Are Bengals' Cam Taylor-Britt, Dax Hill ready for lead roles in the secondary?

Cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt is ready to step into the spotlight beginning next season. Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- For Cincinnati Bengals rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, the ritual of cleaning out his locker at the end of the season meant taking down one of the key pieces of his first NFL campaign.

When the 2022 second-round draft pick arrived for rookie minicamp, he went to an ATM, took out a $100 bill and taped it to the side of his locker. It was symbolic of the “money on the floor” celebration Cincinnati’s secondary made after big plays. For Taylor-Britt, the bill served as motivation and went untouched.

“You know how many times I was hungry and I wanted to use this $100 bill?” Taylor-Britt said last month, one day after the Bengals lost 23-20 to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.

Taylor-Britt won’t need to look inside his locker for motivation this offseason. With veteran starters such as safeties Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell and cornerback Eli Apple entering free agency, Taylor-Britt and fellow rookie Dax Hill have had conversations about their role in anchoring Cincinnati’s secondary, possibly as early as the upcoming season.

“They drafted us for a reason,” Taylor-Britt said. “We got our snaps this year, rookie season. Yeah, we had our flashes, of course. But it’s time to take over. If anything, it’s going to be our room. That’s how we have to look at it.”

Taylor-Britt and Hill’s future roles were apparent the moment Cincinnati drafted both players. The Bengals took Hill out of Michigan in the first round, while Nebraska’s Taylor-Britt was selected in the second round. Those premium picks also happened to come at positions where two starters -- Bell and Apple -- were going to enter free agency in 2023.

When Bates at first chose not to sign the franchise tag and missed all of the offseason workouts and the early portion of training camp last season, Hill took his snaps. Bates didn’t accept the tag and report until after Cincinnati’s preseason opener, when Hill recorded an interception against the Arizona Cardinals.

Eventually, Hill settled into a reserve role and primarily played on special teams and in certain coverage situations.

The former Michigan standout also moved around as needed. Hill cited the team’s Week 16 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which he played slot cornerback in place of the injured Mike Hilton. Hill played a season-high 63 defensive snaps in the 34-23 win.

When the Bengals cleared out their locker room following the loss to Kansas City, Hill said moving between positions on a weekly basis made it difficult to build confidence.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing in terms of each week,” Hill said. “That’s kind of hard at this level. Just to know exactly what you’re doing and trying to be as sharp as possible on Sunday, that’s a tall task.”

Roles should be clearer as the offseason progresses. Hill is a natural replacement for Bates, who has been one of the best safeties in the NFL in recent years and is looking to be paid accordingly. Taylor-Britt could be in line to be the starting cornerback opposite of Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzie suffered a torn ACL in Week 8 against the Cleveland Browns, which led to Taylor-Britt starting alongside Apple for the rest of the regular season.

“He’s confident,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said of Taylor-Britt in January, ahead of the team’s playoff run. "He's not afraid. He’s aggressive. So, all of those things and he's well aware of the situations that he's in. He's really continued to improve each week.”

In the final four games of 2022, including the three postseason games, the rookie held opponents to a minus-16.8 completion percentage when targeted as the nearest defender, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Taylor-Britt said as the season progressed, he became more comfortable, improved his field vision, trusted himself and played with less hesitation.

This offseason, Taylor-Britt will split his time training between Dallas and Atlanta, where the Alabama native moved his mother after he was drafted. Hill will spend the offseason training as well, working on building his lower body strength as he prepares for whatever his role will look like in 2023.

Even though Hill's snaps were limited, he had key plays, too. In the win against the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round of the playoffs, Hill forced an incompletion on third-and-goal that led to a field goal and Buffalo’s final points in a 27-10 Bengals victory.

“Whenever your number is called, you have to deliver,” Hill said.

Taylor-Britt said that given what is ahead for he and Hill, this could be the biggest offseason they’ve had, even surpassing the preparation for the NFL draft.

“Your second year, you have a lot more free time,” Taylor-Britt said. “You really gotta be on top of your stuff. You have to come back ready and prepared because it’s going to be a big year next for all of us.”

When the team gathers for organized team activities and offseason minicamp, Taylor-Britt and Hill could be the ones in the middle of the secondary’s “money on the floor” celebrations. And as for Taylor-Britt’s $100 bill?

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll be back next year.”