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Daxton Hill Will Be a Superstar

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As the whistle blew to end Super Bowl 56, one thing was clear to the Cincinnati Bengals. They had to improve the offensive line.

The Bengals had one good piece – Jonah Williams – and four question marks. It was expected that they would use the draft to bolster the offensive line. Perhaps they would draft offensive linemen in each of the first two rounds.

The Bengals made several key moves in free agency. They attacked the interior in droves, picking up Alex Cappa and Ted Karras. They then hauled in one of the biggest fish of free agency in La’el Collins from the Dallas Cowboys. The Bengals had overhauled their offensive line.

However, the question lingered. Should the Bengals spend more resources in the draft on the offensive line?

A flurry of offensive linemen went off the board in the first round. The Bengals sat as nine were drafted in the first 29 picks.

Would the Bengals reach on an offensive lineman? No, they would take a potential superstar and the next great Cincinnati defensive back.

Daxton Hill

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – DECEMBER 31: Kenny McIntosh #6 of the Georgia Bulldogs runs with the ball as Daxton Hill #30 of the Michigan Wolverines defends in the second quarter of the game in the Capital One Orange Bowl for the College Football Playoff semifinal game at Hard Rock Stadium on December 31, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Hill had a distinguished high school career in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was named the 2019 Gatorade Football Player of the Year, and he was a five-star recruit. He flipped from Michigan to Alabama before settling on Michigan and spending three seasons with the Wolverines.

Hill is the second member of his family to be drafted. His brother, Justice Hill, was a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2019.

In Ann Arbor, Hill played 32 games, totaling 149 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and four interceptions. He had 15 total pass deflections. In 2021, he was named to the first-team All-Big 10.

In all three seasons, Hill played the most snaps in the slot. In 2021, he racked up nearly 600 snaps in the slot while playing 250 in a variety of other alignments. At Michigan, he played as a free safety on about 300 snaps, also spending 300 snaps as a strong safety or a box safety.

Logjam?

However, the Bengals already have these three spots in their lineup. Mike Hilton is one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL. Jessie Bates had a down 2021 season, but that lull is sandwiched between truly elite play as a free safety in the 2020 regular season and the Bengals’ run to the Super Bowl.

Even strong safety Vonn Bell is a great second safety next to Bates. Bell has played over 1,000 snaps in each of the last two seasons. Bates has played no fewer than 950 snaps in all four of his seasons, including a total of 3,100 as a free safety. Hilton was fifth in coverage snaps played from the slot in 2021, and he has nearly 2,500 slot snaps in five seasons with the Steelers and now with the Bengals.

However, the right decision might be to put Hill on the opposite side of Chidobe Awuzie and play the rookie as a boundary cornerback.

Eli Apple

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 13: Cooper Kupp #10 of the Los Angeles Rams makes a touchdown catch over Eli Apple #20 of the Cincinnati Bengals during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Apple is far from the NFL’s best cornerback. After being a first-round pick in 2016, a top-10 pick at that, Apple has allowed a passer rating of 100.2 in six seasons. He has just one season that he has allowed a passer rating under 100 – a year in which he was flagged 11 times. He has allowed at least three touchdowns in five of six seasons, only missing out on that number in 2020 when he played 28 snaps for Carolina.

Apple’s career-high in PFF coverage grade is just 64.2, and he has four seasons below 60.0.

2021 seemed to be heading in the right direction as he had several strong games, but after allowing just two touchdowns through Week 16, Apple allowed five in the last five games including a pair in two games against the Chiefs and two in the Super Bowl.

This gives the Bengals four good pieces in the secondary and Eli Apple. Swap Hill in for Apple, and the Bengals might have the best secondary in the NFL – particularly when in nickel.

Chidobe Awuzie

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 13: Chidobe Awuzie #22 of the Cincinnati Bengals returns an interception against the Los Angeles Rams in the second half during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Awuzie had an under-the-radar excellent season in 2021. He placed in my 2021 All-Splash silver team, only trailing A.J. Terrell, Jalen Ramsey, and J.C. Jackson. He was elite for much of the season, and he even nabbed an interception in the Super Bowl.

In the regular season, Awuzie earned an 84.2 PFF coverage grade and allowed a passer rating of 74.8. Among those that played 300 snaps, Awuzie ranked third in coverage grade behind Ramsey and Terrell. His passer rating was sandwiched between Ramsey and Darius Slay, tying with Denzel Ward.

Hill’s Future

Getting back to Hill, his long-term spot is likely as a free safety, but the Bengals should deploy him as a boundary cornerback this season. Cornerback is a more valuable position, and Hill is one of the top five defensive backs on the field. The Bengals should keep their incumbent four in place and replace Apple with Hill.

Hill profiles as a playmaker on the boundary. While he had a relative athletic score over 9.00 as a free safety, he earned a 9.45 when counted as a cornerback. He has good size and elite speed and agility measurements.

He is the kind of cornerback that would make Matt Eberflus and his beloved press-bail defense faint. He ran a 4.38 40-yard dash to go along with a 1.51 10-yard split and a 6.57-second 3-cone drill. His 40-time is in the 95th percentile when counted as a cornerback. His 3-cone time earned a 9.86 out of 10.

Hill played a fair amount of press-man coverage at Michigan under new Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald last season. He might even fare better than players who were drafted specifically as cornerbacks. Looking at you, Kaiir Elam.

Verdict

Either way, the Bengals have a chess piece that will soon be one of the most valuable secondary pieces in the NFL. Tyrann Mathieu may be out of the AFC now, but his aura will be felt in Hill for the next decade. The Bengals hit this selection out of the park no matter what they decide to do with Bates and Bell in the coming seasons.

Main Image Credit

LINCOLN, NE – OCTOBER 09: Michigan Wolverines defensive back Daxton Hill (30) celebrates an incomplete pass during the game between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday October 9th, 2021 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, NE. (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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Ryan Potts is an avid football and baseball fan. He covers the NFL and Major League Baseball, focusing on the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Braves.