by Chris Ball

Loveland, Ohio – Injuries derailed so much of the promise last season for the Bengals. While the most crucial was to Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins also missed five games due to various injuries and was limited to just 42 receptions, the lowest total of his career. It was very bad timing in a contract year for a player who surely wanted to show the Bengals and the league that he was deserving of a big payday.

That leaves Higgins and the Bengals in a very unique position this offseason. The team has $53.2 million in cap space which is good for sixth-most in the NFL. There is money to spend , but also plenty of needs to fill including an impending mega-extension for Ja’Marr Chase.

This is why many Bengals pundits believe that the Franchise Tag is the most likely option with respect to Higgins’ contract status going forward. Briefly, the Franchise Tag a would allow the Bengals to retain Higgins at a salary that reflects the average of the top five players at his position or 120% of his previous salary – whichever figure is higher. There are two types of “tags” the exclusive tag, which would prevent Tee from negotiating with any other team and would fully guarantee his salary.

The other is the non-exclusive tag which allows players to negotiate with other teams even if they are tagged. If Tee reaches a deal with another team, the Bengals would retain the right to match the deal if they wish. If they choose not to match and Tee signs somewhere else the Bengals would receive a pair of first-round picks as compensation for losing him.

The average salary of the top five wide receivers would mean that if the Franchise Tag is applied to Tee his potential contract would be for one year at $20.7 million. Bengals fans may recall that this was the track taken by the team with respect to Jessie Bates who played out his year on the Franchise Tag before signing with the Atlanta Falcons last year. It wasn’t a very pretty process as Bates skipped all offseason workouts and much of training camp before finally signing his contract for the year. And just as with Higgins, there were logistical issues in offering Bates a lucrative long-term deal given the need for yet another gargantuan contract the following year for an irreplaceable star player: Joe Burrow.

It seems unlikely that the Bengals and Higgins will reach an agreement on any sort of extension, though it is a possibility. That leaves the Franchise Tag as the most viable option. The Bengals must tag Higgins by March 5 but the two sides can still negotiate for a longer deal. If they can’t agree by July 15 then (if put in place) the tag becomes official and Tee would be playing on the one-year contract.

That isn’t necessarily the end of the story, however. There is a question as to whether Tee Higgins would play under the tag. Though it’s rare, players have threatened to sit out an entire season rather than play under the cloud of a one-year contract. While it’s too early to predict what Higgins’ reaction might be, contract talks and the millions of dollars at issue rarely lead to simple or clean solutions.

The Bengals could apply the tag to Higgins and then trade him to another team that could then work out a longer contract, which is commonly referred to as a “tag and trade.” However, the Bengals are not known for even normal trades much less trades of players playing under the Franchise Tag.

If Tee Higgins is back for another year, no matter how that’s accomplished, it will undoubtedly be a good thing for this team. Yes, he was injured last year and had some issues with drops, but he showed that he still can be a dynamic and impactful wide receiver. You have no further to look than his 80-yard touchdown against the Steelers to see that when healthy he is a top tier wide receiver.

Tyler Boyd is gone, Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas are young and developing. The Bengals have no consistent threats at tight end. A healthy and productive Tee Higgins punishes teams for double teaming Ja’Marr Chase and frees him up to run deeper routes. Higgins is athletic for his size and strong enough to out muscle most corners in the NFL.

Even if it is for one year at 20 million, getting Tee Higgins on the field for this team in 2024 is an absolute priority. The window for the Bengals to win and make deep playoff runs will not stay open forever, especially as superstars like Chase (rightfully) will be paid vast sums of money, shrinking the pie for other players on this team.

While that window is open, the Bengals must do whatever is necessary to put the best players on the field. Players like Tee Higgins.

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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