The connection between Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow is something football fans have marveled dating back to their time together at LSU. But a major part of what makes the Bengals offense so dangerous is the presence of Tee Higgins.
The third-year receiver from Clemson has emerged as one of the biggest matchup problems in the NFL. At 6-4, 215 pounds, Higgins is a physical receiver that has won 43.9 percent of contested targets in his career. He is coming off two straight seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards. Since the start of the 2021 season, Higgins ranks 16th in yards (2,120), 27th in catches (148) and 22nd in touchdowns (13) among all players. All while splitting target shares with fellow receiving stars like Chase and Tyler Boyd.
While Chase, Higgins and Boyd make for an enviable trio of receivers in 2022, looming is the question of how, if it is at all possible, the Bengals will be able to retain all three for the long haul, as well as Burrow. The Bengals are reportedly preparing to make Burrow one of the highest paid quarterbacks with an extension that will pay him more than $50.3 million per year.
With the prospect of blockbuster deals for Burrow — as well as longtime teammate Chase — Higgins could be one of the biggest wild cards for the team. His production will warrant a large contract that could make him among the highest-paid WRs in the league after his rookie deal comes to an end.
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When will Cincinnati have to turn its focus to Higgins? Here’s what you need to know about his contract status.
When is Tee Higgins’ contract up?
Back in 2020, the Bengals made Burrow the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Starting off the second round of the draft, they brought in a top receiver in Higgins to add to Boyd in the receiving corps.
Because Higgins was drafted in the second round, he will not have the fifth-year option available that the team will have to keep Burrow around at least through 2024. That means Higgins will be playing on the final year of his rookie contract in 2023.
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Part of the reason 2022 and 2023 are viewed as prime years in the Bengals’ Super Bowl window is because of the number of players still under contract either through rookie deals or affordable contracts given. But to stay competitive with the prospect of more than $50 million invested in one player, Cincinnati will have to get a bit more creative.
Starting after this year’s postseason run, there will be several key players with expiring contracts. Both starting safeties — Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell — are going to be free agents. Middle linebacker Germaine Pratt will be a free agent. Corners Eli Apple and Tre Flowers will both be free agents. On the offensive side of the ball, tight ends Hayden Hurts and Drew Sample, as well as running back Samaje Perine will be without deals for the 2023 season.
While the loss of any of those players will no doubt be a significant blow to the team, that wave doesn’t compare with the possible free agents after the 2023 season. Both Higgins and Boyd will see their current contracts expire, while left tackle Jonah Williams will also become a free agent. Top edge-rusher Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle D.J. Reader, linebackers Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither and corner Chidobe Awuzie lead the major names on expiring deals on the defensive side of the ball.
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According to Spotrac, Higgins has a market value of a deal around four years and $80.6 million. If the Bengals wanted to keep both him and Burrow, that would be about $70 million a season to just two players. Chase, who will all but certainly have his fifth-year option picked up for 2025, currently has a market value of four years, $100.6 million, and that should only go up when Justin Jefferson sets a new standard after signing his contract with the Vikings. Committing $95 million to keep Burrow, Higgins and Chase might be both a discount and a detriment to the rest of the roster.
In 2022, according to Spotrac, the most expensive trio of players by cap hits came in Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes ($35.8 million), Chris Jones ($29.4 million) and Orlando Brown Jr. ($16.6 million) combining to take up $81.8 million. In 2023, the largest trio of cap hits will come from the Browns with Deshaun Watson ($54.9 million), Myles Garrett ($29.2 million) and Amari Cooper ($23.8 million) running the tab up to $107.9 million in Cleveland.
There are ways for the Bengals to make sure that not all of that $95 million would need to be given in a way that would count against the cap. Because of that, it is possible to keep three star players on the roster, but it hamstrings the rest of the ability to spread that money around. The Chiefs and Browns both have significant investments in quarterback, but also in defensive players (Jones and Garrett) and in one other supporting offensive player (Brown and Cooper).
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But that doesn’t mean that’s the way Cincinnati will want to handle it. Keeping Burrow surrounded with standout weaponry will be the goal, but staying loaded up in receivers will likely mean having to find replacements in the draft or finding more budget-friendly options.
The Bengals are by no means guaranteed to be out of contention as free agency continues on. Burrow should stick around, and the presence of an elite quarterback should keep the window for contention open for a while. But given the future price tags on key players on both sides of the ball, like Higgins, it will require some creativity.