CINCINNATI -- For the past two years, the Cincinnati Bengals have enjoyed the luxury of having two of the NFL’s top young wide receivers.
Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins have produced big plays when Cincinnati needed them. In seven playoff games over the last two seasons, the duo has combined for 1,045 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
The NFL’s economic structure is built to stop teams from amassing several top players. Fitting new contracts for Chase, Higgins and Joe Burrow all beneath the salary cap is the primary challenge. But the Bengals want to find a way to keep Higgins as part of that offensive core for at least 2023, if not beyond.
“I envision him being a part of what we're doing going forward for a long time,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said at this year’s NFL scouting combine. “That's the hope. We want our guys, especially our guys who come in, to prove that they can help us win in a big way."
Higgins fits that category. The 33rd overall pick in the 2020 draft has posted two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and had key performances in big games. In the Super Bowl LVI loss in 2022, Higgins had four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Higgins also made an impact in the AFC championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs in January, with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in the 23-20 loss.
But of the Bengals’ top three young offensive players, Higgins is the most expendable. Burrow has proven invaluable since being drafted in 2020 and is coming off a season that made him an MVP finalist. Chase, Burrow’s college teammate at LSU, has made the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons.
But the reaction to any trade speculation involving Higgins underscored how Cincinnati’s decision makers view the former Clemson standout. Bengals coach Zac Taylor, the team’s offensive playcaller, gushed about having Higgins as an asset.
“That’s why whenever you see the rumors flying around out there, it’s nonsense," Taylor said. "Because at the end of the day, I do get to call the plays. It’s fun having weapons out there, and you don’t really want to give those up.”
Having multiple quality receivers has been imperative for Cincinnati’s offensive success since Taylor took over.
When the Bengals hired Taylor in 2019, he established an offense that primarily operates out of “11 personnel” -- one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. Since Taylor’s arrival, the Bengals have used that package on a league-high 77.5% of their offensive plays, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Running that offense effectively means having the necessary players. Also, veteran Tyler Boyd, who has more than 5,300 receiving yards in seven seasons with the team, is entering the final year of his current contract.
The Bengals haven’t been shy about paying for positions they value. For instance, Cincinnati has nearly $60 million of cap space committed to its defensive line for 2023.
But in order to keep Higgins, Chase and Burrow, that could mean reallocating that money for its passing offense. The Los Angeles Chargers are the lone team that has two wide receivers on contracts that average more than $20 million annually. When asked about the difficulty of giving multiple receivers high-end contracts, Tobin said he hadn’t put too much thought into it and focused on the short term.
“We look at a lot of different things,” Tobin said. “We also look at the fact at what he does for [us] as a football team and he's under contract next year. We'll talk to him perhaps as the offseason goes on to see if there's something we can come to an agreement on or not. He's eligible for that.”
Higgins represents a financial bargain right now. He will count just under $4 million against the salary cap in 2023. Cincinnati currently values that combination of his salary and on-field production more than any draft capital that exchanges Higgins for a cheaper option.
“Tee is a big part of what we do,” Tobin said. “He gels great with our quarterback, he's a great piece of what we've developed on offense and we aren't looking to start over right now.”