI.
Bates looks to have returned in time to make his fifth straight Opening Day start for the Bengals Sept. 11 against the Steelers at Paycor. It would be his 64th start in a career he's missed just two games after they chose him in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
"I think I can go there and play now. I think I went about this as a pro," Bates said. "I'm in the best shape of my life. I think the reason I'm coming back earlier is to get those relationships with other guys."
Bates and the Bengals failed to reach a long-term contract in negotiations that were at full boil during last year's training camp as well as on the doorstep of free agency back in March. Without a deal the Bengals made him their franchise player by tendering him a one-year contract of $12.9 million.
"I think this is an opportunity for me to prove not to the Bengals but to the whole league, just like any other year," Bates said. "I look at every single year as a contract year regardless. If you think about it, people get traded, people get cut every year. So my mindset has always been every year is a contract year and to gain the respect around the league. So like I said, whether it's here, which I would love it to be, or somewhere else, I'm going to show who Jessie Bates is on and off the field."
Bates said he'll ease into it this week and then ramp us his activity next week and says "absolutely," he plans on playing in the opener.
"I'm blessed. I'm glad to be here," said Bates, who said he mulled all options. "Some people were surprised. Even the cafeteria lady, Miss Marie, gave me a hug. That's a good feeling ... I know what we have in this building .... I love the game. I love being around it. I'm going to put my best foot forward for this team and for me."
At just 25 Bates has established himself as a locker-room leader, a guy head coach Zac Taylor credited for helping the Bengals get virtually perfect attendance at the 2021 voluntary spring workouts that set the tone for the run to the AFC title. His 63 Bengals games are the most on defense and the team reaction before Wednesday's practice indicates his place still stands.
"We knew he was going to come back. There was no doubt. He wasn't going to sit out. He's a leader," said wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who has played the most Bengals games on offense. "He's been working his tail off. I've seen him the whole time. A lot of the things we couldn't speak of or had no idea what was going on. We have to let him handle the business side of it. He's the type of guy that's not selfish. He'll come back and be able to help the team."
It's not like Bates had disappeared this summer. Last month he joined teammates Joe Burrow and Chidobe Awuzie in Las Vegas at UCF 276 and later in July he popped into Paycor for the Cincinnati Music Festival. Then two weeks ago he watched the Bengals' preseason opener from his Paycor suite.
"You can feel the energy in the locker room. Great to get him back," Burrow said. "It was a jolt... Another great locker guy that builds chemistry. I think that translates on the field and helps us win.
"Everyone loves Jessie... His business is his business. He's here and he's ready to play."
Bates reported 27 days after training camp started Tuesday and returned to a starting defense that has all its Super Bowl starters back, a crew he helped lead to Los Angeles with an NFL-best two interceptions and six passes defensed in four playoff games.
It was Bates' tipped Patrick Mahomes pass while covering Tyreek Hill on his last play as a Chief that led to strong safety Vonn Bell's interception in overtime of the AFC title game and set up the drive that put the Bengals in the Super Bowl.
"He's played great here for four years," said left end Sam Hubbard, a draftmate who arrived in the third round with pick after the Bengals took Bates. "I know how badly he just wants to play football.
"It's really exciting to see him back in the building. He's a great leader, a great teammate and I'm confident he'll pick up right where he left off."
Bates has yet to play with the man whom replaced him in the starting lineup, first-round pick Dax Hill of Michigan. He's working on a two-week roster exemption, but he can be activated at any point.
"I've seen the film and how explosive Dax Hill is," Bates said of the younger guys. "I'm glad they're on the team."
Bates said he expected the Bengals to draft a safety.
"I don't take it personally," Bates said. "When I got drafted in the second round, they already had two safeties."
He recalled at the time it made sense when they cut George Iloka because he "was making eight million and I was making $500,000."
Bates said he spent this offseason spending the most time with his family since college and "that had a great impact."
"I had a good time being away."
But he says he's ready to play and said he's in a better place than last year, when he admitted he had trouble coping with the contract situation. He also said the lure of playing with Burrow would be a factor as he goes into free agency next year, but he says he's only thinking about winning games at the moment.
"That franchise number is a good number," Bates said.