The Cincinnati Bengals will begrudgingly watch Super Bowl LVII from the comfort of their own homes following their AFC Championship Game defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs. Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin is now preparing for an offseason that will welcome several difficult decisions. One of those decisions centers on the contract status of standout wide receiver Tee Higgins. The Bengals should hold discussions with Tee Higgins’ representation regarding an extension, but reaching an immediate solution won’t be easy.
The No. 33 overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, Higgins is currently scheduled to enter the final season of his rookie contract. Because Higgins was the first pick of the second round, the Bengals don’t possess the right to trigger a cost-controlled fifth-year option. Higgins is set to earn a base salary of $2.9 million in 2023 while carrying a cap charge of $3.9 million, via Spotrac. Higgins is severely underpaid.
Higgins has been the epitome of consistency. He recorded 74 receptions for the second consecutive season in 2022 and recorded a career-high seven regular-season touchdowns. Higgins’ 1,029 receiving yards made it back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. The wide receiver market exploded this past offseason. A.J. Brown signed a four-year contract worth $25 million annually. Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams shattered previous records. Terry McLaurin signed an extension worth $23.6 million annually. Higgins is well-positioned to ask for approximately $25 million per year.
On the surface, money doesn’t appear to be problematic. The Bengals possess $35.7 million in cap space, via Spotrac. They rank fifth across the league in financial flexibility. It’s going to disappear quickly. Superstar quarterback Joe Burrow is due a sizable contract extension that could possibly make him the highest-paid player in football history. Burrow is in a position to command $45-50 million annually. Burrow’s extension takes priority before Higgins’.
There’s also Ja’Marr Chase to consider. Cincinnati’s second-year receiver is their true No.1 playmaker and will be eligible to sign an extension in the summer of 2024. By then, Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson will likely have signed an extension worth upward of $30 million annually in a move that will once again reset the receiver market. Can Tobin and the Bengals afford to pay Burrow $50 million annually, Chase $29-32 million annually, and Higgins $23-26 million yearly?
Tobin must also decide the fate of several potential cap casualties this summer. Releasing the likes of Tyler Boyd ($8.8 million), Joe Mixon ($7.2 million), and La’El Collins ($6 million) could create an additional $22 million in cap space. They’d need quality replacements, however. Collins may be the only straightforward release on this list. Boyd and Mixon are high-level contributors, but paying No. 3 receivers and running backs may not be a luxury the Bengals can afford.
There’s also the matter of their own free agents. Four starters are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, including tight end Hayden Hurst and superstar safety Jessie Bates III. Bates’ long-lasting contract drama with the Bengals has been well documented. Bates is a legitimate game-changer that deserves to be paid upward of $15 million annually. Bates and Higgins are both represented by Athletes First super-agent David Mulugheta. Awkward. Hurst may expect a raise after playing for a modest $3.5 million. It brings us back to the topic of luxury, where paying high-priced safeties and tight ends likely isn’t in the budget.
Tee Higgins is a crucial piece of Cincinnati’s high-octane offense. The Bengals would love to keep him in the fold for the foreseeable future. Actually doing so is far more complicated.
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