Franchised Cincinnati Bengals S Jessie Bates III views 2022 as prove-it NFL season en route to payday

CINCINNATI -- Bengals safety Jessie Bates III has long wanted to show he's one of the top players at his position.

The fifth-year player, who signed his franchise tender on Tuesday, said he's viewing the upcoming 2022 season as a chance to again showcase his talents ahead of a potential payday.

"It's a great opportunity to continue to present what I'm about, who I am to this franchise and other teams as well," Bates said on Wednesday. "Like I said, I'm looking at this as an opportunity to prove that I'm one of the best safeties in this league."

The former Wake Forest standout held his first news conference since he rejoined the team this week. Bates did not participate in the team's offseason workouts or the majority of training camp after the Bengals and Bates failed to come to terms on a long-term contract.

Last season, the 25-year-old was voted a team captain and had two interceptions in the postseason, including one in the Super Bowl LVI loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

Bates said he had a lot of thoughts on the right time to return. He opted to come back a week before camp officially ended and right as the team prepares for two joint practices against the Rams.

Vonn Bell, the other member of Cincinnati's starting safety tandem, said he knew his "right-hand man" was going to rejoin the team relatively soon. He just didn't know exactly when that time would be until he arrived at the team's downtown facility on Tuesday morning.

"Then I looked over my shoulder and said, 'What's up, 30?'" Bell said, citing Bates' jersey number. "And we hugged it out and he went to do his physical."

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he and Bates had remained in contact and had "great conversations" while he mulled his return to the team. Taylor called his star safety a professional and said Bates will be able to get plenty of quality work done as he prepares for the team's season-opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 11.

He is currently on the commissioner's exempt list. The team has up to two weeks to use that roster exemption but can fully activate him at any time. Bates did some individual drills during Wednesday's joint practice but abstained from team drills as he continues the acclimation period.

But the mere sight of one of the team's top players was more than welcomed.

"Even just the walk-throughs, for him to be out there as one of the leaders on our team, that's been really good," Taylor said. "It's certainly brought great energy to the team."

Bates is set to earn $12.9 million on this year's franchise tender, which is a one-year contract. Bates and the Bengals cannot engage in contract discussions until this year is over.

Cincinnati drafted former Michigan safety Dax Hill in the first round of this year's draft. Hill has been the team's starting free safety in Bates' absence and had an interception in the team's preseason game against the New York Giants on Sunday.

Bates said Wednesday he understood the business component of the NFL. Bates recalled when he was drafted in 2018, when the team had two established starters already at the position. When one of those players, George Iloka, was cut for the player on a rookie contract, Bates started from Week 1 of his rookie year until Week 4 of last season, when he missed a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Now Bates is the veteran at risk of being replaced.

"It's a cycle, man," Bates said. "It's part of the league. It's the uncomfortable conversations, like I said, that a lot of people avoid. I'm here. I know what I'm about. I'm good with it."

But with that in mind, he said he's eager to show just how valuable he can be for the Bengals and the other 31 teams around the NFL.

"My mindset has always been every year is a contract year and to gain the respect around the league," Bates 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."