NFL Rumors: Bengals positioned to make firm decision on Tee Higgins

The Cincinnati Bengals have enjoyed the luxury of having star players on cheap rookie contracts. As that comes to an end, they'll have to make a decision on what to do with dynamic wide receiver Tee Higgins.

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals
Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals / Kirk Irwin/GettyImages

The Cincinnati Bengals have never had two dynamic weapons flanking the perimeter quite like they do right now. Sure, they had Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson during the 2010 NFL season, but T.O. and Ochocinco were both at the tail end of their careers.

Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins are already two of the league's best receivers, and they're just getting started.

During the 2023 NFL season, Cincinnati had the luxury of fielding both receivers for pennies on the dollar. Their 2023 cap hits combined for approximately $12.37 million, which would rank 17th among all wide receivers. The duo's combined total cash earnings in 2023 were just $6.45 million. For context, that figure would rank 41st among all wide receivers, far behind rookie receivers Jordan Addison ($7.7 million), Quintin Johnston ($8.1 million), and Jaxon Smith-Njigba ($8.23 million), per Spotrac.

Cincinnati was in a prime position to leverage their financial freedom into a dynastic run of their own — especially while they still had quarterback Joe Burrow on a rookie contract. That window has closed, and the time to pay is upon them.

Bengals are likely to franchise tag Tee Higgins — but what comes next?

Higgins — Cincinnati's new Ochocinco — is set to be a free agent this offseason. According to Spotrac, Higgins' market value is expected to earn him a four-year contract worth $74.4 million.

Cincinnati selected Higgins in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and he has been nothing short of remarkable since he stepped onto the field. In his four seasons, the 25-year-old receiver has reeled in 257 catches for 3,684 yards and 24 touchdowns. NFL players voted Higgins as the most underrated player in the league during an anonymous player survey conducted by The Athletic.

Cincinnati has the fourth-highest available cap space heading into the 2024 NFL offseason, but the team has other contractual obligations to keep in mind. Chase, who is eligible for a contract extension this offseason, will undoubtedly command a record-breaking contract for wide receivers.

Keeping both Chase and Higgins could cost Cincinnati over $50 million per season, which would undoubtedly erode talent across their roster. Bengals general manager Duke Tobin will have to decide if he wants to tie up that much of the team's cap space in one position group. If not, the Bengals will have to eventually part ways with Higgins.

Can the Bengals afford to keep Tee Higgins?

The Bengals' decision on Higgins' future will come with massive ramifications for the franchise's quest to win a championship. Their management of Higgins' contract, in conjunction with the contracts of Burrow and Chase, will either be used as a cautionary tale or a blueprint for future up-and-coming team executives.

"We’ll see what happens this year," Bengals general manager Duke Tobin said in January. "I want Tee Higgins back. Everyone on our team would like to have Tee Higgins back. Again, there’s one pie and how big of a slice that takes and what else we can’t do because of it, we’ll have to determine and we’ll see."

A long-term contract extension seems out of the question for now, as prior reports have indicated that the two sides have never been close on terms. Higgins even recently suggested that he wouldn't mind playing for his hometown team, the Tennessee Titans.

Currently, all expectations are that the Bengals will use the franchise tag designation on Higgins to keep him on the team for at least the 2024 season.

The potential franchise tag for Higgins was accounted for in Burrow's $275 million contract extension, according to The Athletic. Burrow's new contract isn't set to kick in on the salary cap until next year, when the figure will climb to $46.3 million. For the 2024 NFL season, the number remains at $29.7 million, the original value of his fifth-year option. The late onset of Burrow's contract can help offset the difference for Higgins' franchise tag.

The franchise tag deadline is March 5 at 4 p.m. ET. After that, the Bengals would have until Monday, July 15 to sign Higgins to a multi-year extension. If no contract extension is in place by that date, Higgins will hit free agency after the 2024 NFL season.

The franchise tag designation would offer Higgins a one-year guaranteed contract worth $20.7 million. He would still be free to negotiate with other teams, but the Bengals would reserve the right to match any offer and receive two first-round picks as compensation if they didn't. The hefty cost it would take to acquire Higgins would essentially guarantee that he wouldn't find any other suitors.

The Bengals last used the franchise tag on safety Jessie Bates III in 2022. The two sides ultimately couldn't reach an agreement and Bates played out the one-year tag before joining the Atlanta Falcons in free agency.

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