With the game on the line on Saturday against the Vikings, receiver Tee Higgins made a catch and touchdown reach that would force overtime and lead the Bengals to their third straight win without Joe Burrow. With teammate Ja’Marr Chase ruled out mid-game due to a shoulder injury, it was Higgins’ moment to showcase why he’s a number one receiver to all the franchises that will be in the market for a player like that in free agency next year.
How could the L.A. Rams be one of those teams if they have Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua already? This is Sean McVay’s team. How could the Rams not be in the market for someone like Higgins?
Tee Higgins bio
As the first pick of the second round in 2020, Higgins was Cincy’s first choice for a number one receiver to pair with Burrow, prior to selecting Chase in 2021. The 6’4 Higgins had over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in his final two years at Clemson, pairing with Trevor Lawrence for two seasons and helping the Tigers go 29-1.
He had an immediate impact in the NFL, gaining 908 yards despite only really playing in 14 games. Higgins missed three games in 2021 but still had almost 1,100 yards, then added over 300 yards in the playoffs. He had 100 yards and two touchdowns in the Super Bowl loss to the Rams. Though he isn’t having the contract year he hoped for, Higgins has been consistent throughout his career and the main reason for his struggles is likely Burrow’s calf injury and his own ailments.
Injuries are a concern for most players and Higgins hasn’t had a major injury yet.
Is Higgins going to leave the Bengals?
As rare as it is for franchises to actually let great players leave in free agency, sometimes they have no choice and it seems like Cincinnati is in that situation with Tee Higgins. The Bengals could have extended Higgins in 2023, but reports entering the season indicated that negotiations were over and that the team does not have him in their long-term plans. The two sides are far apart on a deal, likely because Cincinnati knows that they will have to extend Chase next year.
Either Chase or Justin Jefferson will become the highest-paid receiver in NFL history, probably whoever signs second.
Right now, the highest-paid receiver is Tyreek Hill, who makes $30 million per year, albeit with a fake number at the end of the deal ($56 million) to raise the average. Even still, Hill makes $31 million and $34 million in the next two seasons. More likely than not, Chase will get over $30 million per year on his next contract.
Well, Cincinnati just gave Burrow an NFL record $55 million per season this past summer. That’s over $85 million per year on just two aspects of their passing game already. If the Bengals gave Higgins the franchise tag, and he accepted, that would add over $21 million to the tab.
Instead, the Bengals could re-sign Tyler Boyd, who will be cheaper even though he does have more targets, catches, and yards than Higgins does this year. Boyd is two years older and he’s played in four more games in 2023. Cincinnati also just drafted two receivers, Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas, as insurance for Higgins departing in free agency. Head coach Zac Taylor, a former disciple of Sean McVay, has also incorporated the tight end position much more in the passing game.
It’s all setup for the Bengals to tell Higgins, “We love you, we just can’t keep you.”
Can Rams afford?
This is a silly question. We’re talking about the Rams. Yes, they can afford Higgins if they want to afford Higgins. In fact, the Rams really can’t afford to not spend money in free agency on potential cornerstone players again.
With Cooper Kupp turning 31 and a lot of money set to come off the books in 2025, L.A. has to consider what they can do to improve a roster that is not as far away from contending as they seemed because of the supersonic development of players like Puka Nacua and Kyren Williams.
The Rams will have cap space for players like Kevin Dotson, Ahkello Witherspoon if they want it. But can also create a lot more room if they’re confident that their veterans will still be around in 2025.
Remember, not only did the Rams do a lot of spending in 2021 and 2022, when people assumed they were maxed out, look at the 49ers: They signed one of the biggest names in free agency this year, Javon Hargrave, despite how many high-paid players they have, including Nick Bosa.
Do the Rams “need” another receiver though?
COOPER KUPP 62 YARD TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/Yhhl2Blra8— JPAFootball (@jasrifootball) December 17, 2023
When have the Rams ever added a receiver because of need? That really hasn’t happened since adding Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins in 2017, then drafting Kupp. Since then, it’s more about excess than need.
And overloading the position has worked out very well for L.A., especially ahead of winning the Super Bowl in 2021.
For a very brief moment in time, the Rams signed Odell Beckham Jr. when Woods was perfectly healthy. We never saw them play in a game together, but that was an expectation and the team also had Tyler Higbee and Van Jefferson, who actually finished second in targets that season.
That leads to another reason the Rams could go after a $20-$25 million receiver like Higgins: The 2021 Rams played most of the Super Bowl without OBJ. Having already lost Woods and released Desean Jackson, Matthew Stafford was reliant on Jefferson and Ben Skowronek in the Super Bowl. Even Brycen Hopkins had four targets.
Kupp has missed significant time this season and who knows how he’s going to hold up at 31. Nacua is a durable son of a gun, but manages to find his way into some brutal collisions because of his hard-nosed attitude for attacking the football and running through defenders. Injuries was an area of concern for Nacua throughout college.
Let’s not mince words about the Rams current receiver depth: Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua, Demarcus Robinson, Tutu Atwell, Ben Skowronek, Austin Trammell.
Even if tight end Davis Allen were to have an increased role in 2024, that doesn’t change how dramatic the dropoff is at receiver from starters to depth. As it is, Robinson has a rather big role recently, getting 18 targets in the last three games. He’s a fine player. He’s not Tee Higgins. He’ll also be 30 next year.
Atwell, Skowronek, and Trammell do not likely have futures as starting receivers.
It is very much like the Rams, who had Woods, Kupp, Watkins; then Woods, Kupp, Brandin Cooks; then Woods, Kupp, Josh Reynolds; then drafted second round receivers in back-to-back years; then signed Desean Jackson and Odell Beckham Jr.; then signed Allen Robinson is a sizeable free agent deal after winning the Super Bowl; it is very much like that team to think that Kupp and Nacua are not a complete “foundation” at receiver for McVay and Matthew Stafford.
Whether Higgins wants to play for the Rams or not—maybe he can get as much money from another team that doesn’t already have two receivers and he doesn’t want to be #2 anymore—is a different question and the hardest to answer. But money talks and the Rams are not shy about spending money.
If the L.A. Rams sign Tee Higgins to complement Kupp and Nacua in 2024, don’t be surprised.