by Chris Ball

Loveland, Ohio – The Bengals and one of their key players fail to reach an agreement on a long-term contract. The franchise tag looms. Sabres rattle, there are questions of a potential holdout. And all the while Bengals fans wait and see.

Sound familiar?

It should for anyone who remembers the Jessie Bates contract episode from several years ago. The former Cincinnati safety signed a four-year, $64.02 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons in 2023 after spending 5 years wearing the orange and black. Bates and the Bengals attempted to reach an agreement on an extension after the expiration of his rookie contract but nothing materialized. The Bengals applied the franchise tag and Bates responded by skipping the team’s offseason workouts or the majority of training camp before rejoining the team in August. But in the end he took the field that season and performed well, setting a career high mark (to that point) with 4 interceptions. What’s more, he played his way into that sizable deal with the Falcons. The following year he instantly proved he was worth it, leading the team in tackles, passes defenses, and interceptions, and being named to the pro bowl on top of it.

And this week, Bengals fans got a stark reminder of that process when Tee Higgins failed to sign his franchise tender after he, too, could not get what he needed in terms of a multi year deal from the team. Unfortunately, it appears that the negotiations did not go remotely well according to the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Kelsey Conway:

“Tee Higgins camp was looking for an offer that was similar to the Michael Pittman deal with the Colts…

His camp felt that the Bengals initial one time offer was so low that it couldn’t even move into a conversation about guaranteed money”

As a reference, Pittman signed a three-year, $70 million contract extension with $46 million guaranteed with the Colts in March. Now, to be fair, an entire series of articles probably wouldn’t be enough to recount the issues with the Bengals’ front office and their treatment of potential free agents, what it means for now is that Tee will not be with the team for the foreseeable future. While this isn’t certainly isn’t a welcome sign, it doesn’t spell the end of Higgins’ time with the team. This includes Higgins himself who admitted that he’ll probably be wearing a Bengals uniform next year even after requesting a trade. In addition, missing offseason team activities in May (which many players skip anyways) doesn’t signal any sign of a longer holdout. There’s simply no need to panic so early, as the two camps have until July 15th to work out a long-term contract extension. After that, he would be locked into playing on the one-year franchise tag through the 2024 season, making $21.8 million doing it.

Interestingly enough, Jessie Bates was asked about Higgins’ situation, given his experience and the fact that both men are represented by the same agent, David Mulugheta. His advice was certainly sage:

“My thing for Tee is just, I mean, work on your craft, it don’t matter. If this is the contract year, I say it every time: Every year is a contract year. You should go out there and ball out and train like this is one of your last years to play.”

This is yet another reason why concerns about a holdout are overblown: players derive no benefit from removing themselves from the NFL spotlight for an entire season. If it’s a monster contract that they seek, then Jessie Bates’ path is undoubtedly the correct one to pursue: take the field in your contract year, play your absolute hardest, and show the rest of the league that you are worthy of the money you’re asking for. You can’t do that from your couch holding out, and so the overwhelming consensus is that by the time this Bengals team takes the field in the fall, Tee Higgins will be there.

While that may be comforting it is true that offseason workouts have tangible benefits, even for players line Tee who have played multiple years in the league. Missing them has at least some negative impact on timing with Burrow, with continuity and with chemistry. So while these absences aren’t harbingers of gloom and doom they are important from a team’s perspective, and to get the best out of every player.

And we all know Tee wants to play his absolute best in 2024, as his recent training video shows.

In 58 games over the course of his career, Higgins has 257 receptions for 3,684 yards and 24 touchdowns. But he has never been the number one receiving option for an entire season. Those numbers are solid and he is a good wide receiver. If he proves that he can put up the numbers of a superstar WR1 for the Bengals next year, it will only benefit all parties. And so the play here isn’t to be sour about Tee’s offseason decisions, but to root like hell that if this is his last season for the Cincinnati Bengals, that he makes it his best one ever.

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Christopher Ball is a longtime Loveland resident and an attorney. He graduated from Loveland High School in 2003 and was a member of the football team before going on to become a coach’s assistant at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He has been following and rooting for the Reds and Bengals since the early 1990s and has been through the many ups and downs that fandom has wrought over the years.

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