Just like Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, the Bengals’ 2022 first round draft pick Daxton Hill has an open mind to the role of a defensive back in the modern, more positionless NFL.
During the Bengals’ 2021 run to the Super Bowl, Bengals safety Vonn Bell nicknamed Anarumo the “mad scientist.” In the playoffs, Anarumo changed between five defensive line fronts, three safety packages and other new formations that the Bengals hadn’t used all season.
It’s a flexible defense that perfectly suits Hill, who said he doesn’t view himself solely as a cornerback or as a safety. Hill offers more versatility and upside than any defensive player the Bengals have drafted during Anarumo’s tenure with the team.
“The more the player can do, the better off he'll help us as a team,” Anarumo said. “And this guy is no different. He kind of fits that bill to a ‘T.’”
On Thursday, the Bengals got a potential building block for their secondary who can match up against a wide variety of receiving threats. Playing at Michigan, Hill has spent time in one-on-one coverage, guarded tight ends and running backs, blitzed out of the slot and played over the top as a free safety.
With an athletic natural playmaker like Hill, the Bengals can add brand new elements to their defense.
“(I want to be) a hybrid player throughout my entire career,” Hill said. “I don’t really want to limit myself, because I know I can play other positions — whatever that may be, whenever that may be. I’m ready for the journey.”
The Hill pick was a reward for drafting as aggressively as the Bengals did in 2020 and 2021. In both drafts, the Bengals selected a wide receiver early ahead of greater needs on the offensive line and the defensive line. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins helped fuel the Bengals’ run to the Super Bowl, and the rest of the NFL took notice.
In the post-draft press conference, Taylor smiled as he described the feeling of watching six wide receivers go in the top-20 for the first time in modern draft history. Since the Bengals have one of the best receiver trios in the NFL, they were completely set at the position. As other teams reached at wide receiver, the Bengals sat back and watched some of the best defensive players in the draft class fall into the late 20s, making the selection of Hill possible.
The Bengals are onto the portion of the team-building process where they can draft a playmaker to stop the most dynamic passing attacks in the NFL.
“When you look at offenses these days and the way tight ends are utilized, and how the running backs come out of the backfield — just different, different things,” Anarumo said. “This guy can cut, he can blitz off the edge and recover good against the run. And he’s good at getting off blocks and things like that. We're getting a good overall football player.”
The Bengals picked Hill over two more traditional cornerbacks, Andrew Booth from Clemson and Kyler Gordon from Washington. Booth had an injury history, and a few evaluators around the NFL had questions about whether Gordon profiled as a long-term outside cornerback or a slot cornerback who plays on the inside.
Booth, Gordon and defensive tackle Logan Hall all filled clearer positions of need. The pick also indicates the coaching staff’s confidence that Eli Apple is more like the consistent cornerback the team saw throughout the second half of the season and less of the cornerback who struggled against Cooper Kupp in the Super Bowl.
Even though the Bengals had greater immediate needs, Hill also has an easy-to-project role on the Bengals in 2022.
“This guy, like Lou mentioned, can be a third safety but can also play a lot of different roles for you,” Taylor said. “So it's not that simple to say he’s just a one-position type of guy. He can really come in and help us in a lot of different ways in combination with Vonn and Jessie (Bates III).”
Last season, the Bengals used their third safeties in very defined roles. Tre Flowers guarded tight ends. Ricardo Allen and Mike Thomas mostly played high coverage over the top. While they all filled important roles in the scheme, they weren’t playmakers.
Hill has experience in the role Flowers played last season as a physical defender in pass coverage over the middle. And Hill’s speed, range and change-of-direction give him the potential to play center field for the defense. His natural playmaking skills can add juice to the Bengals defense.
Hill can also fill an even more important role in the long term. Starting safeties Jessie Bates III and Bell are both in contract years, and it’s uncertain whether the Bengals will keep both of them, one of them or neither of them.
With Hill’s versatility, the Bengals will enter the 2023 season with much more flexibility at safety, a position that Anarumo called one of the “premium positions” on the field. Hill could grow into the long-term safety in either of their roles.
“We just added a really good player to the room that's going to help us on defense and (who) helps us get back to where we want to go,” Taylor said. “The guys on the team (Bell and Bates) understand we're just trying to win football games and add any piece that can do it.”
Hill gives the Bengals the opportunity to amplify how creative Anarumo can be as a play caller. Since Hill offers more versatility than any other defensive back they had behind Bates and Bell in 2021, Anarumo can disguise more coverages before the snap, call timely blitzes and design even more unexpected plays like the ones that helped the Bengals stop the Titans and the Chiefs to win the AFC title.
With Hill in the fold, Anarumo’s defense has brand new possibilities.
“We’re going to chase around two of the toughest quarterbacks in the league this year four times,” Anarumo said. “The more speed we have on the field, the better we’ll be. So he lends that. There's certainly going to be a learning curve — there is for every rookie, especially in the back end. We’ll give him just enough on his plate to see how much he can handle and kind of take it from there.”