The trade barely registered a reaction, even in the cities of the teams involved, because of its timing and the players that were moved.
When the Cincinnati Bengals acquired defensive tackle B.J. Hill from the New York Giants for offensive lineman Billy Price just before the start of the 2021 NFL season, it was looked upon as little more than an exchange of a rotational backup for a first-round disappointment.
Six months later, the deal has turned out to be much more than an afterthought for at least one of the teams and one of the players.
Hill, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound Oakboro native, has made a greater contribution than expected for Cincinnati while playing a major role in helping the team to its first Super Bowl since 1989.
His interception of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in last week’s AFC championship game provided a critical springboard that propelled the surprising Bengals into Sunday’s title showdown against the Los Angeles Rams.
“He’s exemplified everything we’re about,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Hill following the 27-24 victory in Kansas City. “He joined us right before the season, and he’s really stepped in and been a huge part of what we’ve done.”
Hill was originally drafted by the Giants in the third round in 2018, but after a promising rookie season in which he recorded 39 tackles and 5.5 sacks, his playing time began to diminish.
He was targeted by Cincinnati on the recommendation of his former NC State teammate Germaine Pratt, a linebacker with the Bengals.
The plan was for Hill to add depth to the interior of the team’s defensive line behind free agent pickup Larry Ogunjobi, who had signed a one-year contract worth $6 million. All it cost Cincinnati was Price, a former first round pick who had lost his starting position and fallen out of favor with the team’s coaching staff.
“He was a guy we had good grades on coming out of school,” Bengals director of pro scouting Steven Radicevic told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “[Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo] liked him when he had him in New York, and he had a North Carolina State teammate here in Pratt.”
While the deal wasn’t exactly one-sided, since Price ended up becoming a starter for the Giants, the Bengals got more out of Hill than they could have ever imagined.
He reverted to his rookie form by matching his total of 5.5 sacks to go along with 46 tackles, and with Ogunjobi sidelined for the playoffs with a foot injury, the former West Stanly and NC State star has become an even more important part of his team’s defense.
It’s a success Hill’s high school coach said he saw the first time he laid eyes on the big, strong defender who also spent time on the offensive side of the ball as a running back.
“B.J. wasn’t highly recruited because of some injuries and because West Stanly wasn’t very good early on in his career,” said James Johnson, who took over the Colts before Hill’s senior season of 2013. “He picked up a little steam that summer, but when I gave him his award at our banquet at the end of the year, I told everybody that this young man will play in the NFL one day.
“I don’t just throw things like that out. There’s not many kids I’ve coached that I would say that about, and I ended up being right.”
Hill, who still maintains close ties to his Stanly County home, went on to become part of an NC State defensive line that ranked as one of the best in college football and saw all four starters get drafted by NFL teams.
While Bradley Chubb has had the most individual success as a member of the Denver Broncos, Hill is the first member of the group to make it to a Super Bowl.
His interception of Mahomes late in the third quarter, in which he read the play, batted the ball into the air and caught it on the way down, fueled the biggest comeback in AFC title game history — a rally in which the Bengals battled back from an 18-point deficit to win in overtime.
He also had a pivotal sack in the closing minute to help preserve the Bengals opening round playoff win against the Las Vegas Raiders.
“It’s pretty phenomenal,” said Johnson, who has most recently been the defensive coordinator at Richmond County High. “I’ve been blessed to watch on Saturdays and Sundays and see a whole lot of guys I coached play, but the level B.J. is playing at right now is really exciting.”