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Tee Higgins
NFL

Tee Higgins Proved He Could Be No. 1 WR

  • Alonso Cervera-Pizana
  • December 2, 2022
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The Cincinnati Bengals have two No. 1 wide receivers. Former Clemson star Tee Higgins has proven over the course of Ja’Marr Chase’s absence with a hairline fracture in his hip that he can be the engine of a high-end NFL passing attack. Higgins has put up No. 1 receiver numbers in Chase’s absence. 

While the sample size is admittedly small, through four games without Chase, Higgins has combined for 26 catches on 36 targets for 371 yards and two touchdowns. This prorates out to 110 receptions for 1577 yards and eight touchdowns over a 17-game season. Last year, that reception and yardage total would have ranked top five in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Bengals have continued to produce, ranking fifth in offensive expected points added (EPA) in these four games.

With Chase’s brilliance, it can be easy to overlook Higgins as a high-end contributor in Cincinnati’s passing game. Chase exploded onto the scene as a rookie, racking up 1,455 yards at a whopping clip of 18 yards per reception, ranking first in expected points added among all pass-catchers and establishing himself as one of the best players, period, in the NFL. Chase came in at third on ESPN’s Top 25 Players Under 25 list, behind Micah Parsons and Justin Jefferson. He is firmly entrenched as one of the best of the best. But Higgins might not be so far behind; he checked in as an honorable mention on the list with the note that he “would be a No. 1 wide receiver for multiple teams around the league.” 

His production without Chase this year is not the first prolonged stretch of elite play. Last season, Higgins failed to top 65 yards in Cincinnati’s first seven games of the season (missing two due to injury). However, in his last nine games, he caught 49 passes, averaged 92.8 yards per game, and scored four touchdowns. Prorated out to a 17-game season, which equates to 93 receptions for 1,577 yards and eight touchdowns, elite number one receiver production sustained over half a season. The production continued in the playoffs, where he had three games with more than 95 yards and two touchdowns in Super Bowl LVI. 

Chase and Higgins are not only (very) good players playing together, they are a complementary and synergistic fit for each other and quarterback Joe Burrow. While Chase is an explosive play machine that thrives off of yards after catch opportunities, Higgins makes his living on contested catches and winning with physicality, while also being an adept separator. Both players are a threat to make a chunk play on the outside at any time, even if that play may look different. Their skill sets, coupled with Tyler Boyd’s ability to win quickly from the slot, have allowed the Bengals to become one of the best offenses in the NFL. Since Week Five, Cincinnati’s offense is in a virtual tie atop the NFL in EPA/play with the Kansas City Chiefs.

 

While Cincinnati has always had the talent to stand among the NFL’s top offensive units, their production had not matched up to their talent level over the first month of the season. The Bengals ranked 18th in EPA/play through the first four weeks of the season, thanks in part to poor performance from Burrow, substandard offensive line play, and predictable play sequencing from Zac Taylor and their offensive coaching staff.

 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Cincinnati’s offensive surge is not the fact that they’ve gotten to this point; it is how they’ve gotten to this point. The Bengals have not had Chase for most of the last two months, and their offense has adapted as a result. Since Week 5, the Bengals rank first in the league in EPA/play on running plays, even after Philadelphia’s demolition of the Packers on the ground on Sunday night. In the passing game, Joe Burrow’s intended air yards per pass attempt is down to 6.7 yards per attempt this year from 8.1 last year. Cincinnati’s explosive plays are down partly as a result of these factors (they rank 19th in explosive play rate, per The Athletic’s Nate Tice), but their offensive efficiency has not suffered. The Bengals are playing differently on offense than they were last season, but they’re still seeing excellent results.

 

It is reasonable to think that Cincinnati will see even better results once Chase returns to the lineup in Week 13’s matchup against Kansas City, especially in the explosive play department. Cincinnati has already shown itself to be a championship-caliber offense over the past two-plus months, mostly without Chase. Plugging him back into the lineup with Higgins, who has proven to be a true No. 1 receiver in his own right, could make the Bengals a legitimate threat to repeat as AFC Champions come playoff time.

Written By

Alonso Cervera-Pizana