Bengals rookie Dax Hill tackling multiple roles in camp

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals rookie safety Dax Hill admitted he’s in for a tall task trying to learn multiple positions his first season while also preparing to potentially start at free safety.

The Bengals drafted Hill No. 31 overall out of Michigan because of his versatility but also seemingly as insurance in case Jessie Bates decides not to play on the franchise tag this season.

Both starting safeties from last year’s Super Bowl team – Bates at free safety and Vonn Bell at strong safety -- are on expiring contracts, and Hill could step in for either one of them if needed next year. However, the Bengals saw him as a defensive back they could plug into the rotation, perhaps in some three-safety packages, and play an important depth role.

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With Bates not showing up for training camp, Hill will be seeing most of the reps with the first-team defense at free safety while also trying to learn the other roles he might need to play.

“I did it a little bit at Michigan (playing different roles), but it’s a little intimidating just because you want to hone in on one spot at this level and not really discombobulate the different roles all in one,” Hill said. “So, I feel like it has its pros and cons. But I feel like the pros outweigh the cons. That’s why they got me, so whatever role they need me to play, I’m going to do it. ... It’s something, I’m just expecting to be ready for, so I’m just preparing my mind or whatever happens and just take pride in that role.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo both have said they believe Bates will show up and play this season.

Not playing this season would mean forfeiting the $12.9 million he is set to make on the franchise tag, but Bates will have to decide if that’s worth the risk of injury without a long-term deal, which is why players in his situation often sit out of training camp.

Bell said the players still are “100 percent behind” Bates in his decision not to show up to camp and they know he hopes the best for them too. He’s been impressed with Hill so far, especially in how he’s like a sponge soaking up information from the veterans, but there’s no replacing Bates. Bell won’t even let anyone sit in Bates’ seat in the defensive backs meetings.

“Dax gotta be Dax,” Bell said. “That’s two different people, so go out there and be you, whatever they have in store for you, just do your job.”

Anarumo said the coaches recently discussed the situation and how it impacts Hill, but they believe they have a “pretty good plan” for him in training camp. That means making sure he understands all the positions he could potentially playwhile still getting him ready to be a Day 1 starter at free safety if Bates isn’t available Week 1.

“He’s a smart kid so being able to do a number of different things I think he’ll be able to handle it just fine,” Anarumo said.

While the coaching staff is confident Hill can step into any role, one point of emphasis for him is making sure he can communicate with the defense the way Bates has in the past. Bates served as a captain last season and played a big role in helping develop a chemistry in the unit that players said was a crucial aspect of the team’s run to claiming the AFC championship.

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Anarumo said Hill is starting to “use his outside voice” like the older guys and making himself heard. On Wednesday, Hill was even doing some work with the linebackers to work on building the communication he will need to have with them. He said he’s confident in that part of his game but it’s important to make sure he’s on the same page with others in the defense.

“Really, we kind of set everyone up,” Hill said. “It kind of starts with us and everyone looks toward the safeties for like the calls, so I feel it’s important to use the ‘outside voice.’ Really just getting used to communicating at a high level is what I’m trying to work on as well.”

As for the noise around Bates’ situation, Hill said he doesn’t “pay too much attention to it” because it doesn’t have anything to do with him. He’s just embracing the opportunity to prepare for a starting role.

“I mean being drafted was a blessing in itself, so however I come in, I’m past that, and it’s kind of focusing on myself and as well as my teammates now,” Hill said. “That really doesn’t matter to me, but whenever I come in, I just want to contribute.”

Notes: The Bengals placed halfback Elijah Holyfield on injured reserve Thursday after he was carted off from practice Wednesday. To fill his spot, the team brought back free agent Jacques Patrick, who originally joined the Bengals as a college free agent in 2020. Patrick spent the 2020 season and two games in 2021 on the practice squad before signing with the 49ers and playing in two games with them. Holyfield was injured on a running play in an 11-on-11 drill Wednesday. … On Thursday, backup tight end and special teams contributor Mitchell Wilcox was the only unexpected absence from practice. He was doing some work on a stationary bike. … Bell had the big play of the day for the defense in 11-on-11 drills Thursday, picking off Brandon Allen and returning it for a touchdown.

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