To tag or not to tag. What will Bengals do with Tee Higgins?

Window to place franchise tag on player begins Tuesday

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Cincinnati Bengals have a decision to make: To tag Tee Higgins or not.

NFL teams have a window to designate one player to use its franchise tag on, starting Tuesday and ending with a March 5 deadline.

All signs point to the likelihood the Bengals will use the tag to keep Higgins for at least one more year and prevent him from entering free agency, but that means an investment of $21.67 million for the 2024 season — unless they tag, then trade him.

If Joe Burrow has a say, Higgins will be back in tiger stripes for a fifth season.

“I know Tee wants to be here,” Burrow said in January. “Tee knows we want him here. There’s not much to say in that aspect. Everybody’s expectations is Tee is going to be back. We’ll see. The offseason plays out in crazy ways you don’t expect. I’d love to have Tee back and I know he wants to be back.”

However, the Bengals have many factors to weigh in that decision, most notably how much of the pie — director of player personnel Duke Tobin’s favorite metaphor for the salary cap — is left for a player of Higgins’ caliber. He’s worthy of No. 1 wide receiver money, which is why Cincinnati hasn’t been able to reach a long-term agreement already.

Even a one-year franchise tag takes up a big piece of the pie that also has to be split on other players and positions. The organization already gave Burrow a five-year extension worth $275 million in September, and Ja’Marr Chase is due for an extension that is sure to come.

Higgins, the team’s second-round draft pick at No. 33 overall in 2020 behind Burrow, was a big part of the rebuild that led to Cincinnati’s first playoff wins in 31 years leading up to a Super Bowl LVI appearance his second season. Chase was the missing piece, though, and after leading the team in receiving yards each of his three seasons, he is the clear priority — even while everyone wants Higgins back as well.

“He’s a big part of what we have done here,” Burrow said of Higgins in January. “It’s no secret our relationship. I expect Tee to be back. I think that’s the sentiment in the locker room. We all want Tee back. We know what kind of player he is. We know what kind of person he is. He’s what being a Bengal is all about. Like you said, we’ll see, but I think we should have a good opportunity.”

There are the potential concerns about Higgins’ longevity after he dealt with various injuries his first four seasons, including a rib fracture and hamstring injuries that limited him to 12 games and just 656 yards receiving and five touchdowns in 2023.

It’s unclear if he might have pushed through some of that pain with a long-term contract already in hand, but Higgins insisted he wanted to help the team. Some among the fan base were criticizing him for seemingly taking his time coming back from the hamstring injury while the team was still pushing for a playoff berth. He missed three straight games in November, all losses for the Bengals, but after his return, he helped them win three straight.

“My health is way more important than the other people who have their opinion on me, but I’m here, and my only thing is I always want to help this team, and I’m glad I’m here, and I’m glad I’m healthy,” Higgins said Dec. 1, as he prepared for his first game back following the three-game absence. “My thing was I wanted to get healthy so I could be 100 percent to go out there and play at 100 percent to help my team to come out with the ‘W.’”

Starting fresh through the draft would be another option for Cincinnati. The organization has a history of success drafting receivers without always having to use a first-round pick to get them, and that would be a cheaper route. Aside from home runs with Chase and Higgins, there were other standout picks like Tyler Boyd (2016 second round), Mohamed Sanu (2012 third round), Marvin Jones (2012 fifth round) and AJ Green (2011 first round).

John Ross, who sputtered as a first-round pick in 2017, is a memorable outlier, but it’s a good year to take a chance drafting a receiver. Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. could be the best overall talent in the 2024 draft class; however, the wide receiver pool overall is deep and dominant skill sets are littered throughout the group.

Then again, maybe the Bengals won’t want to add a Higgins replacement to a growing list of needs. Cincinnati already has some rebuilding to do on offense with Boyd also likely departing in free agency, the potential of the team moving on from Joe Mixon in an effort to find a more explosive running back and the need for a new starting tight end after things did not work out with Irv Smith Jr. last season.

“I want Tee Higgins back,” Tobin told reporters at the Senior Bowl last month. “Everyone on our team would like Tee Higgins back. There’s a pie and there are things we can do and can’t do because of it. We’ll see.”

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