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'We need a guy like him': Why adding Jessie Bates III was essential to expediting Falcons defensive progress

Steven Jackson, Jerry Gray and Bates himself discuss how he can help build a program from the ground up

The Falcons have made a significant investment in Jessie Bates III. They paid a premium to acquire the versatile safety from Cincinnati, committing as much as $64 million over four years to what many consider a non-premium position.

Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith had their reasons for making a luxury purchase, with sound logic to support them.


For one, it was part of a clear effort to fortify their defense up the middle with big-time add at every level. The plan, though, wasn't to go out and get a safety. They were decently well stocked at the position heading into 2023, with Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins seemingly set as three-down starters.

So, no, it wasn't the position they were targeting it. It was the player.

Why? Bates brings so much to the table.

Let's start with the obvious. The dude can flat play. He's a versatile safety who can roam on the back end or get physical in the box. He has a track record of success. He's durable as heck and knows how to make the right reads and communicate what he sees well. He's a smart player who can bait a quarterback into interceptions. The guy has 14 picks and 45 passes defense over five seasons and a second-team All-Pro selection to his credit.

Those accolades are attractive, but this wasn't just a production play.

It's also about the state of the Falcons defense and what could help expedite its development. With someone who can make those around him better. It's about bringing in someone experienced in what it takes to reach the Super Bowl. And, perhaps most important, it's about finding a field general who knows how to build things from the ground up.

Now let's unpack all that, starting with last point first.

It's one that Bates brought up himself. He was a star football player in Indiana, a famed basketball state. He didn't go to a juggernaut high school. And he didn't go to a powerful college program. In fact Wake Forest struggled mightily when he got there, and his college career completed with two straight bowl wins.

Then he joined a struggling Cincinnati Bengals team and was a major part of that franchise's transition from cellar dweller to title contender.

"I've been on multiple teams where you're building from the ground up, and it's not easy," Bates said on June 7. "You go through a lot of failures, but the biggest thing is that you've got to learn from them and take that into the next challenge."

Bates will be part of a veteran core looking to take this young defense to the next level, partly by explaining what it takes to reach great heights.

"There's a difference between saying we're going to go out and do it and actually doing it," said Falcons secondary coach Steven Jackson, who was Bates' position coach for a time in Cincinnati. "It's not easy. You have to sacrifice to get to the Super Bowl. He knows what it's like. They understand what it takes, the discipline and need to play for the guys around you. It's not something you can write on a piece of paper and expect guys to execute. It's about the process of getting there."

There's a confidence, a mindset that Jackson saw develop with the Bengals that Bates is carrying over to his new squad in Atlanta. That's as important as anything the safety offers the program.

"He communicates and plays with confidence," Jackson said. "We talk about it all the time. The only way to be a winner is to win. His intention on every snap is to win that play. Then he wants to wash, rinse, repeat."

Bates brought that mentality to the offseason program, leaving many impressed by his demeanor, style of play and work ethic.

Falcons coaches will challenge Bates to get even better while working in Ryan Nielsen's scheme, but they're starting that exercise with an extremely high floor as a player and defensive captain.

There's an X-factor to him, built by all the previously cited reasons, that's vital to what the Falcons hope will be a defensive renaissance.

"We need a guy like him," said Jerry Gray, assistant head coach – defense, who works extensively with the defensive backs. "I love his leadership. I love the way he plays on the football field and then you talk to him and you see the same thing. He's always talking about game planning, doing this, getting guys together, being together.

"That's critical when you're in the NFL. A lot of guys they don't understand the amount extra time that you need to be really good, and you could see it. They were really good on defense in Cincinnati, and we want guys like that on our team."

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