A Steelers-Bengals trade that would send the rest of the AFC North panicking

One trade for the Pittsburgh Steelers could flip the AFC North entirely on its head.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals
Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals / Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been true mavens when it comes to developing mid-round wide receivers. In fact, one could argue that they've been overly confident with that strategy this offseason after trading Diontae Johnson to the Carolina Panthers. That move leaves Mike Tomlin's club with George Pickens and an array of question marks, but that isn't stopping reports that Pittsburgh won't take a wide receiver in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft.

Many have assumed that means the Steelers will try to run it back in the second or third rounds of the draft by selecting a receiver and trying to work their magic on that player like they have many before. But what if it's actually forecasting not drafting a receiver at all and, instead, making a trade? Even more surprisingly, what if that trade is with the rival Cincinnati Bengals within the AFC North?

Steelers insider Andrew Fillipponi reported on Friday that the organization has had discussions internally about trading for Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. Higgins, of course, had the franchise tag placed on him earlier this offseason and subsequently requested a trade from Cincinnati. But things have been relatively stagnant since then.

The draft, which begins on April 25, often has a way of speeding up those kinds of negotiations and discussions, though. So what would a Steelers-Bengals trade that keeps Tee Higgins in the division ultimately end up looking like? Let's break it all down, starting with the trade package.

Steelers-Bengals trade sends Tee Higgins to Pittsburgh

Here's what that potential Steelers trade for Tee Higgins could look like as the Bengals would get more than adequate return.

Steelers Higgins

Because this is an in-division trade, Pittsburgh will have to pay a slight premium to the Bengals. Jordan Schultz of Bleacher Report previously reported that Cincinnati was looking for a second-round pick if they were to trade Higgins but could settle for a third-rounder. For the Steelers, though, it's a second-rounder and a future fifth-rounder on top of that.

Even still, that should be a price that the Steelers are happy to pay. Not only have the leaves recently been blowing in a manner that suggests targeting a receiver on Day 2 of the draft rather than the first round while prioritizing offensive line instead, but they aren't going to find a better receiver -- at least not one who's proven -- in that range than Higgins. Pittsburgh also has an extra fifth-round pick in 2025, so they merely are giving up what is already extra draft capital.

The real complication for the Steelers wouldn't be making the trade for Higgins -- it seems likely that Pittsburgh would be able to pull off this deal with the right amount of aggression. Instead, it would be what comes after.

Pittsburgh is currently sitting with only $12+ million in effective cap space right now. Trading for Higgins on the franchise tag all but necessitates then signing him to a long-term extension. They currently don't have the funds considering that Higgins is likely to demand a deal with an AAV hovering in the $18-20 million range, if not more.

That doesn't mean the Steelers couldn't make it work, though. Restructuring contracts for T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick or Alex Highsmith could save about $7-9 million apiece on the salary cap. And there are other deals to possible restructure for lesser but still impactful savings.

As for the Bengals, Higgins has demanded a trade. Making this deal, though it would set them up for two revenge games from the receiver per year in the AFC North, allows Cincinnati to move toward that future. They would then have three picks in the Top 51, one of which could be used to replenish the receiving corps around Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase, while also addressing other needs.

Is that ideal for Cincy? No, but it does seem like a split with Higgins is coming, and trading in-division, even if uncommon, might help to yield them the best haul from a semi-desperate Steelers team.