In Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, the Cincinnati Bengals boast one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. But between trying to pay both of those pass catchers and quarterback Joe Burrow, the Bengals could run into a problem — there might not be enough money to go around.
Still, Cincinnati is reportedly attempting to work out an extension for Higgins, even though a Burrow deal will come first. Can the Bengals figure out a way to retain both Higgins and Chase?
Bengals Trying To Extend Tee Higgins
Cincinnati is actively negotiating with Burrow on a long-term pact that could reach $55 million annually and ensure the former No. 1 pick stays in the Queen City for years to come. Once that contract is complete, Higgins and linebacker Logan Wilson are next on the agenda, according to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.
The Bengals regard Higgins as an “elite” receiver, per Fowler. Earlier this year, there were suggestions that Cincinnati could trade Higgins as he enters the final season of his rookie contract, but de facto Bengals general manager Duke Tobin was quick to dismiss those rumors.
“I’m in the business of making the Cincinnati Bengals better,” Tobin said in February. “Trading Tee Higgins is not on my mind. That’s their problem. They want a receiver, go find your own. In my opinion, Tee Higgins is a good piece for the Cincinnati Bengals. The trade stuff is a little ridiculous right now.”
Over three NFL campaigns, Higgins has averaged 72 receptions, 1,009 yards, and six touchdowns per season. During that time, he ranked 20th in ESPN’s wide receiver metrics, which uses tracking data to gauge a player’s ability at getting open, making the catch, and creating yards after the catch. Higgins finished seventh in ESPN’s metric in 2022.
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When Chase missed four games with a hip injury last season, Higgins became Burrow’s top receiver. He hauled in 26 receptions for 374 yards and two touchdowns in those contests, proving that he can serve as a WR1.
Higgins is a former second-round pick, so the Bengals don’t hold a fifth-year option on his contract for 2024. However, they can use the franchise tag — projected to be around $24 million for receivers — as leverage in negotiations.
Seven receivers currently earn at least $24 million per year. Higgins has been roughly as productive as the bottom end of the group — A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf — were before they landed extensions with their respective teams.
Even though he’s the No. 2 receiver on his own club, Higgins would be well within his rights to start talks at $25 million annually. But his price could go even higher with another productive season in 2023.
Can the Bengals Hold Onto Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase?
While the Bengals can work on a deal for Higgins, Chase isn’t even eligible for an extension yet. Cincinnati has to wait until he’s completed three NFL seasons, so they can’t discuss a new deal for Chase until after the upcoming campaign.
It feels like a fait accompli that Chase will be with the Bengals for the long term. The former LSU star immediately established himself at the NFL level, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and earning a second-team All-Pro nod in his first season in Cincinnati. Chase posted similar per-game numbers in 2022, although his totals were down due to his injury-related absence.
Currently, only four NFL teams have two wide receivers making more than $15 million per season: the Raiders (Davante Adams and Hunter Renfrow), the Seahawks (Metcalf and Tyler Lockett), the Chargers (Keenan Allen and Mike Williams), and the Buccaneers (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin).
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Chase and Higgins will both be earning significantly more than $15 million annually. Higgins might be around $25 million, and given how the WR market has exploded, Chase could surpass $30 million, especially after Justin Jefferson resets positional salaries with what should be a massive extension with the Vikings.
Add in the Burrow contract, and the Bengals could be paying three players $110 million per year. The NFL salary cap will continue to rise, and Cincinnati can manipulate deals to theoretically make the finances work, but that’s a lot of money devoted to just three players. It would also prevent the Bengals from being as active in free agency as they’ve been in recent years.
What are Cincinnati’s alternatives? Even if they don’t trade Higgins this offseason, the Bengals could consider franchising him in 2024 before attempting to deal him. That’s not a strategy the Bengals have employed in the past, but it would present a better outcome than simply receiving a third-round compensatory pick if Higgins leaves in free agency.
If Cincinnati wants to keep Higgins, however, they’ll have to keep along the path that they’ve already begun to forge: Keep hitting on draft picks, especially on the defensive side of the ball, so that cap space can be reserved for the club’s Big Three.
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