Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin quickly took Tee Higgins out of trade rumors in his contract year, indicating the team’s No. 2 wide receiver would not be available. While Higgins did not take a step forward in 2023, he still stands to be one of the top pass catchers available — should the Ja’Marr Chase sidekick reach free agency.
Tobin is a bit less emphatic about Higgins’ future with the team this year. The former second-round pick played out his rookie deal and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. If the Bengals do not have Higgins franchise-tagged by March 5 or re-signed by March 11, the Clemson product will be free to speak with other teams.
Seeing as Chase will understandably be the receiver priority and the team having made Joe Burrow the NFL’s highest-paid player, the prospect of losing Higgins has long been on the horizon. The Bengals do, however, want to re-sign the four-year starter. A January report also indicated the team is prepared to tag the 6-foot-4 pass catcher.
“We’ll see what happens this year,” Tobin said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Kelsey Conway. “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.”
Higgins, who finished an injury-plagued season with career-low marks in receptions (42) and yards (656), would cost approximately $21.7MM to retain on the tag. The Bengals cuffed A.J. Green back in 2020. That situation, when Burrow was on a rookie deal, obviously differs from present circumstances. Burrow is now the NFL’s salary kingpin, and Chase is on track to one day become the league’s highest-paid receiver.
Thanks to the fifth-year option, Chase can be kept on his rookie contract through the 2025 season. No team in the fifth-year option era has extended a first-round receiver with two years of control remaining on a rookie deal; as was the case with Justin Jefferson in Minnesota, this points Cincinnati toward Chase extension talks in his fifth year (2025) rather than this offseason.
Still, a future with Chase on a deal that eclipses $30MM per year will impact the Bengals’ decision on Higgins. The sides engaged in extension talks before the season, but Higgins did not find the team’s offer appealing. The Bengals still rebuffed trade interest before the deadline. Burrow’s contract also features a midlevel cap number in 2024 ($29.7MM) before spiking past $45MM in 2025. Burrow’s contract structure and the prospect of Chase being kept on a rookie rate next season does keep the door open for a Higgins rental year.
Tobin seems less optimistic Jonah Williams can be retained. The Bengals blindsided Williams by signing Orlando Brown Jr. to a $16MM-per-year deal, a move that kicked the three-year left tackle to the right side. Williams requested a trade but returned to the fold during the summer. It certainly looks like the four-year O-line starter will be on the move soon.
“I don’t know what the future holds. We’ll see,” Tobin said, via Conway. “We’ve got this pie, whether there’s a big enough piece of pie for him or he’s going to get a bigger piece of pie somewhere else, we’ll see. It’s hard to predict right now exactly what other teams are going to do and their interest level in any of our free agents. We’re proud of Jonah for the way he played.”
Williams, 26, returned from his postseason knee injury to start all 17 Bengals games this past season. Pro Football Focus graded him 59th among tackles, and it will be interesting to see if Williams makes it clear ahead of free agency he wants to return to left tackle for his next team. Regardless of position, the 2019 first-round pick would be one of the top O-linemen available if he hits the market.