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Around the AFC North: Bengals to Reportedly Use Franchise Tag on Jessie Bates

Cincinnati Bengals free safety Jessie Bates (30) intercepts a pass during Super Bowl LVI on Sunday, February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California.

Cincinnati Bengals: Franchise Tag Is Reportedly Next for Jessie Bates

The Bengals will reportedly prevent Jessie Bates III from leaving during free agency.

Cincinnati is expected to use the franchise tag on the talented starting safety, according to Tyler Dragon of USA Today, as the two sides continue negotiations on a long-term deal. Tuesday (March 8) is the deadline for teams to use the franchise tag.

Bates had an interception in the Super Bowl and is an important part of Cincinnati's young nucleus. He was a second-team All-Pro in 2020 and he's been extremely durable, missing just two games in four seasons.

At the NFL Scouting Combine last week, Bengals Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin said he wants to keep Bates in Cincinnati, but would not say if the team planned to use the franchise tag.

"I'm not going to break any news today on that," Tobin said. "That's something we'll decide here in the next few days. As far as Jessie Bates, he's an important part of our team. We drafted him, he's a guy that developed and that has played well that has a real role on our team in a lot of different areas, particularly in leadership and play-making skill. He's a guy we want going forward. We want him to be a part of our group so we'll see what we can do to get that done."

Cleveland Browns: Wide Receivers Had Browns' Full Attention at Combine

The Browns are widely expected to take at least one wide receiver in the draft, perhaps as early as the 13th-overall pick.

Bucky Brooks of NFL Network has Cleveland taking USC wideout Drake London in his latest mock draft, and wide receivers London, Ohio State's Garrett Wilson and Arkansas' Traylon Burks said they were interviewed by the Browns at the Combine.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield could be throwing to several new targets next season, after no Cleveland receiver reached 600 yards in 2021. Veteran wide receiver Jarvis Landry and tight end Austin Hooper could be salary cap casualties, while tight end David Njoku is a pending free agent.

Head Coach Kevin Stefanski is open to the possibility of a rookie wide receiver stepping in next season as the team's primary target, via Zac Jackson of The Athletic.

"I have seen (young) guys burst on the scene and play great football," Stefanski told Jackson. "Look at Justin Jefferson there in Minnesota a couple of years back. Some guys, it takes a little bit longer. It depends on where they are in terms of their maturity, not necessarily off the field but really on-the-field maturity and what they can handle. If you take them early, you want them to be ready to go."

Pittsburgh Steelers: Brian Baldinger Believes Steelers Want to Draft Malik Willis

After watching former Liberty quarterback Malik Willis throw some impressive deep balls during his workout at the Combine, NFL Network's Brian Baldinger said the Steelers and Willis are a perfect match.

"The guy I know that can push it down the field is Malik Willis," Baldinger said via Dave Bryan of "I have a matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 20th pick. They're going to lose a big, strong-arm Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. They've got to replace him. And I think the succession plan is Malik Willis."

The Steelers may pursue a veteran quarterback via trade or free agency to replace the retired Ben Roethlisberger, and Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins remain on their quarterback depth chart. However, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network has the Steelers taking Willis in his latest mock draft, and Willis also scored points at the Combine when he was seen helping out someone on a corner in downtown Indianapolis who had fallen on hard times.

Baldinger has joined a growing list of experts who think Willis will be Pittsburgh's next franchise quarterback.

"When you watch him throw the ball, he's got a power arm," Baldinger said. "That's what we saw from Ben when he came out of Ohio almost 20 years ago. And it's time to replace him. When you play in that AFC North, you've got to be able to push the ball through some crazy weather. In Cleveland, in Cincinnati, in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. It seems that those are the quarterbacks that flourish in that division."

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