We were told this might be the best wide receiver class of all time. Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Jalen Reagor, Denzel Mims, Brandon Aiyuk, Michael Pittman Jr., Laviska Shenault, just to name a few.
Where was Tee Higgins’ name? Too low on the list, that’s where.
Despite being one of the most accomplished wide receivers in the country at Clemson for his final two years there, Higgins wasn't in the top five of many wide receiver rankings for the 2020 NFL Draft. After accumulating more than 2,000 receiving yards and 15 receiving touchdowns in those final two seasons, Higgins’ numbers could hang with almost anyone. But when it came to draft time, the league clearly valued the receivers with the higher athletic ceiling, as Higgins ended up being the seventh wide receiver selected as pick No. 33 at the top of the second round.
Fast forward to now and the only rookie wide receiver with more yards than Higgins is Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson.
Higgins quickly made a name for himself in an offense where the incumbent wide receiver room was one of the most crowded parts of the Bengals’ depth chart. A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, and John Ross were already somewhat established players on the team. But though the names were notable, there was room to climb the ladder, and that’s exactly what Higgins did.
Through nine games, Higgins has 40 catches on 61 targets for 603 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns, and his arrow is only pointing up. He’s played more than 75% of the team’s offensive snaps in each of his last five games and has 39 targets in that timeframe. In his latest venture, Higgins caught seven of his nine targets for 115 yards and a touchdown against a staunch Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
When I popped on Higgins’ tape, I thought I’d see all sorts of back-shoulder balls, vertical catches in the corner over defensive backs, and more jump balls—all areas where Higgins thrived at Clemson. But against the Steelers, there wasn’t much of that at all.
To the contrary, Higgins was used a lot inside the numbers as a middle of the field player against the Steelers’ Cover 3 shells. As you can see in the play above, there was plenty of space to work with, which was key for a player who doesn’t manufacture much space on his own. The Bengals were asking him to go inside with varying depth of slants for most of the day, and it was successful.
It wasn’t just that one catch, either. Throughout the game, the Bengals were using Higgins as a threat to the inside, likely because of what I referenced earlier; that the scouting report on him called for Higgins to be primarily used as a sideline guy.
Though he did look slower than most inside wide receivers we’re used to watching, the mismatch in the middle was clearly working, and it even set up some bigger plays later in the game.
Here’s a play where Higgins was in an outside alignment. Though he wasn't between the numbers, the defender playing with inside leverage told us that he was expecting an inside move, or at least wanted his position to do part of the work for him when defending such a route, if that’s what Higgins was running once again. Higgins made a cut like he was going inside, but then bounced back out and continued his momentum vertically. He didn’t end up catching this pass, but he certainly did his job to get open. It was a nice set-up play that showed a job well done on previous routes.
Then there was Higgins’ biggest play of the day, a 54-yard vertical route up the seam. After getting gashed up the middle by Higgins and others one too many times, the Steelers tried to clutter the short middle of the field with zone coverage. The problem was they didn’t have enough deep coverage behind it, and Higgins was able to get right by.
If you ask me, this was a great second step of some set-up work from earlier in the game, a good sign of the Bengals winning the mental chess match in the passing game with Higgins as a key piece.
The final highlight of Higgins’ day comes from an area where we know he can be of big value: the red zone. Higgins has those long arms and that big body, which makes it tough for defenders to out-reach him. This touchdown wasn’t a jump ball in the corner of the end zone, but it shows that they trust him to make the most of the money area. He got a little help from a designed pick, but the reliable hands were there once again.
Higgins didn’t all of a sudden get more athletic or become a better separator once he got to the NFL, but what he does well outside of athletic limitations is proving to be very valuable as the year has gone on. Expect that to continue.