The Tee Higgins-Bengals crossroads, Part 1: Understanding the ramifications
This is the first of a four-part series analyzing every angle of the Cincinnati Bengals’ future with free-agent receiver Tee Higgins and running mate Ja’Marr Chase. We lay out the truth of all discussion points from club, player and analytical angles leading up to the franchise tag deadline on March 5 as they plot the next phase of the Joe Burrow era.
• Part 1: Understanding the ramifications
• Part 2: The primary weapon and asterisk of availability
• Part 3: The Chase extension and trends of paying two top WRs
• Part 4: What they should do, what they will do
Joe Burrow said he expects Tee Higgins back. Higgins’ contract is up and, for the first time, the 25-year-old is a free agent. There’s a desire throughout the building for the star receiver and his dynamic combo partnership with Ja’Marr Chase to continue in Cincinnati for at least one more year.
In football, specifically the business side, hopes and desires don’t always align with the final result.
TEE HIGGINS JUMP BALL AND THE REACH! WHAT A TD 😱
— NFL (@NFL) December 16, 2023
There’s a pie, you know, referencing a favorite analogy utilized by director of player personnel Duke Tobin with reporters at the Senior Bowl last month. A larger slice for one means a smaller for another.
With Higgins’ situation and discussions in the corner offices of Paycor Stadium about the path forward with him, this is less pie and more kaleidoscope.
Four different paths of his future — in conjunction with the contracts of Burrow and Chase — all would create significant ripple effects and determine how the Bengals plan on approaching the next phase of Burrow’s quest to deliver a championship.
The writing is on the wall and all expectations are the Bengals will use a franchise tag on Higgins.
Such a decision holds ramifications, though, and the next six weeks are the inflection point.
In reaching that point, analyzing if that’s the correct decision and potential fallout is as complicated as impactful. That’s why I’m using a four-part series rooted in conversations with league and team sources to dissect every angle. From precedence for tags, trades and compensation to pinpointing the true value of the trio. Assessing the timeline of a Chase extension, the draft class and the weight of injury history. Cautionary tales, free-agent possibilities and the Bengals potentially ignoring a philosophy that treated them well.
And, of course, what they should do and how all this ends.
Higgins’ decision will become one line on the transaction wire but will take years to conclude whether they were right or wrong and what could have been.
Let’s start laying out the options, history and projections leading up to the franchise tag deadline of 4 p.m. on March 5 and the start of free agency two weeks later.
1. Franchise tag at one year and $20.7 million
2. Franchise tag and then trade to a team willing to pay him long-term and give up compensation
3. Higgins signs a long-term extension before the franchise tag deadline
4. No tag, no extension, Higgins walks in free agency, Bengals potentially add 2025 compensatory pick
The franchise tag is a one-year guaranteed contract offer sheet that Higgins can choose to sign for $20.7 million. He’s technically still free to negotiate with other teams at that point, but the Bengals would reserve the right to match any offer and receive two first-round picks as compensation if they didn’t.
The Bengals have used the franchise tag twice in the last four offseasons, tagging Jessie Bates III in 2022 at $12.9 million and A.J. Green in 2020 at $18.2 million. Before that, their last usage was in 2013 with defensive end Michael Johnson.
They’ve been hesitant to use the tag but are willing in certain situations. Bates can only be viewed as a success for both sides despite not reaching a desired long-term deal. He didn’t take part in most of training camp but showed up and played well as part of a team that nearly reached the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season. He then cashed in at four years and $64 million with the Atlanta Falcons in free agency.
Green’s tag could only be characterized as regrettable. The franchise legend couldn’t regain the form from before his injury on the first practice of 2019, which began the end of his illustrious career. He signed with the Arizona Cardinals the next offseason and has since retired.
There have been 24 franchise tags applied in the last three years. Eleven of those players agreed to an extension before the season.
Three dates matter most in the process. Feb. 20 marks the first day the Bengals can apply the tag and the deadline is March 5. One league source suggested the Bengals could place the tag early in the window as a statement acknowledging no long-term deal will be reached and opening the door for the rest of the league to consider or submit tag-and-trade offers. Far more likely, the two sides will convene up until the deadline with hopes of completing a long-term extension. If no extension is reached then, the next deadline is July 15. That’s the deadline to reach a long-term extension or else Higgins will have to play the 2024 season on the franchise tag contract.
The Bengals could tag Higgins again in 2025 but would do so at 120 percent of the previous year, which would be $24.8 million.
Using the tag for Higgins to play in 2024 marks the most likely scenario and one accounted for in Burrow’s contract. When Burrow signed his $275 million deal, the extension didn’t kick in on the cap until the 2025 season. That leaves Burrow’s cap number this year at the $29.7 million fifth-year option of his rookie contract before ballooning to $46.3 million the next season. The difference can essentially be moved to Higgins’ bank account.
An ideal scenario would be agreeing to an extension that made both sides happy. That might not exist.
Negotiations never got close before last season and there’s an existing template for a deal that would involve a structure the Bengals have not historically been comfortable fulfilling — specifically, large sums of guaranteed cash, often extending into the second year of the deal.
With Burrow the obvious exception, the club set a new record for guaranteed money in a contract signing Orlando Brown Jr. ($33 million) last year, blowing away recent history. The line of most recent receiver deals, specifically those involving Day 2 picks that rose to prominence on their teams, shows the guarantees expected to keep Higgins long-term.
Recent comparable WR extensions
Could the Bengals go there? Perhaps. Times have changed around the building and a new precedent seems to fall by the wayside every year, but going to this level — and probably beyond to find agreement with Higgins’ agent David Mulugheta — would be a stretch given constraints in coming years. The Bengals went down this road with Mulugheta dealing with Bates and it proved notably challenging. Higgins has followed the same path to this point.
There’s also a benefit for Higgins to wait. The receiver market is chaotic with many big names capable of altering the landscape. The Indianapolis Colts’ Michael Pittman Jr. will be a key name to watch. Assuming the Colts don’t tag him, his deal in free agency could dictate the next wave for receiver salaries. If he crosses over $25 million in average annual value, one league source estimated it could set off another spike at the position like one seen two years ago. Or a lower number could suggest a plateau. With big names like Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk and CeeDee Lamb negotiating as well as the 2021 class of Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Amon-Ra St. Brown on deck, the numbers could change dramatically in a year.
Higgins said all the right things making the rounds at the Super Bowl last week. He pointed out how much he enjoys playing in Cincinnati and his desire to stay, but didn’t push back on the possibilities with other teams. He even referred to a return to his home state of Tennessee and a potential reunion with former Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan as “ideal.”
Tee Higgins on playing with #Titans: “It would be good going home…and playing with a coach that I’ve already been under”
— The Sick Podcast – Talking Titans (@SickPodTitans) February 8, 2024
If Higgins hit the open market, he wouldn’t have much problem finding a team needing a top wideout willing to comply. Receivers have never been more valuable in the league and there’s a reason the best rarely reach free agency.
Teams have to hit in the draft or be willing to be creative to land one. As for creativity …
Tag and trade
If the Bengals cannot reach a long-term deal with Higgins by March 5 and do place the franchise tag on him, they would have two options.
One, continue to negotiate with the understanding Higgins will play 2024 in Cincinnati.
Two, and far more complicated, trade Higgins on the tag to another team willing to comply with his contract demands.
The tag-and-trade is rare for good reason. There are six examples since 2018, two wide receivers and four edge rushers. Most notable is the timing of each. The moment a player signs the franchise tag, that number goes on the books. You can’t sign any other players or draft picks if you don’t have room under the cap. The Bengals won’t have that problem, currently $59 million under the cap. If their objective was to trade Higgins and then use the savings in free agency, they will need to know that before the free agency period kicks off at the new league year tampering period on March 11.
If the Bengals were going this route, they would likely aim to do the trade between March 5-11 and then take on free agency knowing their financial parameters, not wait until draft weekend. That was the precedent with the two receivers.
Recent tag & trade history
1st & 2nd
2nd round (2021)
Jacob Martin, Barkevious Mingo, 3rd
1st (2019) & 3rd (2020)
4th & 7th
You could also throw in A.J. Brown, who was dealt to the Philadelphia Eagles by the Tennessee Titans for picks 18 and 101 two years ago on draft weekend. The Eagles immediately gave him a desired extension, but Brown wasn’t on the tag, merely the last year of his cheap rookie contract, making him more valuable to Philadelphia — and arguably a better player than Higgins, after multiple years as a proven solo No. 1.
Davante Adams was notably unhappy in Green Bay and the Packers didn’t see another way out other than making a deal of arguably the top receiver in football at that moment. Those picks turned into linebacker Quay Walker and receiver Christian Watson, both building blocks with Jordan Love.
Jarvis Landry didn’t collect as much in return with the league well aware he was on his way out of Miami.
Estimates from PFF’s Brad Spielberger put a tag-and-trade landing the Bengals something in the late first or early second round, likely throwing a Day 3 pick in the deal.
If looking for potential partners, Spielberger said to keep a specific eye on teams in that range who acquired the pick from another team. Those tend to be devalued by the trading team and more willing to be used for an asset.
Here’s a look at those with picks in the late first/early second that could be in the receiver market and rank in the top half of the league in effective cap space, via Over The Cap.
Teams with WR need, picks, space
Arizona (from HOU)
Washington (from CHI)
There are certainly teams that would fit the criteria if the Bengals ended up looking in that direction. Adding a selection in this portion of the draft, one that’s particularly flush with receiver talent, would set the stage for the next wave of Burrow’s weapons despite taking on the significant risk of falling off at an important position (see Hill, Dax).
These are incredibly difficult to pull off and the power does shift into Higgins’ hands. No trade can be done until he signs the tag. If Higgins doesn’t want to go to wherever the Bengals agree to terms, he doesn’t have to sign it.
No tag, no trade, Higgins walks
If Cincinnati didn’t tag Higgins and allowed him to hit the open market in free agency, they would be left empty-handed outside of a likely third-round compensatory pick in 2025.
And there’s even a catch with that lowly return. Much like with Bates leaving for Atlanta, the Bengals’ compensatory pick they would have received this year was wiped out by inking Brown in free agency last year. Instead, the Bengals are only left with what’s projected to be an extra fifth (Vonn Bell) and seventh (Samaje Perine), via Over The Cap.
If the Bengals lose Higgins to free agency, there’s no guarantee they would receive that back. This would classify somewhere between negligent and reckless if the Bengals allowed this to play out. The good news for Bengals fans is it won’t.
This could happen next offseason — just as it did with Bates following a year on the franchise tag — but there is zero indication from the team that Higgins will sniff free agency this year.
(Top photo: Perry Knotts / Getty Images)