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O Say Can You Tee…the Bengals Trading Higgins?

Look, I like Tee Higgins.  You like Tee Higgins.  Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase like Tee Higgins.  The entire Bengals organization likes Tee Higgins.  Everybody who’s anybody likes Tee Higgins.

But that shouldn’t stop the Bengals from franchise tagging – and then trading – their just-turned 25-year-old star wide receiver.

This isn’t because Tee can’t play.  This isn’t really about Tee at all.  This is about the future of the Bengals – and the past. This is the case for trading Tee Higgins.

You see, the Bengals are at a crossroads.  They just made Burrow the highest-paid player in NFL history, and he produced approximately five and a half truly healthy games.  He’s played fewer games over the last four years as Lamar Jackson, and before this year, Jackson hadn’t played a full-healthy season since 2019.  If you include playoff games, Burrow and Jackson are tied at 59 games total over the last four years – and Jackson will break the stalemate when he appears in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

The Bengals go as Burrow goes.  He’s the Formula One driver at the wheel of arguably the most powerful race car in the world.  You’d expect the car to break down from time to time, but instead, the car has spent an awful lot of time nearly killing its driver.

And maybe, a Formula One car is the perfect analogy to describe the Bengals current offense.  They have a world-class driver (Burrow) and a premier engine (Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase) but have apparently settled for the steering and transmission of a 1981 Buick LaSabre (the offensive line) and three spare tires (the tight ends).  The results were, predictably, mixed (to say the least).

Fortunately, the Bengals have cash to burn.  They’re looking at about $61 million in cap space heading into the 2024 season with the NFL’s fifth-youngest roster, a no-doubt franchise quarterback, and a star #1 wide receiver.  As far as building blocks, you can’t do much better than that.  Problem is, the Bengals play in the same conference as the Kansas City Chiefs, and while the Bengals managed to get the better of them a few times, the Chiefs have held the upper hand in recent matchups.  They’re not going anywhere.

With Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs a perpetual roadblock to the Super Bowl – not just for the Bengals, but for every other team in the AFC too – finding creative ways to get better is not just important, it’s downright necessary.  And frankly, there’s no better example of this than what the Chiefs pulled off in 2021 when they traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins.

It’s one of the most underrated and underappreciated strategic shifts in NFL history.  Faced with the prospect of handing Hill a record-breaking deal for a receiver, in addition to signing Mahomes to the second-largest contract in the history of American professional sports the year before, the Chiefs chose to find Hill a new home.  They in turn used the package of picks they received from the Dolphins into impact players like cornerback Trent McDuffie and wide receiver Rashee Rice, while pivoting from blow-the-doors-off-you explosive to grind-you-to-a-nub methodical.

The closest comparison to what the Chiefs did was the 2015 Denver Broncos, who went from having a Super-Bowl-caliber offense and a middling defense to a middling offense and Super-Bowl-caliber defense overnight.  That shift powered them to a win in Super Bowl 50.  That same approach got the Chiefs their second championship in four years, with potentially another coming in a week.  Could it work for the Bengals too?  Maybe, and then again, maybe not.

As I mentioned earlier, the Bengals have made their bread with their powerful offensive attack.  With Higgins and Chase, the Bengals feature the NFL’s most savage receiving duo, and give them both plenty of opportunities to win one-on-one matchups due to their fondness for spread formations.  It’s been extremely effective – but it’s also exposing Burrow to a significant amount of punishment.  Two season-ending injuries in four years is not ideal, even if you can include a Super Bowl appearance in that resumé.  But can you really risk tweaking the formula that got you there?

They can, and they should.  Replacing Higgins won’t be easy if they find a suitable trade partner, but the Bengals already made attempts to shore up the position for the future when they drafted Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas.  2024 could see the two break out with more opportunities.  Jones, in particular, will likely step in and fill Tyler Boyd’s spot as the slot receiver.  Iosivas probably can’t fill Higgins’ shoes entirely, but if the Bengals can capitalize on the draft picks they receive from the trade and their copious cap room, finding another useful receiver shouldn’t be too challenging.

Besides, if there’s one position I trust the Bengals to draft and develop better than any other, it’s receiver.  Chase and Higgins are just the latest and greatest receiver duo in Bengals history.  There’s Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (and Chris Henry).  A.J. Green and Marvin Jones (and Mohammed Sanu).  Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott.  Cris Collinsworth and Isaac Curtis.  What’s also interesting about these players?  Every single one was drafted by the Bengals.

Of course, all of this is moot if Higgins and the Bengals can come to terms on a reasonable contract extension.  The problem is, the Bengals don’t have the best track record when negotiating with Higgins’ agent David Mulugheta (see Jessie Bates III in 2022).  If Higgins and Mulugheta are looking to break the bank, they may force the Bengals hand regardless.  Chase will be looking at a massive extension of his own, and paying two receivers top-of-the-market money is a recipe for disaster.

Again, we can look to the Chiefs as an example.  When they traded Hill, they used those resources not just to draft impact players, but also used the money that would have gone to Hill to sign guard Joe Thuney.  This addition solidified the Chiefs leaky offensive line, mitigating the loss of Hill and allowing Mahomes to use his mobility to find a diverse cast of receiving targets.  And as always, Travis Kelce was there to be the security blanket.

The Bengals can not only follow that script, they can elevate it.  Burrow, despite the injuries, is still tremendous.  Chase is as dynamic and elusive as ever.  The Mahomes-Kelce connection might be superior right now, but it's running out of shelf-life.

Kelce is 34-years-old and has a lot of mileage on his body.  He’s taken his fair share of punishment, and even though he’s said recently that he has no plans to retire, that day is coming sooner or later.  Even more concerning was Kelce’s play for much of the 2023 season.  He turned back the clock with eleven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown in the AFC Championships Game against the Baltimore Ravens, but this year marked the fewest receiving yards and touchdowns he’s had in a season since 2015, his third year in the league.

It could be an aberration.  Or, more likely, Kelce is starting to feel some of the effects of playing tight end (one of the hardest positions in the NFL) for eleven years.  Whatever the case, the marriage of Kelce, Mahomes (and 65-year-old head coach Andy Reid) probably won’t be around in 2030.  But you know who will?  Burrow and Chase.

If the Bengals can use the resources they get from a potential Higgins trade to shore up their offensive line, whatever they lose in production from Higgins could easily be made up through the ground game, which has been incredibly inconsistent for three years now.  Better production on the ground will not only open up more opportunities in the passing game, but it also keeps Burrow out of harm’s way and puts the defense in a tricky spot – sell out to stop the run and risk getting burned by Chase over the top or play soft and allow Burrow and the run game to grind you to dust.

This isn’t a fantasy – this is well within reach for the Bengals.  Losing Higgins would hurt in the moment – he’s been nothing but a wonderful teammate and fantastic ambassador for the Bengals – but trading him would give the Bengals flexibility to address their biggest needs.  The Bengals could supplement the loss of Higgins with expanded roles for Jones and Iosivas, while making up the difference with an impactful run game, stiffer pass protection, and an improved defense.

This isn’t a fun conversation.  Higgins has endeared himself to Cincinnati like few other players on this team have.  He, Burrow and Chase all have a great relationship and all three would love to play with each other for the foreseeable future.  But sometimes, making the best decision for a team means letting go of a beloved player.  It isn’t – and shouldn’t – be easy, but the return the Bengals get could propel them back to the Super Bowl, and maybe many more to come.

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