CINCINNATI — Dax Hill didn’t realize how much his versatility would be put to use in his first season with the Cincinnati Bengals, but in the end, he wished he could have done more.
The rookie first-round draft pick started out last spring and summer as the first-team free safety while Jessie Bates sat out of organized team activities and training camp to protect himself from injury playing on a franchise tag. Once Bates returned, Hill’s role changed significantly.
He ended up filling multiple holes in the defense and having to learn new positions on the fly throughout the 2022 season because of injuries, but never had time to settling into one job. Now, he’s going into the offseason motivated to earn a starting spot next season — whatever position that ends up being.
With the Bengals expected to let Bates move on in free agency this offseason and strong safety Vonn Bell also on an expiring contract, a starting job should be Hill’s to take.
“It starts whenever I start back up this offseason training,” Hill said. “Just coming with a different mentality, knowing what didn’t happen this year and just having a chip on my shoulder coming up in this season.”
Hill played 15 games with two starts, one being against Tampa Bay when slot corner Mike Hilton was out because of injury.Hill played 89 percent of the snaps on defense. His next highest snap count came in the Oct. 31 game at Cleveland when he was thrown into a cornerback role for the final 20 snaps because Chidobe Awuzie went down with his season-ending knee injury and Eli Apple was inactive.
Otherwise, Hill’s experience was limited to special teams and a play here or there and defense.
“Just the ups and downs, been through a lot in terms of knowing my role,” Hill said when asked what he learned this season. “It was a great season looking back in hindsight. There’s something I always can improve on so I just take it as a way to just reflect and learn from what I did this year.”
The Bengals began player exit meetings Monday before breaking for the offseason, but Hill said he hasn’t been told what role he will be competing for next season.
Hill played the slot and as a deep safety at Michigan but also came down and played in the box. Going into the draft last year, some even viewed him as a potential convert to cornerback. That versatility was what the Bengals especially liked about him, and they were able to see it put into action this season in his various roles.
“It was kind of just a week-to-week thing for me,” Hill said. “If people went down that’s where I would be at. The Tampa game that was an example of where I had to come in at nickel and I didn’t even know I was going to be playing nickel. Whatever that is I don’t know what the upcoming season would be like, just trying to digest this season and move forward with that.”
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said the rookie class this year “really helped” the team. He didn’t speak about the individual players by name, but Hill fits into the category of guys who are expected to play significant roles moving forward. It’s just unclear what that will look like right now.
“A lot of those guys play significant roles for us, a lot of them are gonna play significant roles for us,” Taylor said. “… It’s a really good group that I think (Director of Player Personnel) Duke (Tobin) and his staff did a great job bringing those guys in.”
Hill said the uncertainty of his role this season was hard to deal with because he was still trying to adjust to the league on top of having to learn new things each week. It was a “tall task” for him to prepare to be as sharp as possible for game days without know exactly was he was doing all the time, but he tried to do the best he could.
Confidence also was hard to build, he said, because he didn’t have long enough in one role to feel truly comfortable. That’s something he looks forward to changing in 2023.
“Your confidence builds as you get more reps and you hone in one position or at least knowing the specific job you’re doing,” Hill said.
The first-team experience he got in organized team activities and training camp was valuable in showing him what it takes to play at that level and the high expectations that come with it. That should help him as he is going through the offseason and preparing to compete with the starters this spring.
Hill also said he learned a lot from Bates and Bell, two strong leaders for the defense and good mentors for him even as he was potentially being groomed to replace them.
“(They taught me) really just take everything serious, don’t take anything lightly,” Hill said. “Always having that chip on your shoulder. Don’t take anything for granted, because anything can change in an NFL season. Just take it one day at time and try to get better from that.”
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